They often begin arriving the day before a game, sometimes traveling alone, but more often they come in groups of threes and fours. Regardless of their travel itinerary, they  will be arrayed in full force the moments before the start of competition. In the parlance of athletics, these visitors are known as “butterflies”—or a case of pregame nerves—and they flutter in the pit of all athletes’ stomachs. Butterflies are a fact of life in sports, as real as the score on the scoreboard

And for being such delicate little things, they bring on a host of roiling emotions in athletes, everything from low-grade dread to heightened anticipation. In the anxious minutes of self-reflection before a game, athletes must grapple with butterflies, which initiate all sorts of thoughts, some good and some not so good, fleeting considerations that come down to this: “Will I be my best today? Or will I stink?”

As the athletic teams  at Rutgers University–New Brunswick enter the heart of their seasons in only their second semester of Big Ten competition this spring, the butterflies are likely to be more active and feel a little heavier. They may immobilize some athletes, and just as easily they may serve as  a call to arms. The best athletes have managed to come to terms with butterflies; better yet, they deploy them to their advantage in the field of athletic competition.

enior Alyssa Landrith, a  pitcher on the softball team, top left, says butterflies keep her zoned in. Luisa Leal, a senior on the  gymnastics team, believes  jitters benefit her performance. Junior Howie Brey, a lefthander on the baseball team


Nick Romanenko

“I start feeling the butterflies usually hours before the match,” says Luisa Leal, a star performer on the women’s gymnastics team and a senior in the School of Arts and Sciences. “It’s when I start getting ready for the meet: putting my leotard on, doing my makeup, fixing my hair and my bow. It’s all very exciting—but a little scary, too. The worst part, though, is the bus ride to the arena and then pulling into the parking lot. That’s when I feel like my heart is going to come out of my chest.”

“Butterflies can trigger that fight-or-flight response, and athletes are programmed to fight and compete,” says Lindsay Balsamo, a player on the women’s tennis team and a senior in the School of Arts and Sciences. “Despite this training, we can sometimes become timid when we get butterflies, and that can inhibit any athlete’s performance. This happened to me more during my first year. As a senior, I have learned to harness the feeling and use it to my advantage.”

Athletes reach for anything that will help put them on the edge—but not over it. Some players don headphones and zone out, listening to tunes to get pumped up for a game. Others like to joke around with teammates in the locker room to keep the weight off their shoulders—and the team’s. Some, such as wrestler Scott DelVecchio, a sophomore in the School of Arts and Sciences, have a rare ability to think of things unrelated to the task at hand. And more than a few adhere to self-prescribed rituals, from getting into their uniform in a particular way to going about their pregame warm-ups in a certain manner. And as the nerves inevitably mount—it’s just a matter of when and where—the majority of athletes try to take this state of mind and use it to their advantage by visualizing the game and how they will successfully perform in it.

“The days and hours before a match, I am preparing mentally and physically,” says Jonathan Chang, a rising star on the men’s golf team and a junior in the School of Arts and Sciences. “My thoughts are to make sure that I have prepared my best. If I don’t, it’s the difference between a top 10 or a top 5 finish—or even a win. So when do I start to feel nervous? When my name is announced on the first tee. The nervous feeling is a good feeling. I am excited because I have that itch to compete, and the competition is the course.”

The nature of some sports—which pit one athlete against another, such as in tennis or wrestling, or have a preponderance of isolated action, as is the case with baseball—can put an added onus on the athlete to convert a case of the pregame nerves into helpful mental preparation. Alyssa Landrith, a pitcher on the softball team and a senior in the School of Arts and Sciences, spends her time before a game evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of opposing batters and devising a strategy with her catcher to get them out. “For me, jitters keep me zoned in to what needs to be done throughout the game,” she says. “They keep me alert and excited to compete with my team.”

Another pitcher, Howie Brey, a lefthander on the baseball team and a junior in the School of Arts and Sciences, wakes earlier than usual the day that he will be pitching, arising in a state of growing excitement and nervousness that won’t dissipate until he has thrown the first pitch. He likes to visualize his own performance, imagining a  stellar outing. Such thoughts calm him down and keep him positive. Rare in sports, he as the pitcher can control the pace of the game, too. If the butterflies won’t fly away, Brey has stalling strategies at his disposal, allowing him to get a better grip on the ball and himself.

Most athletes would consider something seriously amiss if they weren’t amped up before a contest, feeling a state of heightened, if at times queasy, alertness. Butterflies are a bellwether of an athlete’s preparedness. And like good nutrition and proper training and technique, they can bring out the best in an athlete.

“The butterflies are the reason why I’m still doing gymnastics,” says Leal. “That combination of fear, excitement, stomachache, nerves, high heart rate, anxiety—and extreme happiness—is what makes competition so great. Even though the butterflies sometimes make me rush, I love them most of the time. They make me faster and tighter. I feel less pain. I jump higher, and I entertain. It’s like you feel everything—but more. It’s an addictive feeling.” •