What do you do moments before a big game when your heart is racing, your breathing becomes shallow, and your muscles become tense and tight?? When the symptoms of pressure set in, otherwise talented athletes end up choking and playing below their natural abilities. As you can see from this example, the importance of controlling nerves and anxiety can not be over-stated, and it is often an athlete’s inability to deal with pressure that holds the athlete back from greatness.
Confidence & anxiety
There is a direct, inverse relationship between confidence and anxiety. What this means is the more confident you are, the less anxiety you will feel; and conversely, the more anxiety you feel, the less confidence you will experience. We also know that two of the most effective ways to improve confidence and decrease anxiety are by learning proven cognitive (thinking) and behavioral (doing) techniques that help athletes play in the zone.
Combining cognitive and behavioral approaches provides athletes the best opportunity to minimize anxiety as two very important things happen:
1.) Arousal, or human energy, can be modified by using cognitive and behavioral approaches, and
2.) Any self-efforts to decrease nerves provides the user with a sense of control (a variable closely linked to stress reduction), as well as re-directs focus away from the anxiety source (i.e. the opposing team) toward relevant factors (i.e. the athlete’s focus on the upcoming game-plan).
Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) & self talk
It’s just moments before game time and you have butterflies that just won’t settle — what do you do?? Fortunately, the field of sport psychology offers practical, helpful cognitive and behavioral solutions. Progressive muscle relaxation is a very effective, efficient way to quickly relax your body and can be done just moments before games:
- Pick one muscle group at a time (i.e. your fists) and tighten and release for about 5 seconds (2-3 reps)
- Systematically go through your entire body one muscle group at a time until you have completed the exercise.
- As you do PMR, try and also regulate your breathing (inhale all the way to your stomach and hold for a few seconds before releasing).
PMR will absolutely help you slow down your body, and it will also help by turning your attention away from the things making you nervous (i.e. the big crowd). In fact, it’s actually impossible to remain nervous while doing PMR and deep breathing – try it for yourself and see.
In order to really maximize your relaxation efforts, you need to add one more important piece to the equation: Self talk. As you go through each body part and do your breathing, be sure to speak to yourself in positive, productive ways. For example, you might say things like:
- “I’m ready to go and have fully prepared for this moment.”
- “One play at a time until the final whistle.”
- “Lead by example and help my teammates play to their best of their abilities as I play to my full potential.”
Most athletes deal with nervous energy by simply “practicing harder” rather than addressing the real problem. This is unfortunate as athletes only reach their full potential when they are able to control nerves and channel their human arousal into confidence and the zone. Pre-game routines are very important to develop, and measures to control anxiety should be a big part of the pre-game routine.
What techniques have you used to conquer anxiety? If you have tried breathing, PMR, and self-talk how well have they worked for you?