If you’re an athlete, you’ve been there before. The big match is starting in just a few minutes. Your mind is racing. You see your opponent practicing and begin to worry. Is he better than I am? Am I going to lose? I haven’t been practicing as hard I should have been. What if I fail? Before you know it, you’ve spent the time you should have been using to visualize a win instead worrying about a loss.

These thoughts are completely normal and everyone has them at one time or another. But what if you could control those thoughts? What if you could stop them completely? Well, the truth is, you can.

Stress is a normal part of life and affects every single person on the planet, but stress affects each of us differently. No situation is in itself stressful. Also, stress isn’t inherently negative and can be pushed from negative to positive depending on how we deal with it.

Stress is defined by how we react to a particular situation. Perhaps you are feeling overwhelmed by nerves as your next match approaches, but your opponent is not. The match is expected to be a close one. You are both facing the same situation, but one of you is able to control those thoughts.

If you want to be the calm one, you have to first realize that stress is not an innate part of your mind. You have a say in where your mind focuses, YOU determine what thoughts are allowed to swirl in your mind and which ones you intentionally push out. Stress is created when you allow your mind to accumulate negative thoughts. Yes, you allow it.

One of the biggest problems with stress is the snowballing affect. Once we let one thing begin to worry us, it is very easy for all the other worrisome thoughts that we pushed aside earlier to come flooding back. When you begin to doubt your ability to perform in the next match, it is likely that doubt will manifest itself in the form of poor performance. One of the qualities that all top athletes share is the ability to manage stress, and to use that pressure to their advantage.

So, how do we stop the negative thoughts from building up? Remember that these thoughts are independent from truth or fact. A thought only gains power if you continue to feed it. You must develop the ability to discard negative thoughts. This can often be difficult to do when you are truly nervous.

Begin by attempting to create silence in your mind. Close your eyes, empty your head, and live in the present moment. Do not think about mistakes you made in the last bout. Do not worry about what may lie ahead. Focus only on your breathing and let all other thoughts dissipate. Breathe in deeply through your nose and allow your stomach to push out. When you breathe this deeply it is called diaphragmatic breathing and brings oxygen to more parts of your body, creating a calming effect. Hold the breath for a short time (maybe three seconds) then breathe out through your mouth. Repeat this a few times or as long as you feel comfortable—going too long can create dizziness. With practice you will be able to achieve a relaxed state in just a few moments with focus and purposeful breathing.

Let’s say you’re on your one-minute break between bouts. You’re down by five points and you’re worried you’re not going to win. You’re simply not good enough; you can’t come back from such a deficit. When these kinds of thoughts begin to enter your head, assess their authenticity. Is this a fact? Or is this a negative opinion that is born from fear? You and you alone have the power to give authority to those thoughts. If a negative thought enters your head and you immediately dismiss it, then it has no authority in your mind, and loses the ability to cause you stress.

Control your thoughts by understanding where they come from, and shift them in a positive direction. It is not a fact that you will lose this match. It is not a fact that your opponent will win. No match is over until those last seconds have ticked off the clock or someone reaches the required number of points. Use that knowledge to your advantage. You CAN still win.

Once your mind is cleared of negativity, take that positive knowledge and use it to visualize your victory move by move. Re-envision loss scenarios into successful counterattacks. Allow your stress to shift to a positive place, one of excitement and positive adrenaline. Once you possess the ability to free your mind of negative thoughts and transform them into powerful motivation, stress will no longer have the power to consume you.

Has this method worked for you before? Do you have additional tricks you use to manage stress before a big competition or in-between bouts? Please share with us below!