Overcoming Competition Anxiety: Treating it Like The Game That It Is

By Coach Manny A.

It was a memorable occasion when, after 13 long years, I found myself pulling the straps up of my singlet once again and stepping into the wrestling circle. This time, however, something was different— I didn’t experience even a hint of competition anxiety. It was a stark contrast to my younger years when the weight of competition would really weigh on me (no pun intended) mentally. But now, I practiced a new approach, treating the game like a fun adventure rather than a daunting challenge.

My journey in wrestling began at the age of 12, and I competed passionately into my college years. Throughout my entire career, competition anxiety has always plagued me. The nerves would set in after weigh-ins, robbing me of my appetite and leaving my body feeling sluggish and tired, regardless of my physical preparedness. Moments before stepping onto the mat, I would be overwhelmed by the desire to vomit. It was as if every fiber of my being resisted the act of competing. I often secretly wished for a freak accident that would excuse me from the match. These memories are etched deep within me, as they were constant companions on my competitive path. While my nerves often subsided once the whistle blew, the pre-match anxiety undoubtedly hindered me from reaching my full potential.

Back then, I had no understanding of this overwhelming feeling or its origins. I placed immense expectations on myself, and even when I won, I often felt dissatisfied if I hadn’t dominated my opponent. Although I worked tirelessly in practice and earned a reputation as the hardest worker in the room, my mental game was something I had to constantly work on. I underwent personal growth and self-improvement, but battling these struggles became increasingly wearisome. The joy and fun of the sport began to wane by the time I entered college.

After retiring from my competitive career shortly after college, I turned to coaching. Though I never truly loved competing, I always cherished the sport and what it brought to my life. Fast forward to the present day, I found myself drawn back to wrestling, not as a coach and not with the intention to compete, but because I simply loved learning and playing the game. The game of wrestling. I approached wrestling practices and even intense sparring sessions as a playful game. Wrestling or doing jujitsu with unfamiliar people no longer filled me with nervousness because, in my mind, it was all about playing the game better. And part of improving in any game is creating learning opportunities and embracing the fun. There is no winning or losing in practice. In wrestling, this could mean trying new moves or variations in unfamiliar positions. As a student of the game, I had always found this aspect enjoyable. Once I fully embraced this mindset, not only did I experience more fun than ever before, but my wrestling skills also improved significantly. Being a natural competitor, I couldn’t simply turn off that instinct. However, I had always been afraid that treating it like a game would provide an easy way out for me if I were to lose. It took me 24 years to realize that this perspective wasn’t an escape route; it was precisely what I needed to relax my competitive nature and stay focused on enjoying what I was doing. Looking back, it makes perfect sense to me now. I didn’t have to constantly remind myself how important winning or performing well was; that importance was inherent in every aspect of my life, whether I acknowledged it or not. The desire to excel at nearly everything that mattered to me was always present.

Shifting my mindset from pressuring myself to perform well to simply having fun allowed me to compete at what felt like my best self. When I stepped onto the mat after a 13-year hiatus, I felt nothing but eagerness to engage in the wrestling game with other people. The outcome didn’t concern me because I was as physically prepared as I needed to be. What mattered most to me was reminding myself of the goal: playing the game for fun. If I did my best in the game and lost, I would simply reflect on how I could play even better next time. The only disappointment would come from denying myself the joy of playing the game, which could only happen if I placed excessive emphasis on winning and performing, instead of letting myself truly fly. I was genuinely pleased with my performance, but more importantly, I was satisfied with my newfound mindset. I eagerly anticipate future competitions with this refreshed outlook.

To all the fiercely competitive individuals struggling with competition anxiety, remember that you already put enough pressure on yourself. You are well aware of how important it is for you to perform well, and you know the extent of your hard work. There is no need to continually emphasize this importance to yourself. Simply go out there and play the game. Find the joy in learning and in the process itself. Your competitive instincts will always be with you. All you need to do is equip your mind to give you the space to pursue what you love, and the best competitor within you will awaken. And trust me, it’s so much more enjoyable this way.

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