4 Techniques to Overcome Performance Anxiety in Sports
As an athlete, performance anxiety can be incredibly frustrating to deal with. This can cause you to play tight and it may lead to your heart racing going into games, and maybe your body trembles.
I worked with an athlete who said that his performance anxiety caused him to feel like he was completely out of control of his body.
What a terrible situation to find yourself in! You've trained so hard in hopes of playing well, only to underperform because of the anxiety you feel during the game.
Knowing how hurtful performance anxiety is to you as an athlete, it's important for you to begin working through your anxiety.
And so, in this article, you will learn four sport psychology techniques you can use to overcome performance anxiety in sports.
What is Performance Anxiety?
Sports performance anxiety involves extreme worries before, during, and after competition.
When you are dealing with anxiety as an athlete, you will worry a lot about what's going to happen. This is known as outcome-oriented thinking, and we'll talk more about it in a second.
To get a better understanding of performance anxiety in sports, what causes anxiety in sports, and how it's affecting you, let's take a look at the three factors that make up performance anxiety:
- Cognition: the worries experienced when having to perform.
- Worrying about not being perfect.
- Fear of making a mistake.
- Fear of embarrassment.
- Fear of negative self-evaluation.
- Fear of getting benched.
- Autonomic arousal: the physical symptoms that are felt in an anxious situation.
- Rapid heartbeat
- Dry mouth
- Trembling hands and knees
- Shaky voice
- Blurred vision
- Feeling of coldness
- Behavioral response: the actions that will follow the two previous factors.
- Flight, meaning escaping the anxiety-producing situation.
- Quitting the activity that causes anxiety.
- Losing all ambition due to fear of performance anxiety.
What you first have is cognition. For you, this will include the thoughts you have about your performance. That's where we really see anxiety form. Because you are thinking about what's going to happen.
This involves the outcome-oriented thinking I mentioned earlier.
Whether you're worried about making a mistake, what your coaches will think of you, what the fans will think of you, what your stats will look like, or anything else, thinking about the future is what starts to bring on the feelings of anxiety.
Next comes the physical response (the autonomic arousal). Think about that nervous feeling in your stomach, your shaky hands, or maybe how you feel like your mind blacks out going into the game. That's your body responding to the anxious thoughts.
What typically happens when an athlete feels these symptoms is that they then start to fixate on them. Focusing on how much they don't want to feel anxious because when they feel anxious they play badly.
This creates a vicious cycle that can be hard to get yourself out of.
The third factor of performance anxiety in sports is the behavioral response.
In the moment, your behavioral response will involve underperforming (typically) and playing tight. You may hold yourself back out of fear of making the mistake you are so worried about.
But over time what we can see happen is that your behavioral response is to start to want to avoid the situation altogether. Now this is trouble for you as an athlete, because how are you going to avoid playing? By not playing. So what do you do?
You may self-sabotage or you may begin to lose the love for the game.
Neither are what you want and neither are going to help you perform your best. That's why you need to begin taking steps to overcome performance anxiety if it’s impacting you as an athlete.
How to Manage Performance Anxiety as an Athlete
I have worked with many athletes on overcoming their performance anxiety. And so I feel confident that the tools listed below will help you.
However, one important thing to keep in mind is that this takes work! Overcoming anxiety in sports does not happen overnight. It requires you to put in consistent effort to change what you're thinking about and feel more confident while you're competing.
But if you do put in the work, then you will be able to manage your anxiety and perform up to your potential as an athlete.
Technique 1: Accept Pre-Performance Nerves
The first technique involves accepting your pre-performance nerves.
Instead of always trying to fight the nervous feeling, just accept that it’s there. By always trying to convince yourself that the nerves are not there, or by focusing so much on getting rid of them, you will only be adding fuel to the flame.
I know that me telling you to accept your nerves can seem a little scary, but let me explain why it is so important.
The easiest thing to do when faced with something we don’t like about ourselves is to avoid it. But by pretending it doesn’t exist we only suppress the feeling, allowing it to appear again at inopportune times.
What we resist persists, so by constantly pushing against your anxiety you are actually making it worse.
Acceptance is the first step towards creating change. There is no way for you to overcome performance anxiety until you accept it.
And the best way to do that is through the acceptance of pre-performance nerves, since that is where the anxiety often shows itself the most.
By accepting that the nerves are there, you are in essence saying to them, “I recognize you are here, but I will not let you keep me from doing what I want to do.”
In taking this step, you can now begin to work on other techniques that will build confidence in your abilities.
It will be easier said than done. However, just stick with it and every time you feel yourself getting nervous from now on, stop and think, I accept my nerves and allow them to be present.
Now it’s time to change what you’re focused on!
Technique 2: Prepare, Prepare, Prepare
The second technique to overcoming performance anxiety in sports is preparation.
When you have the tendency to be nervous and anxious before a game, the worst thing you can do is be unprepared.
Not being familiar with an activity makes having confidence very difficult. By being prepared, you are doing all that you can, both physically and mentally, to be ready.
Preparation doesn’t mean practicing the day before the game, either. As many hours as it takes to make your skills feel second nature is required to help curb performance anxiety.
This will differ from person to person, depending on your skill set and level of your anxiety. But by being prepared, you take away a level of worry, since you’ve ingrained the act into muscle memory.
Okay, but you may be thinking, “What if I already prepare as much as I can, but I still deal with performance anxiety?”
Trust me, I’ve been there, and worked with many athletes who’ve been there as well. That’s why there are two more techniques you can use to go along with acceptance and preparation.
Technique 3: Visualization
When dealing with performance anxiety in sports, there are two areas that need to be focused on: relaxation and building confidence. Visualization is incredible at doing both.
Let’s first look at relaxation. To get you thinking in the right way about this, have you ever heard someone use the phrase, “Go to your happy place?” Well, that is essentially what I am referring to when talking about visualization helping you to relax.
Here’s what you do. Think of a time that you felt your most relaxed. What comes to mind? For me, it’s always walking on the beach.
Now take that image, close your eyes, and imagine yourself actually there. Feel and hear as if you are truly experiencing it. If there is food involved, taste it. If there is sound then really listen for all the noises.
Practice this over and over, until you can immediately close your eyes and go to that space. Then, you have a powerful tool that you can use any time you feel anxiety begin to creep up before or during a game.
Just close your eyes, venturing off to your happy place, and watch the anxiety melt away.
The second way visualization can be used to help overcome performance anxiety is by increasing self-confidence, specifically in the task at hand.
Your mind does not know the difference between what is real and imagined. So, when you mentally rehearse what it is you are doing, your brain believes you’ve already done it.
When it comes to any type of activity this can be incredibly powerful. As you successfully accomplish the task in your mind, confidence will begin to build gradually, until when the performance comes, your mind feels like it’s done this a thousand times.
Here’s how you can use visualization to help you build confidence:
- Get into a quiet location and sit in a comfortable position.
- Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths.
- Create your scene and imagine yourself performing your skills.
- Go into as much detail as you can and feel the emotion of being successful.
- Then, before a game, close your eyes and reimagine that scene to build confidence in the moment.
Technique 4: Let Go of Expectations
The fourth technique in overcoming performance anxiety in sports is all about where you put your focus. Before a game, our minds are often flooded with thoughts about how we want it to go.
But there are so many different factors that could play into the outcome, that it is a losing battle to try and control.
Expectations are the ideas that we have about how something should be, or how an event should go. While this may seem like a positive way of thinking, it actually holds you back from peak performance, and causes more anxiety.
These feelings keep you out of the moment and take you away from your flow.
To let go of expectations during a game is extremely difficult. In order to achieve something, it’s common to become so focused and consumed on the end result.
However, by learning to let that go and become process oriented, your performances will become much more natural and effortless.
A phrase that really resonates with me when thinking about letting go of expectations is, “Set it and forget it.”
This is referring to when you set the intention for what it is you’d like to accomplish. Because remember, letting go of expectations does not mean having no goals. In fact, I advocate for setting goals in every single area of your life.
Once you set a goal for a game, however, you must now forget about the outcome. At this point, it’s time to focus on the process that will get you there.
If you have a solid game plan in place that you trust, well then you don’t need to worry about whether you will get the outcome you desire. Just trust the process and enjoy the ride.
Mental Coaching for Sports Performance Anxiety
Accepting pre-performance nerves, preparing, visualizing, and letting go of expectations are all powerful techniques to overcome performance anxiety in sports.
Individually, these techniques will be of great help to you. But combined, they are truly remarkable. I highly recommend you start implementing them into your life if you are currently struggling with performance anxiety.
Now, if you're interested in a more in-depth and personalized approach to overcoming your sports performance anxiety, then you need one-on-one mental performance coaching.
With mental coaching, I will work with you on identifying the true cause of your anxiety and then figuring out the best tools for you to use in the moment to increase your confidence, get yourself relaxed, and ultimately reduce your anxiety.
To learn more about mental coaching for performance anxiety and to see how you can get started, please fill out the form below.
Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all that you do.
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