Want to beat competition stress? Take two chill pills and call us in the morning.
By Jen Jones
Ever felt like you were living the opening nightmare sequence from the Bring It On flicks? High-stakes competitions can make even the mellowest cheerleaders more jittery than a triple shot of espresso. From uniform malfunctions to tumbling passes gone horribly wrong, there’s a whole laundry list of disasters that could happen. So how do you face the freakout? Sports psychologist and Winning the Mental Way author Karlene Sugarman has a few ideas on how to deal.
Cheer Nightmare #1: Someone who makes you really nervous will be watching you perform.
As a cheerleader, you’re used to performing for huge crowds, and you probably love every minute of it. However, there’s always that one person who can give you serious stage fright—whether it’s a college talent scout checking you out or your boyfriend rooting you on. Karly Speakman, who cheers for the Jersey Devils All-Stars in Manasquan, NJ, says that her relatives are rarely able to come to competitions, so when they do, she feels “extra pressure to hit a flawless routine. I always look for them as I’m running onto the mat, and if I can’t find them, that also makes me nervous, thinking they might miss my performance.”
Solution: “In this situation, athletes can create a trigger to serve as a transition from the role of ‘girlfriend’ or ‘daughter’ to ‘cheerleader,’” says author Sugarman, adding that the trigger can be something as small as putting on your cheer shoes. “Using a physical trigger helps everything else fade away.” Along with a symbolic gesture, assuming an alter ego can also help—à la Beyoncé, who calls on imaginary “Sasha” for her sassy stage persona. Sugarman says her clients often pick superheroes or warriors who “symbolize invincible figures that can do no wrong and are extremely confident.”
Cheer Nightmare #2: It’s your first time back after recovering from a major injury.
After being out of commission for a while, it can be tough to get back in the game. As if learning new choreography and playing catch-up weren’t enough of a pain, you also have to retrain your brain. Fear of reinjuring yourself or landing wrong often creates a mental block that can be more harmful than any torn ligament. So what to do when these mental obstacles rear their naughty heads?
Solution: Patience is a virtue, says Sugarman. “Athletes have high expectations that they’ll hit the ground running,” she says. “You have to realize you’re human. It will take time and training to get back to where you were.” Having a support system of friends and family is also helpful during recovery, as injured athletes have a tendency to isolate themselves when they are hurting.
Cheer Nightmare #3: You get intimidated by your competition, because they have a killer routine and they know it.
A little friendly rivalry between squads—ain’t no shame in that game. However, letting another squad affect your own confidence level can be a serious prob. Watching other teams is a great way to see who the serious contenders are, but not when it makes you doubt your own team’s abilities.
Solution: Instead of looking at everything around you, look inward for some peace and calm. According to Sugarman, having a pre-performance ritual can be a great help. Some of the things you can do are simple breathing exercises, visualization, and confidence-building affirmations like, “I’ve done this before. I can do it again,” or “I’m well-trained and well-prepared.” You could also choose a quote from a movie you like that will get you pumped up. “The ritual has to mean something to the cheerleader,” says Sugarman. “In athletics, you don’t have control over much, so the [ritual] gives one a sense of comfort.”
Cheer Nightmare #4: Murphy’s Law, that “Everything that can go wrong will go wrong,” suddenly takes on new meaning when your routine ends up being a disaster.
Forget bad hair days, bad cheer days are the worst. For all-star Karly Speakman, her ultimate cheer disaster happened at a national competition in Myrtle Beach. “In our opening, a girl fell on a round-off tuck and then was landed on by someone else,” she remembers. “Everything went downhill from there: three stunts fell, there were touchdowns everywhere, and my group got tangled up in a pyramid and tripped coming out of it.” Sound familiar?
Solution: Though stunts or tumbling passes gone wrong can be highly discouraging, it’s important to stay positive and confident throughout the routine. Freaking out mid-
routine shows on your face and affects your ability to finish with flair. Sugarman recommends taking a deep breath and telling
yourself inwardly to “move forward” or “let it go.” Says Sugarman, “It can be a real problem when you get stuck on mistakes, as they inevitably lead to new mistakes.”
Saying goodbye to stress forever may be an unrealistic goal, but following these handy suggestions can be a good start. Use them to wake up from any future cheer nightmares, and turn them into dream performances!