For many athletes, competing in practice-like situations allows them to play their best due mostly to the fact that there is little – if any – anxiety to be concerned about (Sport Success 360). Unlike games, where mental toughness can wax and wane, in practice situations there is little to lose so athletes often feel comfortable and play “all-out.” Interestingly, even though practice situations sometimes mirror real game situations, the artificiality of practices usually off-sets anxious thinking — leading to more synchronized and coordinated body movements and athletic plays. We call this kind of kid a great practice player (and usually struggle to figure out why he/she has trouble doing the same things in games!).
When athletes have difficulty controlling anxiety in games (even though the tasks are the same as in practice), the synchrony needed between mind and body suffers. It is in these moments where the mind tells the body to do something (like hit or catch a ball), yet the body either: a) doesn’t respond quick enough, b) responds too quickly and without focus and concentration, or c) doesn’t respond at all. None of these three conditions are good.
How Anxiety Interferes with Athletic Success
When anxiety acts on the body, it often manifests as a result of human perception (and becomes “pressure”). Instead of looking at situations with confidence, we tend to see things differently and often make the tasks out to be bigger than they really are in life. For example, the last batter of a baseball game may start to think that the entire outcome of the game (and possibly season) rests on his shoulders rather than viewing the at bat the same as he would any other time of the season. When the player begins to think he is solely responsible for success of the team, his thinking becomes extreme and he will try to do too much — instead of simply going through his regular pre-pitch routine and hitting basics. In addition to his change in thinking, his body will also work against him in the form of shallow breathing, tense and tight muscles, butterflies in the stomach, and a rapid heart rate. Instead of mind-body synchrony, he will experience mind-body chaos!
Thinking impacts mind-body synchrony, and how we perceive situations will trigger neurotransmitters in the brain that will either help us through the situation by allowing for perfect coordination between thinking and action, or will hurt us because of the lack of coordination between what the brain says and the body does. The good news about this is that anxiety can be controlled, and by controlling anxiety focus, coordination, and muscle synchrony will be improved. The bad news is that athletes who do not work on their mental toughness (especially as it applies to staying calm in stressful situations) will struggle to play the same in game as they do in practices. The solution? Athletes (and coaches) should learn as much as they can about the many sport psychology mental toughness skills available today, including arousal controlling techniques like breathing, imagery, cue words, and self talk. Our Mind of Steel audio programs are a great way to get started!