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5 Ways to Calm Your Nerves, According to Olympic Athletes

Apolo Ohno
Jasper Juinen/Staff/Getty Images

Clammy hands. Dry mouth. Shaky knees. Shortness of breath.

Sound familiar? From interviews to presentations, there are plenty of instances when nerves can creep in and attempt to undermine your poise and your preparation.

You’ve tried that age-old method of picturing everybody in their underwear. And, honestly, all it does is creep you out.

So, what now? What are some realistic (and ideally non-undergarment-related) ways you can calm those butterflies in your stomach?

There’s nobody better to answer that question than Olympic athletes, who are expected to perform at their very best while their entire country is counting on them (and the entire world is watching) . Talk about pressure.

Needless to say, if these tactics can work to squelch their anxiety when competing in front of the entire world, they’re bound to give you the confidence you need to tackle whatever it is you’re doing.

1. Snowboarder Jamie Anderson: Find a Ritual That Works for You

Take a moment to think about the root cause of your nerves. For many, it’s the sense of a loss of control—despite your preparation, you reach the point when you just need to take that leap and hope for the best.

This is why routines and rituals can be so helpful. They give you a greater sense of power, even if you consciously know that whatever compulsion you’re doing doesn’t directly correlate with your success.

Look at snowboarder, Jamie Anderson, as an example. She has a seemingly strange habit of hugging trees before it’s her turn down the slopes. But, when she needed to make her final run during the 2014 Sochi Olympics, she knew there weren’t any trees at the top of the course.

Even so, she managed to take home the gold. She told the Aspen Times that she credited her pre-competition meditation ritual for her ability to stay calm and focused.

“I’ve been working on this for many years,” Anderson said during a video shoot at her home in Breckenridge, “The more I take care and practice, the better I feel overall.”

2. Cyclist Laura Kenny: Focus on Your Breathing

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When it comes to calming your nerves, breathing exercises are something you’ve heard touted before. But, as British track and road cyclist, Laura Kenny (formerly Laura Trott), points out, it’s for good reason—breathing techniques actually work.

In fact, for the 2016 Rio Olympics, the British cycling team worked closely with psychologists to identify methods to perform at their best, even when the anxiety creeps in. Those methods included a systematic approach to relaxing their muscles and—you guessed it—breathing exercises.

“It sounds stupid but by thinking about your breathing, it stops you thinking about anything else,” Kenny explained in an interview with Cosmopolitan, “If you push your belly out when you take a breath in, like doing the opposite to what you think you should do, it really helps.”

3. Swimmer Michael Phelps: Visualize Every Scenario

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Michael Phelps has his fair share of medals under his belt (or, you know, swimsuit). However, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t need to compete with nerves like any other athlete.

Phelps and his coach, Bob Bowman, spoke to The Washington Post about what strategies they use to keep those anxious feelings from interfering with his performance. And, for Phelps, it all comes down to visualizing any sort of circumstance—along with exactly how he’d deal with it.

"If my suit ripped or if my goggles broke, you know, what would I do?" Phelps explains.

By picturing himself in all sorts of scenarios, he’s reassured and better able to prepare for anything that could happen. "So he has all of this in his database, so that when he swims the race he's already programmed his nervous system to do one of those," says Bowman.

4. Snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis: Prepare (and Then Prepare Some More)

When you’re already dealing with a nerve-wracking situation, needing to fly by the seat of your pants will only add fuel to your overly-anxious fire.

This is why so many Olympic athletes—including snowboarder, Lindsey Jacobellis—place so much emphasis on adequate preparation.

“I try to just control what I can,” Jacobellis explained in an interview with Kristen McCloud for women’s lifestyle magazine, MissBish.

“I prep my boards, get everything dialed in for what I need the next day, and take one step at a time,” Jacobellis continues, “In my sport, there are so many uncontrolled variables, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed.”

By getting her own ducks in a row before the race, she’s able to feel slightly more in control of the situation—despite the fact that unforeseen circumstances could still crop up.

5. Speed Skater Apolo Ohno: Yawn (Yes, Really)

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When it comes to nerves, Apolo Ohno recognizes that nerves are just the name of the game. “Yes I get nervous—I embrace it, it's natural,” he said in an interview with PopSugar.

However, his trick for dealing with them is slightly unconventional: He obsessively yawns.

His seemingly nonchalant approach had garnered him plenty of criticism in past races, but there’s a method to his madness.

First, those yawns help to get extra oxygen into his lungs—which, much like breathing exercises, helps to calm his nervous system. And, secondly, Ohno isn’t ashamed to admit that he does it just because he likes it.

"It makes me feel better," he confirmed to YahooSports, "It gets the oxygen in and the nerves out."

You might not be an Olympic athlete, but there are likely plenty of stressful situations in which you feel like you’re going head-to-head with one intimidating competitor: your nerves.

In those moments, lean on these tried and true tactics from some of the world’s most talented athletes. After all, if these strategies work for them, they’re bound to at least make a dent in your own anxious feelings.