6 Pregame Exercises to Reduce Sports Performance Anxiety
If you get overly worried or nervous before a game, there’s a good chance you’re dealing with sports performance anxiety.
Anxiety as an athlete can be crippling to your performance. It leads to you playing tense, your movements no longer have that smoothness about them you show in practice, and it can often seem like you’re rigid and playing a bit like a robot rather than loose and confident.
All of this happens because you are too concerned about what may or may not happen.
Knowing anxiety has such a negative impact on your performance, it’s a good idea to have a strategy for managing anxiety before a game. So, what I’m going to do in this article is break down six pregame exercises you can use to reduce performance anxiety before a game.
But first, it’s helpful to quickly address what causes sports performance anxiety in the first place.
What Causes Anxiety in Sports
Anxiety is defined by worry. In sports, as in life, it is not different. When you are experiencing anxiety, your mind is concerned about what or may not happen. Therefore, we can say the cause of anxiety in sports is thinking about the future.
This form of thinking is best described as outcome-oriented thinking. It encompasses all forms of thoughts that are centered on what might happen.
The most obvious outcome for athletes is the result of a game. You’re either going to win or lose the game and so it’s easy to worry before it starts about which result will happen.
But in addition to this, and oftentimes a greater influence on anxiety, are smaller outcomes. These outcomes involve mistakes, statistics, what other people are thinking, and so on.
Typically, these smaller, more specific outcomes are the main driving forces behind sports performance anxiety.
I can give a few examples from my own experience playing baseball, along with ones from athletes I’ve worked with.
For myself, I worried a lot about making mistakes. Specifically, I was worried about what would happen to my stats and what my coaches, teammates, and other people would think after I made the mistake.
A similar worry filled the mind of a performer I worked with who was overly concerned with what her coaches or the audience would think of her if she made a mistake.
Another example is from a tennis player I worked with who grew anxious before playing an opponent she knew she should beat. Her worries centered around the idea that she had to perform a certain way or else she would embarrass herself.
These concerns are not uncommon. They are present in the majority of athletes I work with. It’s because outcomes drive sports and there is a constant desire to win. Therefore, it’s easy to grow anxious about the possibility of losing or making a mistake.
But it is in this worry that mistakes become more probable. And so, your job as an athlete is to work to reduce anxiety as you go into a game. Something the six exercises you are about to learn will help you with.
“When you are experiencing anxiety, your mind is concerned about what or may not happen. Therefore, we can say the cause of anxiety in sports is thinking about the future.”
6 Pregame Exercises to Reduce Anxiety
These six exercises work if you apply them, not just once, but repetitively. And the more you do so, the stronger of an impact they will have.
The reason for this is that as you use the exercises, in the moment you are reducing performance anxiety. But in addition to that, you are also building mental skills. Over the long term, these mental skills will keep anxiety from becoming as powerful.
Each exercise requires action. They are not passive ideas or strategies that work simply by understanding them. They must be applied and done so with intent and focus. If you do, it will have a tremendous impact on the level of anxiety you experience going into a game.
Exercise #1: Remembering Past Successes
Visualization is the practice of mentally rehearsing your skills. It works to build confidence, generate a calmer mind, and as a result, reduce anxiety.
While visualization can be used in general to imagine yourself performing, as a pregame exercise against anxiety, we are going to use a very specific form of visualization that involves remembering your past successes.
The reason I prefer this type of visualization is because of how easy it is to apply.
Typically, sports anxiety is experienced right before the game begins. Sometimes it can even remain hidden until the starting lineups are called, or the national anthem is played. Then, it’s a full-on rush of anxious thoughts and feelings.
And so, you may not have the opportunity to sit down, close your eyes, and perform a more formal mental rehearsal. That’s why it helps to have a more simplified, easy-to-use, visualization practice right before the game.
Enter remembering past successes.
What you want to do is begin filling your mind with times when you’ve succeeded. Do this in a relaxed way, recalling from memory all those moments when you felt good about your play.
You can close your eyes as you do this or not. Either way, the important thing is that you’re filling your mind with images of seeing yourself succeeding. What makes this work even better than imagining yourself performing well in the game to come is that it’s real.
There’s no denying the fact that you played well. It happened and is true, and that makes the memory of it that much more powerful when it comes to increasing your confidence. And the more confident you feel going into a game, the less anxious you will be.
“Typically, sports anxiety is experienced right before the game begins. Sometimes it can even remain hidden until the starting lineups are called, or the national anthem is played. Then, it’s a full-on rush of anxious thoughts and feelings.”
Exercise #2: Create a Specific Self-Talk Routine
Something that has really helped a basketball player I’ve been working with is altering his self-talk before a game. Instead of continuing to think worrisome thoughts, we’ve come up with a specific set of phrases he can repeat to himself.
These statements work to increase his confidence and calm him down as the game begins. This shows the power self-talk has against anxiety.
Self-talk involves how you think and how you speak to yourself. The reason it both increases and decreases anxiety is because of the influence our thoughts have on the way that we feel.
If before a game all you’re thinking about is how much you don’t want to mess up, and all the possible negative outcomes that could happen, that’s going to increase your anxiety. You are talking yourself into being anxious.
On the other hand, if your self-talk involves encouraging words and is centered around reasons you have to feel confident and why you can be successful, well then that’s going to decrease anxiety because you are generating more positive feelings of confidence.
To make use of a self-talk routine, all you have to do is get yourself a piece of paper (or you can use the notes app on your phone) and make a list of statements that make you feel calm and confident.
Once you have your list made, your next job is to repeat it to yourself multiple times a day. The reason self-talk has helped the basketball player I work with is that he now has the statements memorized.
That way, during the game, it’s easy for him to remember what he wants to think.
So, for yourself, repeat the statements each day, and then, before the game, fill your mind with the new and encouraging thoughts you’ve created.
“Self-talk involves how you think and how you speak to yourself. The reason it both increases and decreases anxiety is because of the influence our thoughts have on the way that we feel.”
Exercise #3: Set a Clear Definition of Success
Seeking to control an uncontrollable is a leading cause of sports performance anxiety.
Now, what is a main uncontrollable you may focus on before the game begins? The outcome. And as discussed earlier, this doesn’t only mean the outcome of the game. It may be the outcome of a play, what other people think, or what your stats will look like.
No matter what outcome you focus on, if it’s out of your control, then it will only worsen your anxiety as you give it your attention. So, what you must do is switch where you’re placing your focus.
This is done by setting a clear definition of what success will look like for you that day.
Now, here’s a warning…let’s say you’re a baseball player and your definition of success is to get three hits. While it’s great to have that as a goal, it’s not the best definition for you to set before a game. Especially not if you are already dealing with anxiety.
Getting a hit in baseball is not fully within your control. You can stroke the ball and still get out. Therefore, that cannot be your definition of success if your aim is to reduce anxiety.
And in all reality, don’t you want to get a hit every time you go up to the plate? On the same token, if you’re a quarterback, don’t you want to get a touchdown every drive? Of course you do, that’s why you’re out there.
But that can’t be your sole focus and the way you define whether or not you were successful if anxiety is consuming your mind before a game.
Instead, you want to set a clear definition of success that is completely within your control. A good rule is to make sure your definition is part of the process. For instance, with the baseball example, focusing on your pre-at-bat routine before you step into the box.
By removing your focus from the outcome and placing it on a controllable definition of success, you will reduce outcome-oriented thinking and lessen the anxiety you feel before the game.
“Seeking to control an uncontrollable is a leading cause of sports performance anxiety.”
Exercise #4: Focus on Your Breathing
This exercise aims to reduce the physiological response to anxiety.
When you are anxious and worried about what’s going to happen, how do you typically feel physically? If you’re anything like me or any of the athletes I’ve worked with, you probably have an increased heart rate, shaky hands, and maybe sweat or feel a bit light-headed.
A way you can work to reduce this response is by taking control of your breathing. Instead of taking quick, shallow breaths, you want to focus on taking deep, rhythmic breaths.
This begins to slow down your heart rate and reduce the physical feelings of anxiety you experience.
Now, you aren’t just going to take deep breaths while your mind still thinks about the outcome. That wouldn’t help too much. What you’re going to do is accompany those deep breaths with counting.
For example, you can breathe in for a count of five and out for a count of ten. This helps to be sure you are taking deep, controlled breaths. But it also helps to remove your thinking from the outcome. Because you can’t be thinking about the outcome if you’re focused on counting.
So before a game begins, as you notice yourself getting anxious, turn your attention onto some count breathing.
“A way you can work to reduce this response is by taking control of your breathing. Instead of taking quick, shallow breaths, you want to focus on taking deep, rhythmic breaths.”
Exercise #5: Practice Gratitude
Gratitude and competition don’t necessarily seem like they’d mix. If you’re out there to dominate, the only thing you’ll be grateful for is beating your opponent. That’s all well and good, except for when you feel anxious before a game.
When that happens, your focus becomes less fixed on wanting to dominate and more centered around not wanting to play badly and make a fool of yourself. You have to move past the anxiety to get to the hunger for competition. Something gratitude can help you with.
Have you ever tried to feel grateful and anxious at the same time? Go ahead and give it a try. It’s pretty damn hard. That’s because, when you’re grateful your mind is present, and when you’re anxious your mind is in the future. Plus, when you feel gratitude, your emotional state is raised.
That’s why practicing gratitude is a strong remedy for pregame anxiety. It will bring your awareness into the present moment, and it will work to get you into a more positive emotional state.
Now, to practice this form of gratitude, what you want to do is begin filling your mind with reasons you have to be grateful. It may begin with the simple exclamation that you are grateful for the opportunity to play.
As you list off one thing to be grateful for after another, your mood will shift and more reasons to be grateful will become visible. And as you continue to feel gratitude, the anxiety you were experiencing will begin to melt away.
“You have to move past the anxiety to get to the hunger for competition. Something gratitude can help you with.”
Exercise #6: Focus on Having Fun
Yes, focusing on having fun and enjoying yourself is an exercise because it takes work to actively remind yourself of why you should be enjoying yourself in the first place.
Anxiety can quickly suck all the fun out of the game. It causes you to think about negative consequences and it fills your mind with images of you failing. That’s not very fun. To counteract this, you want to remind yourself of why you play in the first place.
At the core of every athlete there is, or once was, joy that drove them to play. It’s what led you to your sport in the first place. Whether that joy came from winning or from simply performing, it was joy that pushed you forward.
If you are struggling with performance anxiety, you want to bring that joy back into your game.
Now, the reason I say it’s an active process is because it is not going to be easy to all of a sudden enjoy yourself again. You’re feeling anxious, and that’s not fun. So magically switching to having fun will not be easy…but it can be simple.
In fact, it’s as simple as actively reminding yourself of all that you enjoy about your sport. To make this practice work better, I recommend spending some time thinking about why you play in the first place. What about your game do you enjoy the most?
Then, as the game is set to begin and you feel yourself getting anxious, think about what it is you love about your sport and focus on that.
“Yes, focusing on having fun and enjoying yourself is an exercise because it takes work to actively remind yourself of why you should be enjoying yourself in the first place.”
When you are too worried and anxious about what’s going to happen, this will likely cause you to play timidly and perform in a tense way rather than freely and confidently. This kind of worry is caused by thinking too much about the outcome.
But to perform your best, you need that feeling of confidence. That is why you must learn how to reduce performance anxiety going into a game. That’s where the six pregame exercises come into play.
What you want to do is try each of them out. See which one works best for you and then focus on that one and use it consistently to reduce sports performance anxiety before a game.
Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all that you do.
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Eli is a sport psychology consultant and mental game coach who works 1-1 with athletes to help them improve their mental skills and overcome any mental barriers keeping them from performing their best. He has an M.S. in psychology and his mission is to help athletes and performers reach their goals through the use of sport psychology & mental training.eli's story
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