At my first competition, I thought I was the cat’s meow,” says Kim Morgan, the number-one competitor in the country according to NAILS’ 1993 Top 25 Competitors Ranking. “I had a growing clientele, and I really thought I was good enough to at least place. But when I look back at those nails now, I remember they were flat as a board. They had no shine and they had huge nicks. It was almost two years before I won my first trophy.”

What piloted Morgan to the winners circle was her attitude that competition is a lot more than just winning and losing. “It’s been the best learning experience,” she says. “Every time I compete, whether I come in first or not, I go home with another tip, a little more knowledge. For instance, I never knew what a smile line was before I entered competitions. Once I mastered that, I was able to offer my clients a new service — they could wear their nails without polish and it looked like a French manicure.”

Anita Lime, rated number two in the ranking, admits that while it’s nice to have a roomful of trophies, it’s the learning and growth that are really important. “When you move from 19th place to third place in a competition in one year.” she says, “there’s a feeling of recognition and accomplishment that makes all your hard work worthwhile.”

Nicholas Angelo Miller says he’s accumulated more than 27 national and international placements in only a year and a half of competing because he had the right belief structure from the beginning. “A lot of technicians have ego instead of attitude,” says Miller, rated number three in the ranking. “The difference between the two is that ego is unfounded. Attitude is proper preparation.”

To prepare for his first competition, where he garnered both first-and-second-place trophies, Miller worked for seven months at two salons for twelve to fourteen hours a day, searing more than 80 clients a week. “Few technicians are willing to do 10-15 sets of nails over a two-week period for free – just to get better at what they do,” he says. “But I made up my mind that I was going to do whatever it takes to become a winner, it’s the law of averages. If you get out there and swing twice as many times as the other guys, you’re usually going to hit twice as many balls.”

Most of the top competitors say that, hard work aside, mental preparation and visualization are essential to developing a winning attitude.

“Mentally working on areas I need to improve helps take away that nervous edge,” says Kimberly Patterson, who ranked as one of the top 10 nail competitors. “I have in my head an image of the perfect nail, and I think. How can I create this?’ If you have a visual picture of what you want to do, you have a goal. Visualization also helps me know exactly what I have to do to reach that goal. It helps prepare: me for competition. An attorney doesn’t walk into a courtroom without knowing the answer to every question. The same should be true for nail competitors.”

Chris Haubruge, a nail technician for more than 17 years, first started entering competitions 12 years ago. But she didn’t take a first-place win until earlier this war. She says, “Until a few years ago. I had only attended one show a year. Then I realized that the more you compete, the more you begin to understand what the judges are looking for. You begin to sec the difference between a competition nail and a salon nail.”

Haubruge now carries a workbook in which she keeps photographs of her competition nails as well as photographs of the winning nails. “My workbook also contains article’s with quotes from top competitors and a timetable that I constantly refer to as I mentally go over the entire process.”

Besides utilizing visualization techniques, Haubruge began listening to motivational and instructional tapes. “I went back to the basics,” she says. “I reviewed tapes on uniformity, how to file, how to apply products – all of which helped me get rid of some of the bad habits I’d developed over the years. I also started talking to judges and other competitors and having them critique my work to identify weak spots. Once I really started concentrating on improving, I started placing first.”

Developing a winning attitude also means learning how to turn every loss into a positive experience. “Everyone who competes is going to lose sometimes,” Lime says. “But it’s important not to pick the whole thing apart or dwell on the times the judges aren’t fair; sometimes they just aren’t. Instead, you have to learn to be happy with your own work and find out why the judges gave you the scores they did. Sure, there have been times that I’ve lost and I went into a corner and cried. But I’d always pull myself together and say “OK, that one is over with. How can I win next time?”

Instead of letting a loss disappoint you so much that you don’t want to compete anymore, says Lime, you have to constantly keep learning. “No matter how good you are,” she says, “no matter how many times you win, there is always someone trailing right behind you. People think it’s easy or that it takes luck to stay on top. But I work 16-hour days in my salon, and I still spend my one day off practicing competition nails For free. If I don’t strive to keep getting better, someone else will sneak up and pull the rug out from under me. Winners can’t develop an ego. They need to sharpen their skills.”

Overcoming nervousness and menial defeat are also part of developing a winning attitude. “I get a lot of little anxiety attacks before I compete,” Morgan says. “That’s when I have to calm down and think, “OK, this is just work, another set of nails.” I have to remain focused and find the right balance inside me. Some nervousness helps you do a better job and keep that competitive edge. But sometimes I let myself become overwhelmed by the huge trophies, big monetary awards, or other competitors in the room. Then I start to put pressure on myself, thinking I have to win. When that happens, I don’t do my best work.”

Because everyone usually knows who the top 10 people are in every competition, Morgan says it’s also important that you don’t let the appearance of someone else in a room defeat you before you start. “I’ve been at competitions where technicians pack up when they see a top competitor walk in,” she says. “But that’s a mistake. You don’t know who is going to do the better sculpting that day. Think positive and do the best you can. And you never know. You might just win.”

Miller says a lot of technicians defeat themselves also by approaching competition with the wrong perspective and with the wrong expectations. “People who do their best to prepare for a show have no reason to be nervous,” he says. “People feel afraid when they’re unsure whether the little bit they worked was enough. If you know you did everything you could, you feel more confident. If you actively commit yourself to learning from each competition, then there is no fear of losing.”

Patterson believes it was a positive attitude that helped her win first place in a nail art competition — the first she’d ever entered. “I just kept visualizing what it was wanted to create and worked to ward reaching that goal. On the day of the competition, I had so much fun, I was dancing around while I worked. When they called my name as first-place winner, was so shocked, I couldn’t move. My model had to do all the talking for me.”

While some wins appear easier than others, for most competitor, consistently taking first, second and third place requires an open mind and the willingness to listen to and accept criticism.

Lime won third place in her very first competition seven years ago, but it wasn’t until several competitions later that she was able to place above third. “After five or six competitions. I finally realized something was wrong,” she says. “That’s when I started asking questions. I began finding out what was wrong with my work and how I could improve. Once my attitude changed, I started letting judges and other competitors critique my work. I started looking at my competition nails a few days after a show, when I could really step back and see all the flaws. When I opened my mind to learning, I started picking up tricks of the trade and helpful hints.”

Morgan also started bringing home trophies after opening her work up to constant reevaluation “Whenever a person beats me, even now, I examine’ her nails and ask a lot questions,” she says. “And whether I take first place or fifth, I always study my score sheets to see what areas need improvement.”

While allowing judges and other competitors to pick your work apart may at first be painful, top competitors thrive on criticism, using it as an invaluable tool for improvement. “I always expect to do my best,” Miller says. “And if my best on a given day is the best of all the other competitors, then that’s fantastic. If it’s second-best, then I’m not disappointed with myself; I just want to learn what the first-place competitor did so that by the next time I see her, I’m ready to beat her. I always study score sheets and ask judges to evaluate my work.”

While a lot can be learned from experienced professionals, even beginning technicians can pass along good advice. Says Haubruge, “One of the girls just starting out in my shop told me that every day she comes to the salon she tells herself: “Today I’m going to do the best I can. Every time she does a set of nails she thinks: ‘I’m going to make these nails better than the last set I did.’ I adopted that same attitude toward competition, and it’s really helped me win.”

It’s difficult enough to reach the top and, say competitors, once you start placing, there is additional pressure from friends, family, and clients to keep bringing home those trophies. “After I started winning a lot, I went through this period where I couldn’t place at all,” Morgan recalls. “I felt so much pressure that it took me a while to see what I was doing wrong and to climb backup again. If you let losing get you down, you can start a self-initialed bad luck chain that is hard to break. But I’m not quitter. The day I stop competing, I want to go out a winner. To do that, I have to keep striving to be better. All my hard work pays off when I open my NAILS Magazine and see I’m rated number one in the country, or when I experience the thrill of hearing my name announced over the loudspeaker as first-place winner.”

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