4 Tips for Coping with Performance AnxietyMay 01, 2022
[Please note: This article is about worry, stress, and nerves in sports, NOT clinical anxiety or depression. If you experience clinical symptoms, please consult a professional]
As a parent, it’s hard to let my kids struggle.
It goes against every instinct I have to sit by watching their little fingers try to open a snack pack, or awkwardly crawl up onto the couch face-first. And when something doesn’t go their way, It’s hard not to pick them up the moment they cry and try distract them from their feelings.
But I resist. I have to resist because every time I cave in, I’m sending them the message that being sad or uncomfortable is a bad thing.
So, I’m learning to only offer my hand when they ask for it. I'm learning to sit with them in their sadness, and work through my own discomfort with hard feelings.
It's true for parenting and it's true for sports.
I used to hate it when well-meaning parents tried to quell my disappointment by saying, "It's just a game!" after a tough loss. All it did was minimize my pain, thus minimizing how much I cared about my sport.
It made me feel alone.
But, these so-called “negative” emotions are all part of the deal when you’re an athlete. They reflect how much you care. When an athlete stops feeling these things, that's when you should worry.
If YOU struggle with performance anxiety, it doesn’t mean that something’s wrong with you. And it doesn’t mean you’re not ALSO mentally tough. It means you’re human and you really care about your sport.
I believe that carving out space for emotional discomfort in sports is important, and we don't talk about it enough. Not only is it unavoidable, the tough stuff is a big part of what makes the good stuff so damn good.
It's time to teach athletes to understand, cope with, and even use performance anxiety to their benefit. Here are 4 tips.
1. Normalize "Negative Emotions"
Everyone gets anxious, and nobody wants to talk about it.
It’s important to create a team culture that normalizes performance anxiety, acknowledges the hard stuff, and accepts that difficult emotions are a part of every athlete (and coach) experience.
One of the best ways to normalize “negative emotions” is to model vulnerability.
Talk about your failures openly. Share about times you struggled as an athlete. Better still, acknowledge your current emotions.
Next time you lose your cool during a game, own it and say “Hey, I was feeling xyz, I let my nerves get to me. Here’s my plan to do better next time…” This will help your athletes see nerves and failure as part of journey and a conduit for learning rather than something that is shameful or embarrassing. It will also give your athletes a script to help them express their emotions.
2. Name Your Physical Response
Anytime you do something that is outside the norm, your body reacts. In fact, you might feel the exact same butterflies when you make a free throw as you do when you arrive at a fun party. It’s just your body’s way of preparing you for something out of the ordinary.
You alone assign meaning to your physical response.
Positive Performance Insider and Certified Mindset Coach, Amy Holt Oliphant explains it well:
“I remind my athletes that all feelings are only feelings until you give them value. You get to choose how you interpret them. You can interpret those butterflies as “Oh no, I am nervous, I am not going to play well” or “yes, I am excited and ready to go”. For me, I interpret nerves as being itchy. When I am itchy, it means that something big and meaningful is about to happen.”
3. Stop Judging Your Thoughts
One of the most beautiful lessons in meditation is this: Your thoughts don’t define you.
Intrusive thoughts are your body’s way of processing what’s going on, protecting you from physical or emotional pain, and preparing your body for optimal performance. When you resist your thoughts and try to drown them out, they only become more persistent.
Take a note from the top meditation gurus and stop trying to control your thoughts. Let your thoughts come and go. Look at them with curiosity, feel them, name them, thank them for trying to keep you safe, and give them permission to go.
4. Create Routines for Preparation
Nothing is more nerve wracking than showing up to competition unprepared. Study the playbook, practice overtime, watch game tape, do your visualizations, get in the zone. Practice, practice, practice.
When you step on the field, anything can happen (that’s part of what makes sports so fun!) but the more you prepare, the less room you have to fall.
NFL Reporter, Stacey Dales, credits a lot of her success to her extensive preparation. In our episode of The MCA Podcast, Stacey shared with us that she believes in “Expecting greatness and also expecting that failure will happen”. This hopeful-yet-realistic mentality allows Stacey to focus on what’s in her control (her preparation).
In addition to putting time into practice, it’s important to have a pre-game routine as well. This routine will help you anchor yourself to the present moment and get into a calm, centered, and focused headspace. We recommend The BRAVR Method, our cornerstone 5-minute daily focusing exercise, used by thousands of athletes and coaches around the world.
It’s time we make room for conversations about performance anxiety in sports. It is the great unifier, from little league sports, to the olympics, and the pros.
We hope you’ll take these tips to heart and work with us to create a culture that creates space for tough (yet perfectly normal) things like performance anxiety. Together, we can show athletes that they're not alone and give them permission to feel pain, joy, and all the big, complex emotions in sports.
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