I joined the advocacy program because I missed the thrill of competition days. After playing multiple sports from before I could barely walk through a Division I college career, the unpredictability of competition became an anchor of stability in my world.
Moot court and ADR competitions reunited me with elements of competition that I became accustomed to through sports. Uniforms emblazoned in school pride turned into polished, professional attire cloaking our Pace Law identity. Early morning practices and evening team weightlifting sessions became late night meetings with my team to discuss fact patterns. But the adrenaline and nerves? I have welcomed them back like old friends.
The best insight to nerves I’ve ever received was delivered on a crisp day alongside the Housatonic River for the first race of my sophomore year with Fordham’s women’s rowing team. That year, we were following up on underdog successes from my freshman year: our highest conference finish ever and medals in national regattas. All eyes were on our upcoming fall performance and nerves sank in for circumstances beyond our control – we’ll get to that later. In a team huddle before our race, an assistant coach could see how nervous we were. She comforted us with a statement I’ll never forget: “Nerves are good. Nerves mean you care.”
Seven years later and with aches in my body that won’t ever seem to go away after nursing multiple injuries, those words have echoed in my head through every competition, exam, meeting and presentation I’ve encountered. While we might associate nerves with a negative connotation, there’s still a powerful reason behind them.
While my coach’s sentiment has resonated with me more than biology, there’s of course a scientific reason behind nerves. Nerves are a part of our body’s flight or fight response to stressful conditions, such as advocacy competitions. Everyone gets nervous in some way or another before competition. It’s inevitable. So, how can we fight them? In the same way everyone deals with nerves differently, there’s multiple methods to managing nerves. Here are a few strategies that have worked for me throughout the years.
Identify the Familiarity
There’s a lot of conditions we can’t prepare for in competition: a rude opposing counsel, a terrifying judge, or an uncomfortable courtroom. But there’s also a lot of familiar aspects around us that we can look to for comfort and ground us through discomfort. For instance, you have the same people alongside you as you head into a vast unknown of an upcoming competition. The coach and teammates you’ve practiced with are still next to you. The order of a trial, a moot, or ADR hearing will still be the same.
Remember that race I mentioned earlier? Part of why my teammates and I were so shaken up with nerves is that the coach driving the trailer with all our racing shells and oars ended up getting a flat tire on the way to our racecourse. We were rowers without a boat and oars. Our coach ended up convincing a school to lend us equipment for the day. We ended up racing with a boat that was so different from our usual shell, (not to mention with bright yellow oars that starkly contrasted Fordham maroon). Rattling the concept of racing equipment we had never practiced in, our coach reminded us: “You have the same nine people in this boat.” While racing about 5000 meters in that boat was beyond unexpected and uncomfortable, it’s true that we felt more at ease because our team was experiencing it together. The overall environment was different, but our crew lineup, technique and strategy were unchanged.
Focus on What You Can Control
On the other hand, there are competition factors that we can control: what time we arrive, being ready when a hearing needs to start, having any notes we need, having a pen on you, etc. When you’re on top of the things you can control, you can focus better on the task at hand.
Find a Competition Routine
Everyone has a different way of preparing on the day of a competition. Consider what steps you need to take to make yourself feel the best you can and as ready as possible. While mock trial, moot court, and ADR practices help us practice our advocacy skills, we can also practice how we get ready before tackling cases. Take the opportunity to find and build those healthy habits towards approaching stressful cases even beyond your law school advocacy days. Is it a coffee or a favorite breakfast? Maybe it’s a workout of sorts? Personally, I’ve always had an inclination to listen to a pump up playlist of sorts. Listen to it as you get ready or on the drive over. One silly but powerful thing I’ve always made sure to do before a round begins: I fist bump my co-counsel under the table. I think of it as a little check-in and a reminder that we’re ready.
Move Your Body
When I find myself getting paralyzed with nerves, I try to get some steps in. In a similar vein of identifying familiar things around me, getting a walk around the courthouse or the hosting school’s campus can clear your head by just getting accustomed to what’s around you. Sometimes, this can be the perfect distraction or a way to shake out nerves as they hit.
If you’re traveling on the road with a team and time permits, hitting the hotel gym never hurt anyone. At this year’s California Sports Lawyer Rose Bowl Negotiation, our little team found ourselves at the hotel fitness center, and it ended up being the perfect pick-me-up on the morning of our competition. We finished working out, grabbed coffee nearby, and got ready with ease before heading over to our competition site. After all, “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy…”
Remember How Much You Prepared
This last point might be cheesy, but you remember that you know more than you think you do when nerves tell you otherwise. You’ve hopefully practiced so much that advocacy becomes muscle memory. You know what words to emphasize and when, what points of a negotiation you need to address and to stop talking during oral argument when a judge begins asking a question. At some point, it all becomes second nature. Trust that you’re ready and that you have your teammates and coach behind you.
When you get nervous, take a deep breath and remember that nerves are good. Nerves mean you care.
Any great competitor, whether in sports or in advocacy, always gets that rush of adrenaline. I agree, that rush means you care.