Smile in the Face of Tournament Jitters


Everywhere you look, there are posters, T-shirts, mugs and magnets all proclaiming pop culture’s mantra to “Keep Calm.”  With the last weekend of regional tournaments, Districts and Worlds right upon us, though, that is easier said than done.

Stress, anxiety and nervousness are a part of everyday life, especially for a martial artist.  Most can tell stories of intense unease at ATA competitions, and that’s aside from everything that happens at work, school and beyond.

Sr. Master Jack Hornbuckle, owner of Murphy ATA in Murphy, Texas, has learned a thing or two about nerves over the years. 

“I tell my students all the time that being nervous isn’t bad,” he says.  “Being nervous means that the activity you are about to take part in is important to you.”

But he also knows how valuable it is to have the ability to keep anxiousness in check.

“The important thing to remember about dealing with nervousness is that you can’t let your nerves affect your performance,” Hornbuckle says.  “It is important to keep your nerves under control because failing to do so will result in mistakes that you wouldn’t normally make.  Those mistakes can then snowball and create much larger mistakes that can derail your performance.” 



Here are a few ways to combat feelings of nervousness head on and stop them in their tracks!



First things first, take a deep breath.  Concentrate on inhaling deep into your belly—in through the nose and out through the mouth—for a few slow breaths, a routine Hornbuckle practices before competition.  Regulating the breath helps slow your heart rate and provide mental clarity, making it the perfect first line of defense against nerves. 

Be Mindful

If the breathing tactics work well, but you want to take it further, try practicing mindfulness.  Similar to meditation, this method seeks to help you fully take in your surroundings using all of your senses.  Take a minute to concentrate individually on what you see, then what you hear, what you smell and so on.  By focusing the mind and body on each singular sensation, mindfulness better enables you to clean the mental slate and to choose how you respond to stress.


Ask anyone who regularly practices yoga and they’ll tell you it positively affects their stress levels.  We know it’s important to stretch before competition or testing, but incorporating yoga sessions into your routine is also a great way to strengthen and broaden your Taekwondo training while calming your nerves.  There are many poses that are helpful—from child’s pose to cats and cow—but even a simple, forward bend to touch your toes can reduce anxiety.

Vitamin D

Work on that sunny disposition by catching a few rays.  Studies say that 15 minutes of sunshine can help increase levels of serotonin, which is known for regulating anxiety and mood.  To get double the calming effect, combine this step with any of the other tactics.  Just make sure you bring sunscreen with an effective SPF!

Positive Affirmation

Words have power, so use them to your advantage.  Sometimes all it takes is visualizing or saying what it is you want to happen to help you calm your nerves.  It always helps to have cheerleaders in your corner, encouraging you and reminding you that “you’ve got this.”  But this is also a practice you can do yourself.

“Before my ring actually starts, I make sure I get a chance to walk through all of my material.  This helps me get focused on the competition and not on my nervousness,” Hornbuckle says.  “I go through my form and picture myself doing it exactly like I’ve practiced leading up to my performance.” 


Sure, there’s little doubt that a professional massage can help you relax, but we all know that’s not a reasonable request ringside!  There are, however, ways of getting the same benefits on the road.  Massaging pressure points in your hands, feed and head can provide quick relief in a pinch.  Apply pressure with your thumb where your wrist meets your hand, or simply rub your ear between your thumb and forefinger for a couple of minutes and you’ll notice a difference in stress levels. 


Immediate fixes are invaluable, but studies have also shown that adjusting your diet to include foods that are high in Omega-3s—like walnuts, salmon and edamame—can help curb anxiety and nervousness in the long term.  If you’re feeling extra brave, cut out the caffeine as well, which can produce anxiousness.  Healthy dietary habits won’t totally eliminate butterflies, but it can help manage the emotions a little better.

Solid Groundwork

“I think the best way to head off nerves in tournaments is through practice and preparation,” Hornbuckle says.  “If I have spent time practicing and preparing for a tournament, then it is easy for me to get into the routine of doing my forms.  Once I get going with the routine, I don’t have issues with nerves.  I have confidence in my training and know that they my training will take over.”    



Author: Jess Ardrey (edited by Jenny Wolff

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