Why Anxiety Causes Athletes to Hide
If you're an athlete with performance anxiety, then you know how hurtful it can be on your game.
Anxiety can be one of the main reasons you play better in practices than games.
But did you know this has a lot to do with the fact anxiety can cause you to hide during a game? No, not actually run behind the dugout or back into the locker room and hide...but hide by doing as little as possible.
It all has to do with the fear driving your anxiety.
The Fear of Making a Mistake
What would you say you're the most worried about? Is it playing well, or playing badly?
Most athletes I work with who are dealing with performance anxiety worry about making mistakes. They don't want to make mistakes, so they worry about them.
A great example is a golfer who was worried about missing short putts. She knew they were putts she should sink, and so she worried about not missing them and seeing her score go down. Not to mention the worries she had relating to her coach's disappointment.
So we can see that anxiety in sports is caused by worries about the future. But more specifically, the fears of making mistakes.
If you were only focused on playing well and you had the belief you would play well, there wouldn't be much to worry about. You'd simply go out there and compete with full faith your performance will go how you want.
But when there is a lack of confidence due to fear surrounding mistakes, your mind's natural response is to worry and grow anxious about not wanting to make a mistake.
This has to do with control. You cannot fully control whether or not you make a mistake. And when we think about things we can't control, we tend to worry. That is where your anxiety comes from.
So what does all this fear, which causes anxiety, have to do with you hiding while competing?
Well, do you know the quickest way to not make a mistake during a game? Don't put yourself in a position to make a mistake.
Laying Low & Playing it Safe
Anxiety shifts your goal from wanting to play well to not wanting to make a mistake. And there is a very big difference in how these two goals lead you to play.
When you want to play well, you're aggressive. You're out there working towards success. You could say you're playing more offensively.
In contrast, when your goal is to not mess up, you don't have to play well to reach your goal...you simply need to avoid screwing up.
So, you could say you're playing more defensively. It's better to have a neutral game where you didn't do much, than it is to make a mistake.
If your entire focus is on not making a mistake, you're going to notice yourself avoiding situations that could cause you to make a mistake.
Funny enough, this avoidance can be the very thing that causes you to mess up. Not to mention the frustration you feel from holding yourself back.
Let's say you're a soccer player, and your goal is to not make any mistakes because of anxiety. The anxiety will lead you to play timidly and hide during the game.
This may look like you running to places where there are more defenders, as to make yourself tough to pass to, or by passing the ball quickly as soon as you get it.
The same way of playing is true for basketball players trying to hide. If you have an open shot, you may pass it off so as to not have to shoot - which opens you up to the possibility of missing.
In sports like baseball and softball, it's a lot more difficult to hide, since you're the only one up to bat or playing your position in the field. But the same principle of laying low and playing it safe will apply.
With batters, this will look like being indecisive and not swinging the bat with full confidence. In the field, you may shy away from going after a ball close to you, since you don't want to make an error.
But when you do play it safe, working hard to not make a mistake rather than competing with a mind focused on playing well, it can leave you feeling embarrassed and frustrated with yourself.
The Frustration of Hiding
When I was in high school, and at times in college, I hid. Everything I've explained up to this point applied to me. I was anxious and scared of making mistakes.
And while hiding at times did save me from an embarrassing mistake, it welcomed another embarrassing feeling, one I'd argue was even worse...the embarrassment of knowing I hid because I was scared.
I felt like a coward.
This also led to a lot of frustration, because I was training hard outside of games and tryouts, but then hiding when it mattered. It made no sense to me and felt as if the work I was putting in was worthless.
Many athletes I've worked with who've dealt with performance anxiety have had similar feelings. Especially feelings of frustration - knowing they are the ones holding themselves back due to fear.
As was the case for me, it can quickly seem to them like they're training is pointless if they're only going to hide and play it safe during games.
You may be feeling the very same way.
But here's the good news...your training isn't going to waste. At least not if you get a handle on your anxiety. It is the anxiety that's keeping you from playing well.
All those skills you've developed and the talents you've worked hard for, they're there, just waiting to be unleashed during games. By reducing the anxiety, you will no longer play it safe and hide, and you'll be surprised how much your performance level increases.
Letting Go of Anxiety & Playing With Confidence
Trust is what you want to focus on to reduce anxiety. Because if you trust in yourself and your skills, you won't worry so much about making mistakes. And if you worry less, you won't be as anxious.
Now, in addition to increasing trust, which takes time to do, you also need a way to manage anxiety in the moment when you feel it before or during a game.
So, I'm going to start with an in-the-moment strategy to reduce anxiety, followed by a way you can begin building trust in your game.
Managing Anxiety in the Moment
There is a three step process to managing anxiety in the moment.
The first step is to accept the anxiety you're feeling. Anxiety is directly linked to your thoughts and focus. When you're feeling anxious, you are thinking about what's going to happen in the future.
So ultimately, the goal is to shift your attention, bringing it back into the present moment. That shift is extremely difficult if you are trying to resist the fact you're anxious.
So first you must accept your anxiety. This can be done by recognizing that you feel anxious and telling yourself that it's okay you feel anxious and you can still play well even though you're anxious.
Once you accept your anxiety, now you want to work on relaxing yourself - reducing the physical symptoms caused by the anxiety.
This is done by taking a few deep breaths. And when you do, you want to count as you inhale and exhale. Counting will begin to take your attention off whatever it is you're anxious about.
An example is breathing in for a count of five and out for a count of five.
Once you've taken a couple deep breaths, it's time to move onto the last part of the strategy: changing your focus.
Since anxiety is caused by worries about the outcome, you want to turn your attention onto the present moment (so the process of your game).
A great way to do so is by focusing on a simple objective that's within your control.
Building Trust in Your Game
Now that you have a strategy for managing anxiety in the moment, you want to begin working on building your trust long-term.
Trusting in yourself and your skills isn't a change that happens over night, especially if you've dealt with years of self-doubt. But with time and effort, your self-belief will grow.
There are many ways to grow trust in yourself and your skills, but I want to keep it simple for you. And so, I'm going to go over a single exercise that I've seen work wonders at increasing confidence in athletes.
The exercise involves figuring out what gives you confidence.
If you rely on external sources for your confidence, then your trust will be very fragile. Instead, you want to make sure your confidence comes from things you can control.
Think about three to four things that give you confidence that you can control. Some examples include...
- Mental preparation
- Physical preparation
- Positive self-talk
- Being conditioned
- Game plan
- Remembering past successes
- Pregame routine
- Warm up routine
Once you've chosen three to four, these become what you want to focus on.
For example, if you know that being mentally prepared gives you confidence, you want to focus on being mentally prepared for games.
The reason this builds trust is because you are giving attention to the ingredients that go into you playing with confidence. And the more confidence you have, the better you play. Then this becomes a nice cycle of increasing trust over time.
Sports performance anxiety can cause you to hide and play timidly due to fear. You are worried about not making mistakes, and the quickest way to avoid making mistakes is to play it safe.
But when you play it safe, this causes embarrassment and frustration. And it can make you feel like all the work you're putting in is useless.
What you need to do is work on reducing your anxiety by using an in the moment strategy, along with increasing your trust long-term.
And if you do, your anxiety will be reduced, and you will be able to play more freely and naturally. Seeing your hard work pay off during games.
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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