I'm not someone who lets nerves get the better of them. At least not often. I do get nervous, of course, it's just that I feel the sensation in my stomach, or a slight tremble in my hands, and then do whatever the activity is that is causing it - public speaking, asking a girl out, a job interview - anyway.
As I was going my grading last week, though, I was affected more than I'm used to. It was because the physical manifestation of nerves - the shakes, butterflies, a squeaky voice - can usually be overcome with a deep breath and a cough. And once you begin speaking, you forget your fear and your confidence grows.
But at the grading, it was control of the body that was being assessed. So the nerves causing my limbs to shake were actually causing me to perform less efficiently than I do when nobody is watching. Usually I can chain punch, side punch, arrow step and first form to my heart's content. But usually, I haven't got Sifu watching every move I make and writing things down as he does so.
As I was chain punching, I could see my fists needed to be higher but as I tried to correct, I could tell my form was suffering. I side punch really fast usually, knowing to whip the hand bac faster than it goes out. At the grading, I was slower and less fluid. I know my stance needs to be wider - I've been working on it - but it was still a little narrow on the day because I was concentrating on so many things and forgot to make a point of moving my feet further apart. I do the first form most days with my elbows the correct distance from my body. At the grading, they were too close and I knew it.
I passed the grading - and with a good mark. The second highest in the class. The thing is, I know I could have done it better because, usually, I do all of those things better. I felt the nerves and I was affected by them.
It used to amuse me when athletes went through their little routines whether it be Rafa Nadal lining up his water bottles, long jumpers rocking back and forth while spreading their fingers, Linford Christie always being the last one down in the blocks or basketball players touching hands with all of their teammates every time they hot or missed a free throw. I put it down to habit or superstition.
Now I see that they will do anything they can to rid themselves of nerves. Concentrating on something as trivial as lining up labels seems insignificant but it is vital mental preparation if it helps you to relax.
I'm going to work really hard on emptying my mind while doing the first form in the hope that whenever I do it, whether before kung fu or anything else in life (it might look a bit weird in a bar before I ask a girl out mind), it removes the nerves and allows me to perform as if nobody was watching.