Athlete Anxiety is one of the primary causes of performance mishaps, especially when the game is on the line. Regardless of what sport you coach, once the competition begins, it is up to the athletes. You’ve spent months, maybe years training them. They are physically ready but can they make the big play when the chips are down? Unfortunately, most athletes aren't ready to handle the game winning shot or save the day. Why? Because they haven’t acclimated to the pressure of big moments.
"Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterward." - Vernon Law
Imagine for a second that you are a softball coach. Your team has performed up and down most of the season but has really turned it on lately, beating some teams you had previously lost to. Somehow you and your program find yourselves in the conference championship game. Early in the game, your team got up early, but your opponent, a veteran team that makes the tournament every year battled back and, by the 7th inning, your previous large lead had diminished to one run. A few errors and missed opportunities on both sides managed to keep the score from moving. With one more out, you and your team go on to the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history.
With one more base hit, you go home and your season ends. These are the moments that make up a sports career: moments that contain both the possibility of the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat. And everyone knows it—you know it, the fans know it and most importantly, the players on the field know it.
It all depends on what they’ve done before this moment. By practicing how to manage arousal states and confidence, you can axe athlete anxiety.
How athlete anxiety presents itself can be broken into two primary categories: mental and physical.
Both types of anxiety can be managed for optimal performance and be perceived as cues from which to cultivate confidence! [Tweet "Practice makes perfect. Practice your #confidence to win the big game!]
Let’s dive in a little deeper into the softball game you are coaching and focus on the pitcher. While there are myriad of possible responses to this situation, let’s talk about the worst and best by looking at two different players’ reactions: Confident Carey and Anxious Andy. Situation Recap:
What we see is that given the same circumstances, Confident Carey is able to cultivate confidence because of the necessary preparation and mindset that she has practiced ahead of time. It’s not that she didn’t feel the rush of negativity and pressure, it’s that she had the tools to deal with them.
Anxious Andy, on the other hand, was rattled by the circumstances, which led to a lack of confidence in her ability. She didn’t have the necessary routines and tools in place to deal with the flood of thoughts and emotions.
While it could be argued that some of their differences are due to innate tendencies, relatively recent advances in our understanding of the brain shows us that preparation leads to preparedness. Which, as a coach, is no doubt a concept you are familiar with. In other words, the difference is that Carey has done the mental work ahead of time to respond in the most productive way during the most intensive circumstances. In training, she’s felt that negative thought loop start and been able to PRACTICE bringing herself back to a positive mindset.
[Tweet "Preparation leads to preparedness #athletes #anxiety"]
The circumstances are neutral. We place the value on them and we assess our ability to meet the demands, therefore our mentality is a choice. We need to practice positive thinking. Having prepared for intensive situations by engaging in cognitive practices and attending to physical arousal will cultivate your athletes’ confidence going into and during competitions. This is partly why physical practice is so important- the feeling of being prepared is real. The flip side of that is you can practice until you are blue in the face but if you don’t go into competition with the mindset that you are prepared, that preparation was all for nothing. So, what can be done to ensure your athletes have the tools they need to execute when the pressure is on?
Athletes should identify their optimum level of arousal—where physical arousal is at an ideal level and their thoughts are positive and focused on the present. This will differ for every athlete as a golfers’ optimal physical arousal is likely different from a defensive lineman in football. What is important is that the athlete feels energized for their competition and their thoughts are positive and focused. This takes practice. Paying specific attention to one’s thoughts and physical signs before practices, matches, and any other time circumstances lead to heightened arousal, is essential to determining optimal arousal.
As we develop, the more we use the pathways in our brains, the more our brain tries to make their use more efficient. Our brain is wired with pathways that fire faster and faster with repetition (also known as neuroplasticity). Therefore, engaging in cognitive strategies to make positive thoughts and positive thinking readily available can be an effective way to stop anxious and negative thinking before, but especially during competition. This can be done by establishing a list of:
By establishing these sources of positivity, picking a few to recite regularly, day in and day out—and especially before going into and during practices and smaller competitions—you can access positive thinking faster and more easily and break the cycle of negative thinking suffered by Anxious Andy. Note: The principle of brain development and the Super Highways that come from repeated use of thoughts also applies to behaviors and emotions. Therefore how you practice, physically and mentally, will be likely to translate to how you play.
Remember it’s our perception of our ability to meet the demands of a situation that causes our anxiety. So then, by changing the perceived gravity of the situation, the demands will seem lessened, which will lead to feeling more capable of meeting those demands. Potential types of reframing statements could include:
By engaging in these strategies, athletes will be able to identify their optimal arousal level both mentally and physically and then have the tools to deal with the stressors that will inevitably arise. No athlete will need to utilize every single tool we suggested but all athletes can benefit from implementing some of the following into their existing routines.
Both anxiety and confidence are perceptions. Be intentional about employing strategies to cultivate confidence and axe anxiety today so that your athletes are fully prepared, mentally and physically, for the ‘game-winning pitch’ of tomorrow.