How to handle your nerves when faced with extreme challenges

We all face doubt. Right above the jump, at the lip of the rapid or before a freestyle competition, the words “what if” can creep into our minds and put a hold on our next moves.

Before you let doubt paralyze you, read these six strategies to keep you moving toward your goal.

Failure is not an option


We’ve all heard that phrase before, whether it was in a movie, class or after-school sports practice.

Everyone who said it was right, but they may not have said it for the right reasons. The real reason, if you think about it, is that failure exists only if we let it.

Ultimately, all actions lead to results. We choose if those results are good, neutral, bad — or fail. When we conclude that our actions may result in failure, instinct pushes us to avoid that failure, the punishment of an unaccomplished goal.

Instead, look at every result as just that: a result. You add 10 and 10 and the result is 20. Nailing (or completely missing) your trick is simply the 20, and if you can look at it that way, the fear of failure begins to dissolve.

Don’t focus on the goal

This phrase might go against everything we’re taught growing up, but according to former Denver Broncos running back Reggie Rivers, stop keeping your focus on the goal. The reason? You can’t make it happen.

“We set goals for ourselves, but our goals are things that are ultimately outside of our control,” Rivers said during a TED Talk he gave on how to achieve goals.

Goal achievement requires the participation of others, of the world around you — things over which you have no control. Instead, Rivers says, “Behaviors, by contrast, are things you alone can do.”

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Hear “yes” in your mind that you have already achieved your goal, and then focus on your behaviors. Ask yourself what you can do today that will get you closer to that goal. Is it working on technique, building strength, laughing when you’re nervous? Developing those behaviors won’t guarantee that you’ll reach your goal, but they’ll put you in a great position to.

Visualize your goal

Nathan Zumwalt spots his landing at Gorilla Rapid during the 2014 Green Narrows Race. Photo: By Charli Kerns
Nathan Zumwalt spots his landing at Gorilla Rapid during the 2014 Green Narrows Race. Photo: Charli Kerns
This is an underrated, underutilized and critical technique to developing the confidence you need to nail your moves.

What’s the move you want to make? The line you want to take? Imagine how you would do a clean run.

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Often, we think of what could go wrong before we even begin, which is like writing the wrong math problem before you even try to solve it. All things are possible in your imagination, so allow that thought to play over and over in your mind.

Always look at the positive

A photo posted by Sage Erickson (@sageerickson) on

In most any sport, you always want to look in the direction you want to go. Your body will twist, and the board or bike with it, the way that your head is facing.

Likewise, your heart will start to feel how your mind dictates. If you say that you’re nervous, the next thing you know, your heart rate quickens, your mouth goes dry and you’re breathing fast and shallow.

Remember, you visualized running the right line in your mind. That you’re even thinking about trying it means that, somewhere deep down, you believe you can do it.

Bring that knowledge to the surface and give yourself props. Often we focus on the mistakes we made in the past, not on the successes. Our emotions are based on reward versus risk, pleasure versus pain.

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So rather than focusing on avoiding the pain, focus instead on receiving that pleasure. That anxiety will turn into stoke because you want that pleasure. Good practice to develop this way of thinking is to give yourself a “hell yeah!” every time you nail a move.

You’ve seen it on basketball courts, at the gym or even just on TV when that dude yells, “That’s what I’m talking about!”

They’re not bombastic. They’re bathing their brains with the serotonin and dopamine that comes from praise over a job well done. Go ahead, praise yourself when you deserve it. It feels good. And you’re not nervous; you’re stoked.

Find a mantra

For me on the river, it’s “Good lines, fun times.” This worked above Lava Falls on the Grand Canyon section of the Colorado.

If I’m feeling particularly nervous, like above some drops on the Green Narrows, it’s “Shut up and paddle.” Choose a quick few words to say over and over until they override and push out every other thought you might have.

Use doubt to act

Hesitate and that might hurt. Photo: Pexels
Doubt in itself isn’t wrong, but letting doubt stop you can be. Niyi Sobo — former player for the New Orleans Saints turned sports coach — says in his podcast “I’m Not You” to use doubt, or, in his case, fear, as “a trigger to move forward aggressively and assertively.”

That doesn’t mean be reckless, but quit overanalyzing and just move on. Look at the horizon line, visualize your move, repeat your mantra, think about how you’ll feel at the bottom and just go.