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Overcoming Performance Anxiety with Sports Psychology

Many athletes who perform well during training or practice may still suffer from performance anxiety on game day.  If feelings of nervousness, anxiety or fear interfere with their sports performance, learning to use a few tips from sports psychology may help to get the anxiety under control or reduce game day nerves.

Performance anxiety in sports, sometimes otherwise knows as "choking" is described as a decrease in athletic performance due to too much perceived stress.  The combination of having an audience on game day and the extremely high expectations of their success contributes to their anxiety.  This type of anxiety is often a result of the way the athletes interpret the situation, and is rarely the external situation that causes stress, but rather the way the athlete's self talk describes the situation that creates feelings of stress, anxiety and fear. 

For athletes who choke during competition, it is important they understand the thoughts they have regarding an event can be modified, adjusted or controlled with the right mental practice.

What Can Athletes Do?

  • An athlete should first determine if thoughts of doubt, failure or a lack of confidence are due to a perceived lack of ability.  If this is the case, the self talk will generally lead to continued feelings of anxiety, nervousness, and tension.  It's very difficult  to perform well in a sport when your own internal voice is telling you otherwise. 

Sports Psychology Tips to Help Reduce Performance Anxiety Before the Event:

  • Attempts to understand and change why those thoughts and feelings develop  will be met with limited amounts of success in managing performance anxiety. While some athletes may benefit from exploring this further with a mental health professional, knowing the underlying reasons often does not help to overcome the feelings.

  • Before the event accept and validate rather than fight or minimize, the nervous energy you/athletes feel.  Avoid thinking your feelings are fear based.  Know that the adrenaline rush you feel is normal and part of your body's natural preparation for the competition.  Notice it, but don't focus on it.

  • Prepare both mentally and physically before an event.  Arrive with plenty of time so you aren't rushed, which will only increase your stress.  Get a thorough warm-up, do some easy stretching, know the course or what is expected, and dress for the conditions as appropriate.

  • Allow a few minutes to practice visualization.  Mentally see yourself doing everything right, breathe easy, close your eyes and visualize yourself performing well.  Positive self-talk is very powerful and can change your attitude and have a positive outcome on your performance.

  • While athletes need to be flexible enough to react during the event, you should enter the event with a general strategy of how you want to race/perform.  Your strategy can either be simple or complex.

Reducing Performance Anxiety During the Event:

  • Focus on the task at hand rather than the outcome.  Be present in the moment and avoid thinking too far into the event, or thinking about the finish.

  • If you find yourself thinking negative thoughts, stop and focus only on your breathing.  Focusing on your breathing rhythm will automatically pull you back into the present.

  • Force a smile.  Something as simple as making yourself smile when you are thinking negatively about yourself or thinking negative thoughts in general will change your attitude in a split second. 

  • Perform as if you don't care about the outcome.  This may help to relax you and help you to enjoy your sport for what it is, another day in your life....not the most important thing in your life.

  • Coaches can help or hinder an athlete's ability to overcome choking during a game/competition.  Coaches often inadvertently reinforce a pattern of choking when trying to encourage IE "the next shot is critical".  This type of talk will only increase the pressure an athlete feels to perform.

Reducing Performance Anxiety After the Event:

  • Review your performance and recall the things you did well.  Focus on any actions, thoughts and behaviors that helped you perform.

  • Acknowledge, but quickly dismiss things that hindered your performance.  Look where you want to go, not where you don't.  If you focus on the negative aspects, you will continue to do the same things over again.  Focus on the times when you get it right.