Human fear can be a really tough thing to deal with, and this is especially true in sports. In fact, sport psychology studies regularly show that when athletes become fearful they often change their entire outlook and paradigm with respect to mental toughness – quickly going from “playing to win” to “playing to avoid losing.” If you are an athlete, then you already know that when confidence decreases and anxiety increases, the chances for success become greatly reduced.
Acknowledging that fear impacts sports performance is probably not much of a surprise to anyone, but did you know that fear can be broken down into two types — real fear and irrational fear. In both cases otherwise talented athletes can be reduced to average (or even below average) if they are unable to adequately respond to the fear they experience.
The first type of fear, real fear, is the type of fear that is you might think of when you are legitimately in harms way. For example, in contact sports there are certainly things an athlete might fear, including the pain associated with a crushing tackle or block. Interestingly though, this is not the type of fear most athletes struggle with in my experience.
The second type of fear, irrational fear, is when an athlete allows non-threatening factors to impact his or her thinking. Examples of irrational fear — or threats to one’s ego, not necessarily physical well being — include worrying about the other team, the athlete’s coach, or even the fans in the crowd. As you can see, in each of these examples there is no physical threat, yet many athletes still experience fear nonetheless.
Fear > Anxiety
What is truly amazing is that regardless of the type of fear an athlete experiences, the body will respond in the same exact way with physiological anxiety. Think about that for a moment – your body will react with the same increased heart rate, shallow breathing, butterflies in the stomach, and tense muscles whether you are running to safety or simply nervous about what the coach might do if you mess up a play! In other words, anxiety has no preference when it comes to whether human beings are experiencing real or irrational fear.
Irrational Fear in Real-Life
Have you ever been nervous about going on a date? Or how about a job interview? What about going to watch a scary movie? In each of these examples there is obviously little “real” fear we should experience, as none of these examples should put us in harms way. Still, we often become very nervous in these situations, even though when we think rationally we really shouldn’t be worried at all.
Goals for Athletes
Since we know irrational fear can be a major hindrance to athletes and their athletic success, it is imperative that dedicated efforts be made to prepare for and respond to the times when irrational fear rears it’s ugly head. “Forewarned is Forearmed” is one way to approach the situation — in other words, if you know that you will likely feel nervous playing in front of big crowds, then it makes sense to develop skills to help for when those situations occur (relaxation skills work very well). Athletes who do nothing to prepare for this type of stress usually experience it time and time again (as you might expect). This is sad as often it is the anxiety, and not the athlete’s true talents, that play the biggest role in whether the athlete succeeds.
Think about the impact that fear has on athletic success — and especially how irrational fear prompts the same type of response as real fear does. If you want to take your game to the next level, it is imperative that you work to minimize irrational fear, and as a result confidence will increase (which is a variable closely associated with athletic success!).
Check out Mind of Steel for help with relaxation strategies and techniques, as well as many more sport science training skills!