Nerves: The Beast, the Obstacle and the Goal
Some time ago I was having a discussion with a friend regarding nerves, except this time in the context of competitive Muay Thai. I wound up hitting upon a rant of sorts, so I felt compelled to share the ensuing diatribe with everyone else. Of course, I’ve paraphrased it to be less conversational and (as to be expected) I’ve added (many) additional thoughts.
Ever since picking up the sticks, I’ve always experienced horrendous, debilitating performance anxiety before shows, which I won’t say I’ve eliminated entirely but I’ve certainly mitigated its by-products to a point where it’s manageable, if not barely existent.
This is about confronting the beast that will gleefully undo the weeks upon weeks of focused, diligent practice you’ve engaged in, within mere seconds of commencing a performance that may not even exceed 45 minutes.
I think the big difference between a musical performance and a martial arts competition though, is the delineable presence of a winner and a loser. Music has a considerably higher "subjective" evaluation. No one can really argue who a winner or loser is once it's called. Musically, you're just trying to put on the best performance you can and if you play all the right notes and perform competently then the buck basically stops there, given that you can't control whether or not people like it. As far as musical performance is concerned, this is where your concern needs to end. The only thing to contend with is your self.
Mindfulness is today’s new age practice that has found its way into the public consciousness, a term stripped of its esoterica so as to assist the common office worker in alleviating the desire to go postal on their superiors.
Jokes aside, this is an important point. Cutting through the jargon and incense and learning how to view your thoughts and feelings as language and sensations that you have no obligation to identify with. Stage fright is a key example. When we talk about nerves, the physiological response is essentially the same as being excited, but what are we attaching to it?
This is worth thinking about (or not, as the case may be). Most may posit that the approach is to adjust your self-talk, thinking positive thoughts for example. This is a false narrative. The self-talk, in itself, is the obstacle. I can think of countless examples on stage where I’ve been nailing it, having a blast and started thinking such positive things to myself as “Boy I’m doing great! This sounds awesome, I’m having a blast!” then fallen flat on my face because my head wasn’t in the game.
I can also pinpoint with a reasonable degree of certainty that if a student is playing a sheet of music and has made it almost to the end without error, they’re going to blow it in the last 2-3 bars. They usually do and I think you can guess why. One must not celebrate too soon lest victory seeps through their grasp.
Whenever I’m on stage, it almost feels like the act of dodging my inner voice, thoughts etc, is like cutting through scrub to see a larger view. Getting my eyes on the kit, feeling and hearing each note as I play it and leaving only enough cognitive head room for what’s coming next. Ideally, if I’ve practiced hard enough, I won’t even need to go that far.
Here is where the parallel with martial arts comes in. I know when I’m sparring in Brazillian Jiu Jitsu, it’s possible to get really stuck in my head trying to think of the moves and techniques and all the self-talk that comes with it. I can cut that short by thinking less about the sport of it and imagining that this person was really trying to kill me. How much “thinking” are you going to do in that situation? As a result, you start feeling the weight, the grips, the balance of your opponent etc. Often times something will present itself to you courtesy of your training.
The more I can get my head into the room, the less interference I’ll have because I’ll actually be in the act of doing, rather than thinking and evaluating the act itself. If you’ve ever been “lost in your work” and managed to make several hours vanish because you were fully engaged, you know what I’m talking about.
Don’t be harsh on yourself if you can’t fully switch that voice off either. It’s fucking impossible. However, the first and most crucial step is recognising it when it’s there and not tethering yourself to it. There’s too much going on outside of your consciousness to invest yourself in the trifling minutiae of your inner douche-bag. Get back to the task at hand. Fortunately, you can practice this at any time of day
You don’t need to sit cross-legged on a cushion for hours at a stretch. Try and spend any length of time being present in a situation without allowing yourself to be bombarded by thoughts. Just view them as pieces of language. If you’re experiencing physical or even emotional pain, experience them as sensations rather than revelling in anguish. This is a practice you can improve at as if you were trying to increase your heaviest deadlift.
Ironically though, if I were to share any sort of “thinking” as a tactic, I’d have to say it’s the embrace of failure. Not as something to be pursued (except in certain practice situations), one should obviously take all measures to avoid it when it comes to crunch time. But we need to understand truly what it means to fail in any given context and how we can endeavour to allay its effects in the moment. But more importantly is that you need to acknowledge it as a possibility.
Acknowledge that it can occur despite your best efforts.
Acknowledge that it doesn’t reflect on your character.
Acknowledge that you can go back to the drawing board.
Acknowledge that you can create a better version of yourself tomorrow.
I can’t see how that knowledge can’t make you feel more powerful when stepping onto the stage, or into the ring.