Here's the scenario: You are about to play in your first live poker tournament. There are several hundred men and women milling around the tournament area, chatting, looking for their assigned seats and looking so confident it seems as though they were born on the felt. That is when it starts. The butterflies. They start roaming, gain momentum, and finally it feels that they're flying around on a runaway roller coaster. The urge to run screaming from the room is almost uncontrollable.
The "I am a terrible player" and "I will embarrass myself" messages run subconsciously through our thoughts. Little by little, these involuntary messages are pushed forward until the conscious mind jumps on the band wagon and distorts our thinking, until it is way out of proportion with reality. This distorted thinking is actually part of a highly sophisticated defense system that in most cases helps us cope with challenging, unknown situations.
As humans we feel the need for acceptance, achievement and recognition. We base our self-worth on expectations that both we and others place upon us. If we are less than perfect, or perform badly, our natural reaction is to believe that people will think less of us or that we will be unable look ourselves in the mirror. Even though none of these thoughts are remotely close to the truth, the adrenaline that is unleashed when the mind is faced with an unfamiliar outcome twists rational thought into fear and trepidation.
Fear of failure is not the only thing that causes adrenaline levels to spike. The fear of success can be just as paralyzing. Failure, whether we like to admit it or not, can bring a sense of comfort. When nothing is expected there is no disappointment. Success brings change. It changes the way we are viewed by our peers. People remember winners, and in our minds we think that people expect us to be winners over time. That concept puts pressure on us that we are not used to. For many, the prospect of change, no matter how positive, is a scary thought.
Think of nervousness or anxiety like a fuel. If we allow it to take us over it can put us into overdrive and drain quickly, leaving our tanks on empty and leaving us unable to focus before we even sit at the table. But if we channel it correctly before and during a tournament it can be used to our advantage, keeping us always on edge and not allowing us to slip into complacency that can occur during long hours of play.
Channeling adrenaline isn't as hard as you might think. It starts with a few deep breaths just before the butterflies hit the loop on the roller coaster. Breathing might seem a silly thing to forget but as reflexive as it is, concentrating on it gives your mind something to focus on and can ease some of the nervous symptoms.
In order to be at ease when trying anything new, whether it is poker or anything else in life, you have to allow yourself to make mistakes. Realize that you will take missteps along the way but forgive yourself before you even sit at the table. Poker is not about perfection. There are too many "depends" and "what ifs" to always know the perfect solution. Give yourself permission to make mistakes but also give yourself permission to learn from those mistakes. Learning gives us power over the unknown, and ultimately, power over how we handle it.
The key to overcoming nervousness is to know that everyone is on your side. Poker players are competitive and the reality is that they are there to beat you but we are all in the game together. We have all had the same butterflies, we are all unsure of the outcome and we all want to attain the same goal. We share certain camaraderie and respect that comes with the competition of poker.