Sports Performance Anxiety Articles

What To Do If You Have Anxiety Before A Game

Eli Straw
What To Do If You Have Anxiety Before A Game

One of the quickest ways to destroy a performance before it even begins is allowing yourself to become overly anxious. When you have anxiety before a game, this will not only distract you, but drastically reduce your confidence.

Athletics are based on competition and judgment, which makes them a breeding ground for anxiety. As you’ll learn more about shortly, anxiety is caused by focusing too much on the results of competition.

When you are an athlete with performance anxiety, it can be incredibly frustrating. You train hard, yet when it comes game time, all that is thrown aside and drowned out by the increasing amounts of worries taking hold of you.

While anxiety is a direct cause of poor performance, this doesn’t mean you must fear all nervousness. Which is why understanding whether what you’re experiencing is really anxiety or just nerves is the first place we must start.

Is It Nerves Or Really Anxiety

So which is it, are you anxious or simply nervous?

It’s not always an easy distinction to make. And I’m not trying to downplay the impact nerves can have on your play. However, nervousness can oftentimes increase performance, while anxiety never has such a positive effect.

The best way to understand the difference involves the severity of what you’re experiencing. Nerves are much more subtle and will be centered around a feeling. I’m sure you can think of a time when you were nervous. You got butterflies in your stomach and felt that normal sense of adrenaline rush before something big.

That’s what happens when you are experiencing nerves. But that’s also all that will happen. The feelings will be controlled and won’t consume your mind and keep you from focusing on anything else.

Anxiety, on the other hand, takes this to an extreme level. With anxiety before a game, your mind is consumed with fear and worry, along with the physical sensations of nervousness you’re experiencing.

Also, the anxiety won’t simply be restricted to the day of your game. Nerves happen that day and grow stronger the closer you get to game time.

But anxiety will be felt for days before a game.

This is when you lay in bed the nights before staring at the ceiling, fretting over the many possible scenarios you can imagine may happen.

Anxiety is intense and long lasting, and when it occurs you need to have a gameplan for reducing it before a game. This game plan works best when you first understand where your anxiety comes from.

Where Does Anxiety Come From

Anxiety and worry are used interchangeably. While worry does not portray the intensity of a situation, what it does do is help us understand what it means to be anxious.

When I say I’m worried about something, what am I thinking about? Something that may or may not happen, right?

Even if I’m worried about something I did, what I’m really thinking about and afraid of are the consequences of my actions. So to put it plainly, when we are anxious we are worried about the future. Anxiety comes from thinking about the future.

Before a game, the reason you are feeling anxious is due to the many outcome-oriented thoughts running through your mind. The outcome is in the future, therefore it causes anxiety.

You may be worried about not making a mistake, desperately wanting to win, or what that one person in the stands will think of how you played.

All of these thoughts are focused on the future. As you think more and more about what may or may not happen, your anxiety increases. Which is why it’s crucial to regain control of your focus and the thoughts filling your head.

"Before a game, the reason you are feeling anxious is due to the many outcome-oriented thoughts running through your mind. The outcome is in the future, therefore it causes anxiety."

4 Steps To Reduce Anxiety Before A Game

When you have anxiety before a game, it’s easy to feel powerless. The anxiety you’re experiencing as an athlete has complete control over you, or so that’s what it seems.

The truth is, you can reclaim control over your mind. As you learned in the previous section, anxiety stems from your own attention being focused on the future. As out of control as it may currently seem, you hold the power to change this focus.

Once you learn how to shift your focus and control your mind better, it’s not that you won’t ever experience anxiety before a game anymore, but when you do, you’ll know exactly how to handle it.

The first step is going to be the strangest, and that’s to accept your anxiety.

Step 1: Accept & Let Go

How many times have you gotten a song stuck in your head and tried for hours, maybe even days to get it out? No matter how hard you try, that pesky tune will not go away.

Do you know why you can’t get yourself to stop thinking about the song? Because we are unable to think about not thinking about something, since the very act of thinking about it keeps it in our minds.

I know, it's a bit confusing. But here’s an exercise that may help this concept make a little more sense to you.

Think about an orange. Picture the orange in your mind, see it clearly. Are you seeing an orange? Good. Now, I want you to stop thinking about the orange. Tell yourself not to think about the orange. You hate the orange, get that orange out of your mind.

How’s that working for you? Each time you mention the word orange, even though you’re trying to force it out of your mind, you see an orange don’t you?

This goes to show, we cannot force a thought out of our minds. Similarly, you cannot force anxiety to leave. Instead, you must accept its presence, and then let it go.

Before a game, it can seem very scary to accept your anxiety. You know the negative impact it has on your game, so the last thing you want to do is accept it. But trust me, this is the only way to truly overcome performance anxiety in sports.

So before a game, let go of the need to get rid of your anxiety and simply accept that for right now, it’s a part of you.

"This goes to show, we cannot force a thought out of our minds. Similarly, you cannot force anxiety to leave. Instead, you must accept its presence, and then let it go."

Step 2: Turn Your Attention To Your Breath

Now that you’ve accepted your anxiety, it’s time to start the process of shifting your attention. Later on this will involve different thoughts, but for now all I want you to do is focus on your breath.

Remember how I said anxiety is caused by focusing on the outcome? Well, this is your chance to return your attention to the present.

Mindfulness is one of the best tools I can teach an athlete when it comes to overcoming anxiety. Training mindfulness over a long period of time strengthens your mind and provides you with the skill to control your attention.

But even without weeks and months of training, you can make use of this same concept.

Mindfulness is all about bringing your awareness into the present moment. Your awareness is your attention, so by bringing your attention into the present moment, you will not be so focused on the future.

A phenomenal way to generate a state of mindfulness is breathing. That’s why the second step for you to take when you have anxiety before a game is turning your attention to your breath.

This is not a complex activity or anything like that. All you need to do is bring your awareness onto your breathing. Begin breathing in and out consciously, focusing on each breath. As you do this, you will be grounding yourself in the present moment.

Step 3: Remember Past Successes

After you’ve focused on your breath for a few moments, really centering yourself into the present, it’s time to counteract the negative thoughts and scenarios playing out in your mind.

We aren’t aiming to remove these thoughts just as we aren't seeking to force out anxiety. But what we are trying to do is replace them.

At this time, bring into your mind all the past times you’ve succeeded. It doesn’t matter how far back you need to travel. Even if you’ve been having a dry spell lately, go back a few months or possibly years.

Find yourself some positive memories of you succeeding and begin replaying them in your mind.

Visualization, just like mindfulness, is a powerful tool I teach athletes. Over time, when you visualize yourself succeeding, confidence will grow. As your confidence rises, anxiety decreases.

But you need something immediate to boost your confidence. That’s where remembering past successes comes into play. Just start thinking about all those memories and allow your confidence to grow as you do.

"Find yourself some positive memories of you succeeding and begin replaying them in your mind."

Step 4: Repeat A Mantra

The previous step got your minds eye seeing images and scenes of you succeeding. You now want to work to substitute the negative and anxious thoughts that are keeping you from having a calm and confident mind.

Our brains have automatic phrases they repeat that have been hardwired over time. The process of cognitive restructuring works to retrain your brain to speak to you in a different way. However, in the moment, we can use these same concepts to reduce anxiety.

Those automatic anxious and worrisome thoughts you have are going nowhere unless something steps in to take their place. That’s why we employ the use of a mantra. A mantra is simply a phrase you come up with that you will repeat to yourself.

Thoughts drive feelings, so choose a statement that instills the kind of emotions you want to have going into a game. I suggest saying something that boosts your confidence while promoting a calm and relaxed mind.

However you want to feel, tailor your mantra to that state. Then, repeat it as though you put a song on repeat in your mind. Just keep saying it over and over. By doing so, you substitute the negative thoughts you were having and begin to instill the state you’re working towards.

Final Thoughts

Anxiety is not going to allow you to reach peak performance. But forget about peak performance for a moment, anxiety is not even going to allow you to simply enjoy the game.

That’s why it's incredibly important for you to know what to do when you have anxiety before a game.

The four step strategy outlined in this article will be of great service if you put it into practice. But, if you want a more direct and tailored approach to handling anxiety before a game, 1-1 mental game coaching is the best option.

Mental game coaching is a twelve week program where we work to identify your current mental game challenges and then create a custom mental training plan to overcome those challenges.

You can learn more about how to get started with mental game coaching by clicking here.

I hope you found this article helpful and put the steps into practice when you have 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 Straw

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.

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