Why Athletes Get Nervous Before Games
The game’s about to begin, and you get that churning feeling in your stomach and your hands start to shake. Your heart is racing, feeling like it's going to explode out of your chest.
Then the worries come flooding in...I never play well when I feel like this, I hope I play well today, I can't make any mistakes.
Has this ever happened to you?
For some, these kinds of nerves may even occur the night before. I can remember back in high school, laying in bed at night staring at the ceiling, so nervous I couldn't fall asleep.
Why is it that this happens? What causes you as an athlete to get so nervous before a game, and more importantly, what can you do about it?
In this article, you're going to learn why you get nervous before games, and three tips you can apply to calm your nerves.
Pregame Nerves vs Anxiety
Now, the thing is, not all nerves are bad. Sometimes nervousness can increase focus, motivation, and give you the wake up call you need to go out there and compete.
But other times, well, let's just say it has the opposite effect. The nerves hold you back and actually change the way you play.
This is where we can make the distinction between pre game nerves and something known as sports performance anxiety.
If your nervousness negatively impacts the way you play, and has grown into something you fear, then we can go ahead and categorize it as sports anxiety.
That's the main difference: pregame nerves will be less severe and will actually increase your focus and excitement to play. Sports anxiety is more severe and will cause you to play tight and timidly.
Another difference is that sports anxiety is often felt not just before the game begins, but hours and days leading up to the game. Your anxiety may even get to the point where you feel it on a daily basis (even during practice).
The Main Cause of Pregame Nerves & Anxiety
Sports anxiety is characterized by worries. You are worried about what may or may not happen. Now, if you've dealt with a lot of nervousness recently, would you say the worries you have before a game are more about what you want to have happen or what you don't want to have happen?
A pattern I see a lot in the athletes I work with is worrying about what they don't want to have happen.
For example, they don't want to play badly because they might lose their starting position. Or they worry about making a mistake because of what their parents will think.
All of these types of worries are the main driving force for pregame nerves and anxiety. This is known as outcome-oriented thinking. You are thinking about what's going to happen in the future.
Can you think of some other outcome-oriented thoughts you’ve had before games? What about wanting to score a certain amount of points or get a specific number of hits or catches. Those are good outcomes to focus on...right?
Sometimes, but not so much if you are dealing with anxiety.
Because while outcome-oriented thinking is the main driving force for anxiety, it's really the way in which you think about the outcomes that leads you to worry.
This is why anxiety is seen a lot in highly skilled athletes. Because they expect themselves to play a certain way, and so they worry about how frustrated they'll feel or what other people will think of them if they don't play well.
Or, better put, if they don't play up to the level they expect of themselves...which is often perfection.
So does this mean, if you want to play without anxiety, you have to give up your goals and not care about how you play?
What it does mean, though, is that you need to change your expectations and what you focus on/think about going into games.
And the best part is, when you stop worrying about the outcome, you give your attention to the small details that actually give you a better chance of getting the outcome you want.
So really, by letting go of the expectation to play perfectly or reach outcome-based goals, you are giving yourself the best shot of reaching those expectations.
Three Tips to Calm Your Nerves Before a Game
Knowing worrying about the outcome and thinking about how you'll play is driving your nerves and anxiety before a game, what can you do to manage this?
The approach I use when working with athletes is a strategic one, where we focus on three key elements: accepting your nerves, relaxing the mind, and narrowing your focus.
Tip #1: Accepting Your Nerves
Now why would you want to accept your nerves if the whole goal is to get rid of them? Well, it all has to do with focus.
I want you to try something with me. Picture an orange. Really see the orange in your mind. Now, I want you to keep repeating to yourself, don't think about an orange, don't think about an orange, don't think about an orange...you were thinking about an orange, weren't you?
How come? Weren't you telling yourself NOT to think about the orange?
Yes, but even though you were telling yourself not to think about the orange, by repeating orange, you were still thinking about an orange.
The same is true with your nerves and anxiety. How many times have you tried and tried to talk yourself out of being nervous?
This is something I used to do a lot, because I knew how badly I played whenever I felt anxious.
But the truth is, you cannot will your anxiety away by focusing on it. You can only get rid of it by changing your focus. The first step of which is accepting the fact you're feeling nervous.
You can do this by observing where in your body you feel the anxiety, and also by talking to yourself and telling yourself that it's okay that you're feeling nervous, you accept it, and it's time to move on and focus on the game.
Tip #2: Work on Relaxing Your Mind
When you are feeling anxious, your mind is racing all over the place and thoughts are often hard to pinpoint. It can feel like your brain is moving a thousand miles a minute.
To help reduce these racing thoughts and the physical symptoms of the nerves (such as rapid heartbeat and shaky hands), you want to work on relaxing yourself.
This is going to be the first part of changing your focus. Just a second ago I said you want to accept your anxiety. Once you do, it's time to turn your attention onto something else. Working to get yourself relaxed can be that something else.
One of the best ways I've found to relax yourself when you're feeling anxious is count breathing. This is where you breathe in for a certain count and out for a certain count.
For example, in for a count of four and out for a count of eight.
This helps you relax in two ways: first, the deep breaths themselves promote relaxation and a calmer mind. Second, by focusing on the numbers, you are taking your attention off your nerves and the outcome you are worried about.
Tip #3: Narrow Your Focus
Since sports anxiety is driven by worries about the outcome, to reduce these nerves you want to turn your attention onto the process.
The process of your performance involves all the steps that lead to the outcome. So really, if you want to get a result in a game, you should be giving your full attention to the process, since it's what will lead you to the result.
I always like to compare the outcome of a game to a completed puzzle. Your process is all the pieces that fit together to make up the completed puzzle.
You can wish and wish all you want for that puzzle to be done, but until you actually focus on putting each piece in its correct spot, it's not going to happen.
But how does this change in focus reduce your nerves and anxiety? Well, when you're worried and worried about how you're going to play, if you can let that go and focus on the process, you won't be worrying so much anymore.
In addition, outcomes are not fully within your control during games. And when things aren't fully in our control, we turn to something that is...worrying.
So another good thing about the process is that the process you will focus on is within your control. You are giving your mind something it can control to focus on.
To narrow your focus onto the process I like using performance objectives. These are targets you set for yourself before games and also practices.
Here's a video that goes into more detail on how you can set performance objectives for yourself:
If you're an athlete who's dealt with a lot of nerves and anxiety before games, you likely wonder where this comes from and why it's there...especially if it leads to you underperforming.
Just remember, the reason you're anxious before games is because you are thinking too much about the outcome and worrying about what may or may not happen during the game.
To help, there are three tips you can apply: accept your nervousness, relax your mind with count breathing, and turn your attention onto the process.
Now, if you feel like you need additional support with managing your sports performance anxiety, please fill out the form below to learn how one-on-one mental performance coaching can help.
Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all that you do.
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