If I had a £ for every time I spoke to someone about this I would have...well, more than I have now but is a serious topic that can kill even the most well trained athlete.
When I first started martial arts, Taekwondo actually, I started competing right off the bat. The last thing I had competed at was whilst at school I was in the chess team, I was told that chess and fighting are very similar but I quickly worked out only mentally, no one tried to kick me, punch me or choke me out playing chess, as much as they might have wanted to.
I am not by nature a fighter, have no aggression and have no 'natural' talent if there is such a thing (read The Talent Code) so to start to compete in a full contact martial art was daunting. I did the first competition and lost by 1 point so of course I wanted to try again.
The first time is great, not knowing what to expect or fear, all the excitement but the second time I was so nervous. The voice in my head telling me I was going to die or at least fail miserably and everyone would think I was no good.
The damned voice in my head wouldn't leave me alone so I figured that the more I competed the easier it would be to ignore. I set myself a target of 50 matches spanning a bunch of different martial arts, some striking only, some grappling only and some combining both then I would be cured.
50 matches came and went and I wasn't cured at all so the nerd in me rose to the surface and decided to research the whole nerves thing.
I enrolled at Park Lane College in Leeds to take a qualification that was called Peak Performance, that entailed exercise, nutrition and more importantly sports psychology. I aced the qualification and started to get more of an appreciation of the mental aspect of training.
My next 10 matches after that were a little easier, I was putting into practise the things I had learnt. I spent a load of cash and tons of effort continuing to study and research the way the mind can affect your performance. I went through all the questions and scenarios that I felt had affected me before and compiled feeling and action tables to offset any anxieties I had.
The following is an excerpt of my findings and subsequent practises;
"The guy looks way bigger than me" - I am a short-arse anyway, it's not like I haven't faced bigger people than me (in fact the only guy shorter than me I faced in competition looked like Harry Potter and things didn't end well for me that match)
"The guy looks way stronger than me" - can't be any stronger than some of the guys at our gym, I spar with Ryan and Karl etc, this guy is nothing compared to them
"The guy has got massive arms" - good job it's not a body building competition then
"Look at the guys belt, it's all faded and raggy" - obviously not his from new, it's a hand-me-down
"I've won 2 matches all ready so if I lose this one it doesn't matter I've still won more than I've lost" - don't believe it, I came here to win not start making excuses for if I don't
"It's really noisy, the crowd are really on his side" - good job I'm not fighting the crowd as well then besides it's just white noise, it doesn't mean anything
"The guy looks really good, he just won 3 matches to get to the final" - so did I, dumb ass
And so on..................
I took every opportunity I could to visualise my performing under pressure and winning, right from the start of the match to the point where the ref holds up my hand, this proved to be so effective that I once lost a match by referee's decision (because I was playing 1/2 guard and the opponent was therefore on top) and couldn't believe it, I had visualised winning the entire tournament but was now relegated into fighting for 3rd place, gutted I believe the word is.
I took this lesson, one of the most valuable I have learnt, the result is not the important part it is the process. I had entered the tournament with very little nervous feeling (I don't believe it ever truly 100% leaves you but that's good) and performed to the best of my ability.
What I do now when faced with a stressful situation and I hear the voice, I imagine it is a little guy stood on my shoulder whispering in my ear so just give him the brush off Usher-style. Literally pretend to brush the guy off my shoulder which stops me and makes me focus.
Remember, whatever you are feeling, the other guy will be feeling it just the same.
Final tip I got from listening to an interview with Chris Moriarty "just smile, when you smile the body can not differentiate between whether you are really happy or not so it assumes you are and makes you relax. Plus the opponent will see you smiling when he is nervous and either think you are supremely confident or totally unhinged, either way you get into his head"
Really hope this helps you as much as it helps me.