Sports anxiety, also sometimes called “performance anxiety,” is an incredibly common problem that affects athletes from the junior leagues to the professionals.
Take, for instance, the Indiana Pacers. Steve Curtis, a specialist in sports and performance psychology, recently observed that the root of the struggling team’s problem was performance anxiety.
Curtis explained a downward spiral effect in which poor performance can lead to egocentrism, self-judgment, a lack of awareness of the team, and tunnel vision. These are all signs of high levels of anxiety. Once the anxiety hits, the mental block translates into real physical problems. The body can even lock up in response to the stress.
Another sports psychologist, Rob Bell, agreed that the Pacers were getting anxious. He pointed the finger at the players’ lack of self-confidence and confidence in their teammates, both of which led to over-thinking and an impenetrable wall of anxiety.
The good news is that excessive anxiety can be overcome with dedication and practice.
Symptoms of Sports Anxiety
Your anxiety will begin in your mind, but your body will quickly begin to show side effects, too.
The anxiety will usually start with fear, nervousness, and an inability to concentrate. Soon after, you may get sweaty palms, a racing heartbeat, shivering or trembling, nausea, dry mouth and a constricted throat.
At its worst, anxiety may leave you short of breath, dizzy or faint, which can be completely disabling. Once you reach this level, you may be out of the game altogether. That’s why it’s important to get a hold of the anxiety before it gets out of control.
When you feel anxious, you may forget plays. You may slack on proper form. Your reaction times may slow. You may lose awareness of your surroundings and thus become unable to respond effectively. In response to the fear signals your brain is sending out, your entire body may lock up in a stiff position, similar to a “deer frozen in headlights.”
A player who suffers from sports anxiety over a long period of time may begin to lost interest in the game. Anxiety can be exhausting, and the constant fear of having anxiety at the worst possible moment can actuallyinduce anxiety. To get a sense of your anxiety level, you can take the Sport Competition Anxiety Test to see how often you exhibit some of the more common warning signs.
So how do sports psychologists recommend athletes overcome sports anxiety?
Yes, you can overcome sports anxiety, at least to the extent that it negatively affects your performance. A mild level of nervousness is completely normal and can actually help you get motivated and stay focused. Our concern here is excessive or problematic anxiety that you or your coach feel may be preventing you from doing your best.
6 Simple Ways to Combat Sports Anxiety
Here are the best skills to help cope with sports anxiety. These tips are universal enough for any athlete to get started in controlling their nerves.
Practice imagery or visualization techniques during practice, at home, and before you begin a game or competition. Mental imagery is, in its most basic form, simply imagining things going well. This positive thinking should help override the negative thoughts, like fear of failure, which can induce anxiety.
Slow, Deep Breathing
Breathe slowly with your diaphragm to get full breaths. Make sure to inflate your stomach instead of keeping the air in your chest. You can focus on counting to 10 for each breath or on a positive mental imagery. The goal here is to relax your body and mind by lowering your heart rate and focusing on your physiological and mental sense of calmness.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
If you feel your muscles and joints seizing up thanks to anxiety, tense a specific muscle for 10 seconds and then relax the muscle as fully as you can for 20 seconds. You can work your way through all of your muscles or target specific areas. You may even be able to practice this during the game in short bursts.
Get the Nervous Energy Out
If the relaxation approaches don’t work, try burning off the anxiousness through jumping, shaking, or stretching. Try to not do anything too strenuous; if you increase your heart rate too much, it may just feed into the feelings of anxiety.
Limit Caffeine and Sugar
For players who recognize a long-term anxiety issue, it is important to avoid caffeine and sugar the day of any important events. To maintain your energy, try eating complex carbohydrates and lean proteins a few hours beforehand.
Practicing meditation on a daily basis may help you recognize and pass through feelings of anxiety without giving into them. There are many paths to an effective state of meditation, but it can be helpful to focus on what clinical psychologist Robert Puff calls “Anytime, Anywhere Meditation.” This type of meditative state can be reached on the field to help you clear your mind and refocus on the task at hand.
Remember: Anxiety is defined as an “uncertainty in how to cope with stress.” Your greatest asset to combat anxiety is to know how to cope with stress. Stress will come to any athlete, and this may cause a slight or moderate feeling of unease. The trick is to rein in the stress before it becomes anxiety.
There are hundreds of coping skills that have been developed in the field of psychology, but each athlete will need to find his or her own weaknesses in order to practice the corresponding coping skills. Ask yourself what the source of your stress is.
Where to Start the Process
A good place to start in defining your weaknesses is by taking the Coping & Stress Management Skills Test sponsored by Psychology Today. From there, you can search for more specific creative, physical, and mental exercises that help with combating negative thought patterns, low self-esteem, lack of motivation, inability to focus, and other contributing factors of anxiety.
Don’t forget to think outside the box. Some athletes find that painting or drawing can help them release pent up emotional energy. Some find that listening to classical music rather than pump-you-up music can help. Still other athletes find that journaling their thoughts before a game can help them release any extra emotional baggage that may weigh them down during their performance. Be creative and find relaxing, enjoyable ways to calm your mind.
It can also help to encourage your teammates to share their anxious feelings as well as any tools they’ve found helpful for coping. Sometimes simply admitting the anxiety to understanding peers is enough to help alleviate the pressure. For a lot of athletes, though, sports anxiety is almost a taboo subject that may be erroneously seen as weakness or ineptness. If you feel this stigma is present on your team, approach your coach with the idea of running an informational session on the normalness of sports anxiety, even in professional athletes. This presentation can include tips and tricks to keep the distracting feelings from developing into a physical obstacle.
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