Game Day Mental Toughness Part 1: Pre-Game

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So you’ve got a game coming up and you’re starting to feel a bit nervous. Maybe a bit more than nervous. Maybe you’ve been vomiting twice a day for the last week.

I get it.

True story: Early on in my derby career, I would used to get so nervous before games that I would get stomach pains, cry, argue with my boyfriend, not sleep and then quickly run out of energy during the game. Then I wouldn’t be able to remember a single thing that happened during the game. Nerves suck, yo!

Since those days I’ve learnt a few things that have helped me cope with my nerves and anxiety and now I’m sharing some of them with you.

Disclaimer: These are things that work for me, I can’t guarantee they will work for you! But mental toughness is all about testing and trying stuff out, seeing what works and tweaking stuff for the best results.

Part 1: Before Game Day

Prepare

One of the main causes of pre-game anxiety is not feeling prepared and not knowing what to expect. Some of these things you have no control over but plenty of other things are in your control:

6-3 weeks before game day: Attend as many practices as possible, especially team practices that involve strategy. The more physically prepared you are, the more mentally prepared you will feel*. Start working on your mental toughness now!

(*I am someone who, no matter how much I skate and train, I always feel like I’ve not done enough. But I am working on this and say to myself over and over, “I am ready.”)  

The week before game day: Find out everything you need to know about the venue – what time you need to be there, how long it takes to get there, what time you need to leave by, if they have showers, if they sell food; anything that is important to you*. You want to feel as though you will have everything you need to feel calm and comfortable and if they don’t have the things you need, you can prepare to adapt.

(*I am pretty laid back about venues these days, I just need to know the address and how long it takes me to get there, any other info is surplus to my mental requirements but if it makes you feel more relaxed to know intimate details about the venue, go for it!)

A few days before game day: Discuss your tactics with your team and cement them in your mind. Ask about line ups so you know what to expect. Talk about what you’ll do in the event of a powerjam. Think about how you’ll react if you get a penalty. Mentally play the game in your head trying to imagine different scenarios and what your default strategies are and how you will play your part. It will feel more familiar when you take to the track for realsies.

The day before game day: Get all your shit together. Wash your pads, pack them early, pack your uniform, armbands, spare socks, spare hair bands, spare laces plasters, KT tape…. Get that done early so you’re not rushing and panicking the next day. Prepare your food – cook your pasta, soak your overnight oats, wrap up your home made chocolate chia protein bites! Get it all ready to go so your morning is chilled as F.

The night before game day: Take a long, soothing bath or shower, foam roll, stretch and read a book. (This is my current game day read) Or watch some roller derby for inspiration, just try not to get too hyped because you won’t sleep. Don’t try and force yourself to go to sleep early! You will only get stressed out. Sleep is important but you will not die if you don’t get 8 hours. Trust me, I know!

Embrace the “Shit Practice’ theory

It is a universal law that the practice immediately before a game will be shit. Don’t panic. It doesn’t mean you suck or that you’re going to lose. You have to get all of the bad stuff out so that you can play well on the day. The Shit Practice happens because everyone is nervous and no one wants to get injured before a game. It isn’t because everyone has forgotten how to play roller derby. Once you all hit the track and the adrenaline is pumping all of the hours of practice will show up and you’ll all know exactly what to do.

Don’t worry about the floor and your wheels

I have only changed my wheels twice in the last 2 years of derby games and in only one of those games was that a good idea. The other was a disaster and I had zero grip.

99% of the time the wheels you usually skate on will be absolutely fine for the floor, even if it’s drastically different from your training venue. Because you’ve been training hard, you will adapt to the floor and as your wheels warm up and you get used to having to skate slightly differently, you’ll be completely fine. You won’t even notice.

So don’t panic about the floor, don’t panic about your wheels, just focus on your game.

Distract yourself

In the days before a game, especially the day before, I try to think about it as little as possible. Besides chatting about strategy and writing my goals/mantras, I try to not think about the actual game at all. The more I think about the game, the more nervous I get. I’ve done all the preparation, I don’t need to think about the game until tomorrow.

You can do this by distracting yourself with fun stuff the day before, by really focusing on your preparation, by watching/reading/listening to anything that isn’t roller derby.

You can also do this by keeping your day as normal as possible, as if the game isn’t actually happening tomorrow – keep your usual daily routine the same, go to the gym, go to bed when you usually would, eat what you’d normally eat etc… Making a big thing of the day before a game can build the next day up so much that it leaves you feeling stressed and panicky. But keeping your boring routine means that the next day is no big deal.

Set goals

Before a game I like to set myself some goals*. Usually they are along the lines of ‘play clean’ ‘protect your lane’ ‘play with intensity’. They aren’t goals that are particularly measurable but they help give me focus when I’m feeling nervous and overwhelmed by the pressure of the game.

Write these goals down in a journal or notebook so that you can take it with you into the changing room or onto the bench. That way you can refer back to them just before you take to track or when you’re feeling flustered during the game.

Make sure the goals are realistic and positive – avoid the word don’t because if your goal is “Don’t back block” all you’ll focus on is ‘back block‘ and all you’ll do is back block!

(*I avoid being too specific with my game day goals and I try to keep them process orientated otherwise, if I don’t achieve specific/results based goals, I feel like crap.)

Tell someone about your worries

Before EuroClash, my first ever tournament, I had some serious nerves and worries which were ruining my life! I decided to confide in one of our bench staff/mental coaches and felt instantly better just knowing they knew how I was feeling and had my back. Even without the advice he gave me I still felt 100% better.

If you have worries, doubts or anxieties, share them with someone you trust*. A problem shared is a problem halved! Even if they can’t give you any advice or fix it for you, at least you know they’ve got your back and will be there with a hug or a pat on the back when they can see you freaking out.

Sometimes nerves can make you feel like you are completely alone and as if the success of the game rests entirely on you (especially true for jammers). But speaking to someone about your fears helps bring you back down to earth and realise that you are not the only person on track, that there is a whole team who are not only sharing the burden but who have also got your back.

*Pick your trusted person with caution. Speaking to someone who is also a nervous wreck might make both of you feel worse. Or it could make you feel like ‘thank god I’m not the only one!’ . The only way to know for sure is to really get to know your teammates. 

Remember anxiety is not a weakness

A section that really stood out  for me in Pressure Principle was about elite athletes who literally puke with nerves before going out onto the field and kicking ass.

It made me realise that feeling anxious doesn’t mean you are shit and it doesn’t mean that you won’t be great. It is possible to feel so nervous you vom and still go out and have an awesome game.

Instead of worrying about the fact that you feel nervous, embrace the nerves and realise that nerves are good – if you didn’t feel some nerves before a competition, it means you don’t care. Nerves give you adrenaline which gives you focus and intensity. The key is to manage the nerves and anxiety so they don’t get so intense that they paralyse you. And part of that is by accepting that you feel nervous but knowing that you can feel nervous and still be awesome.

Keep your eyes on the blog for Part 2 of Game Day Mental Toughness coming soon!

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