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How To Stop Playing Tight

How To Stop Playing Tight

Jan 11, 2022

Do you start games feeling tense or do you begin them loose, relaxed, and ready to perform?

It’s no secret the more relaxed you are the better you’ll play. Being tense and rigid going into a game will slow you down, reduce your reaction time, and lead to you playing timidly. 

None of these are ingredients of peak performance. 

Have you ever had a coach say you need to play less tight? Do your parents or teammates sometimes say you look stiff out there? 

Look, I get it. Plenty of times people would comment on how rigid and uncomfortable I often looked while playing baseball. 

And you know what, I could feel it too, just as I’m sure you can. There’s no hiding when we feel tense. However, that only adds to the increasing frustration being felt when playing tight. 

I doubt you want to play tight, especially since you understand the negative impact, beginning a game in such a way, has on your level of play. 

You know your best games come when you’re feeling loose and relaxed. This is because when you're in such a state, your body is allowed to perform without your mind slowing it down. 

I had a coach who would often say, “A relaxed hitter is a dangerous hitter.” I was not always a relaxed hitter, but when I was, I lived out the truth of his statement. 

This saying reigns true no matter what sport you play. Which is why learning how to stop playing so tight needs to be of top priority for you. It begins by understanding what’s driving you to play tight in the first place. 

 

What Causes You To Play Tight

Why do you think you play tight in the first place? What is causing your mind and body to resort to tensing up during competition?

It’s going to be the first place you need to look, since it will help you uncover the deeper challenges you’re facing. 

You see, playing tight is a byproduct of an underlying mental game challenge (typically based in fear). 

There is something you are focusing on, some aspect of your mindset, which is leading to you being so tense as you begin the game.

Why? As a safety mechanism to the perceived negative outcome you are seeking to avoid. Let’s take a look at some of the main mental game challenges that result in playing tight, and see how each one feeds into the other. 

 

Reason #1 You Play Tight: Fear

Fear is going to come in two forms. We have the fear of failure and the fear of success

Now, the fear of failure is going to be much more common. This occurs when you become fearful of the perceived negative consequences that result from failing. It’s less the actual failing you fear, and more what that failure triggers.

When we are addressing fear of failure and its impact on playing tight, there are a few outcomes which are the focal point of fear. 

One is the response you imagine others will have to you failing. You may think your coaches will yell at you, your teammates will grow upset with you, and your parents will be disappointed. You fear their reactions, so you become scared of experiencing such failure. 

Another is the fear you have that failing may negatively impact your stats or future goals within your sport. If you think too much about stats, each mistake eats away at those numbers, leading to playing tight as a result. 

A third outcome is the incredibly negative self-talk that ensues once you fail. By beating yourself up, your emotions take a downward turn. It’s easy to then grow fearful of facing such negative emotions in the future. 

The other fear is the fear of success. Yes, you can be afraid to succeed, if the consequences of success cause you to feel uncomfortable or scared. 

One such example is an athlete with social anxiety. By succeeding, they may feel a spotlight will be shown on them. Whether it’s a post game interview, or an award speech, these often exciting rewards for successful play can actually lead to a great fear within.

If the outcome of success causes you to feel nervous or fearful, then it’s easy to play tight in response. 

 

Reason #2 You Play Tight: Anxiety

When you’re experiencing fear, whether it’s the fear of failure or fear of success, how do you respond in the moment? 

Since your mind has traveled into the future, concerned with what may happen, you grow anxious over having to face that reality

Anxiety and both fear of success and failure play into one another. The more you fear an outcome, the greater your anxiety grows. As you continue to feel anxious, your fear rises over the possibility of that becoming true. 

When you begin a game feeling so anxious, you are taken out of the moment. All you can think about are your worries and concerns over what may happen and hoping something goes a certain way. 

This type of anxious thinking leads to you playing tight. When you are worried, you are tense. You are seeking to force an outcome rather than naturally allow it to play out.

Of course you don’t want to fail, but by becoming anxious over the possibility you are keeping yourself from relaxing into the present moment and placing your body in a state where it has no other option but to be tight. 

 

Reason #3 You Play Tight: Low Confidence

When you are dealing with fear of failure, fear of success, and or anxiety, there is going to be another accompanying mental challenge you must face: low confidence. 

Having the possibility of failure at the forefront of your mind leads to doubts in your abilities. You tend to be afraid to fail due to the lack of trust you have in your skills and questions you have regarding your capability of succeeding.

Fear of success is there due to the worries you have regarding what accompanies failure. What does this have to do with low confidence? 

Well, I can speak from experience that social anxiety (one of the leading factors in fear of success) stems from a lack of confidence you have in handling social interactions. I had very low confidence in my ability to speak publicly. That drove fear of success. 

Then there’s anxiety. With your anxiety, you are completely consumed with worry. The what ifs fill your mind so much, there is almost no room for any ounce of confidence. 

If all you find in your head are thoughts about what may happen, does that sound like an optimal environment for high confidence? No, all this will do is keep you doubting yourself. 

The more you doubt yourself, the more timid your play becomes. You will begin each game tight, hoping you don’t make a mistake, since there’s not the confidence present within to attack the game with a fearless and calm mindset. 

 

3 Strategies To Play Less Tight

With the understanding that fear, anxiety, and lack of confidence all contribute to the state of tightness you’re experiencing before and during a game, what can all this information do for us?

How can we use this knowledge to stop you from playing so tight?

At this point it’s more about what the alternative would be. Instead of playing a game tight, how would you like to be performing?

Calm, relaxed, confident, at ease, enjoying yourself, you name it. 

That’s what you need to focus on now. Your goal should be to promote a state of calmness within your mind. That is the only way to play less tight; by generating a completely alternative mindset going into a game. 

To instill this new mindset, there are three strategies you’ll want to follow: relax into the moment, prepare mentally, and stop focusing on the outcome

 

Learning To Relax Into The Moment

As you begin the game, you need to find yourself relaxing into the present moment. The more you fight what is, and worry about what may be, the greater your body will tense up as you start competing.

I can imagine you’re thinking how difficult this would be, especially since you likely deal with fear and anxiety. How can you relax when your mind is running a thousand miles a minute, reminding you of all you need to worry about.

The first way is to feel gratitude. That’s right, start telling yourself how grateful you are to be able to play. Strip away all the anxiety and expectations you feel, and you’re left with the simple fact you get to go out there and perform. 

You love your sport, though you don’t likely love the negative feelings often associated with it. So, remind yourself all you have to be grateful for in the moment. 

Counteract those anxious and fearful thoughts with repetitive statements of gratitude. 

The second way is to use your breath to both relax and center yourself in the present moment. 

Perform this breathing technique:

  • Breathe in for a count of five.
  • Now breathe out for a count of ten (the exhale is slower and more controlled.

While doing so, try focusing only on your breath. Allow your mind to become one with the rhythm of your breathing.

 

Prepare Mentally

One of the best strategies to eliminate anxiety and fear leading into a game is to ensure you’re as prepared as possible. This comes in two forms: mental preparation and physical preparation

The physical preparation I’m sure you can think of for yourself. It’s going to be all the different aspects within your performance that need to be trained. Spend a lot of time here thinking about the areas where you hold the least amount of confidence. 

For mental preparation, there are a few different tools you want to utilize:

Develop a Self-Talk Routine

Your internal dialogue leads to the emotional state you’re in. So, you want to be training your mind to speak to yourself in a way that will increase confidence and calm yourself before a game. 

This training occurs through repetition. To learn more about crafting your own self-talk routine, click here.

Use Mental Imagery

Mental imagery not only allows you to practice your skills in the safety of your mind, but it provides you the opportunity to train the emotional state you wish to feel.

You can use mental imagery (also known as visualization) to see yourself beginning a game calm and relaxed. You can also use it to build confidence in the skills you feel the least confident with. 

To learn about the different visualization techniques you can utilize as an athlete click here.

Training The State Of Mindfulness

Mindfulness is the ability to center your attention in the present moment. It’s taking the breathing technique I outlined in the last section to another level.

Mindfulness is best trained through meditation. By preparing your mind to focus and be centered, you work to give yourself the skill you need when wanting to eliminate the wandering thoughts of anxiety and fear.

Click here to learn how you can begin your own mindfulness meditation practice

 

Stop Focusing On The Outcome

I have said many times throughout this article, the key cause of playing tight is the mind focusing on the outcome. By having an outcome oriented mindset, you are allowing fear of failure, fear of success, and anxiety to enter your mind.

You need to see this as an invitation. You are inviting in all the mental game challenges of which you are seeking to rid yourself.

Instead of focusing on the outcome, you need to shift your attention onto the process. 

Being focused on the process is not going to be easy, don’t get me wrong. Your mind is going to want to latch back onto what’s comfortable. What’s comfortable, as unhelpful as it may be, is outcome oriented thinking. 

Knowing the difficulty, you need to be strategic in your approach. Instead of simply telling yourself to focus on the process, give your mind something within the process to focus on. 

Try this:

Set three process goals on the physical side and three on the mental side. 

Physical process goals are the aspects of your game you have complete control over. Your mental process goals include attitude, focus, and self-talk. 

Focus on process goals and that will eliminate your tendency to fixate on the outcome. 

 

Final Thoughts

Starting a game feeling tense and tight not only takes the joy out of performing, but it completely inhibits your ability to perform your best. 

The opposite of starting a game tight is beginning in a calm and relaxed mindset. 

Even if right now, you’re the tensest athlete you know, there is hope. By learning to relax into the moment, preparing mentally and physically, and reducing the need to focus on the outcome, you can stop playing so tight. 

I hope you found this article helpful, and if you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to me. 

Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all that you do.

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