Often when I work with athletes and examine performance enhancement strategies, fear and self-doubt are quickly identified as the reasons why the athlete is experiencing a slump, or failing to live up to his athletic potential. This finding is expected and makes perfect sense, as stress (which often stems from fear and anxiety) is inversely related with confidence (a variable positively correlated to maximizing athletic performance). Breaking this concept down into layman’s terms, when you are confident you play well, and when you are nervous you often allow fear and self-doubt to prevent you from playing your best.
Digging deeper with fear for a moment, did you know that it is almost always irrational fear that causes athletes excessive anxiety? As humans, we deal with two types of fear:
A) Real fear, the type of fear we experience when we are in harms way (like when an angry dog is chasing you; and
B) Irrational fear, the type of fear we experience although we are not in harms way (also known as “ego-fear”).
In sports, rarely do athletes experience real fear but they regularly feel the pressures relating from irrational fear. Some of the more common irrational fears athletes deal with include self-pressure from trying to impress a coach, teammates, or even parents; trying to perform well in front of a crowd, scouts, or college coaches; or worrying excessively about things like losing a starting position or possibly experiencing a serious injury. In all of these examples there is no real fear to worry about (meaning none of these things will actually physically hurt you), but the interesting thing is that the irrational fear works on our minds and bodies in the same way as real fear does. In other words, when we deal with irrational fear (like worrying about a coach), we still feel anxiety through symptoms like shallow breathing, tense muscles, and fast heart-rate — just like how we do when we deal with real fear!
Sport psychologists who use a cognitive-behavioral approach to counseling spend a lot of time helping athletes understand how much of the stress they experience is due to irrational fear, and by conquering irrational fear the result is often greater self-confidence — and superior play on the field. In fact, when we talk about “mental toughness,” what we really mean is the athlete’s ability to minimize negative stress and anxiety — which often comes about by minimizing irrational fear.
For more information about how to conquer irrational fear and play your best, check out The Mental Toughness Guide to Athletic Success or the Athlete’s Tool kit.