Sports fear might be the single biggest variable that dictates the level of success an athlete will experience while competing, and this is especially true in youth athletics. Some examples of typical sports fear include anxieties around performance, physical contact (pain), experiencing an injury, or even embarrassment and humiliation related to not playing well enough to help the team win. In all of these situations fear and anxiety prevent excitement and confidence from developing, thereby limiting athletes from reaching their full potential. The key is for athletes to learn how to improve their mental toughness by applying proven sport psychology fear reduction techniques and concepts designed to help.
Generally speaking, we cannot experience two opposite emotions at the same exact time. How this applies to sports fear is quite simple:
You can’t be scared and confident at the same time, something has to give.
While there is debate to the degree in which emotions are learned versus genetic, what we do know is that fear is developed and strengthened by real-life experiences. For example, a young baseball player doesn’t really know that getting hit by a fastball is painful until he actually gets hit, and in the aftermath develops a stronger sense of fear moving forward with the hopes he doesn’t get hit again. Similarly, the same baseball player will only come to learn to fear future pressure situations after failing in one and witnessing his coaches and teammates let down by his performance.
Understanding rational and irrational fear
There are two types of fear athletes experience — rational fear is the type of fear that we experience when in harms way, like getting hit by a baseball. Irrational fear, however, is the type of fear rooted in anxiety over looking bad and being humiliated, not being physically hurt. Interestingly, most sports anxiety and fear falls into this category, and that’s actually great news.
Based on my clinical experiences, I have found that it’s a lot more challenging to help an athlete (especially young athletes) to work through the fear associated with real pain (like getting physically beat up in a boxing match, or getting slammed into the boards in hockey) compared to the many insecurities of irrational fear often experienced in sports. What if I strike out? What if I miss this next shot? What if I don’t get the time I need to help our team win? The list goes on and on when it comes to fears and anxieties associated with irrational fear in sports.
A key starting point when working to help a youngster overcome sports fear is to understand the concept of reciprocal inhibition, a theory that suggests anxiety is inhibited by a feeling or response that is not compatible with the feeling of anxiety. For example, it’s impossible to use imagery that helps you feel really good (perhaps thinking about one of your most fond memories), and at the same exact time feeling debilitating nerves relating to an upcoming sport experience (like making the next play). In this example, something has to “win,” either the positive imagery experience or the thoughts of failing in the moment, but both will not happen at the same exact time.
Helping your child (or kids you coach) overcome sports fear is an important task for parents and coaches, as most kids experience varying levels of sports fear that prohibits them from playing their best (not to mention have fun). Below are a few ideas and tips to help you get started with extinguishing sports fear:
- Be patient. In some cases sports fear has been slowly developed over time, while in other examples the fear came on much faster because of a vivid, and potentially painful experience (i.e. getting knocked out on the field from psychical contact). In either case, in the vast majority of instances it will take a little time (and practice of specific skills) before seeing fear subside.
- Chip away irrational fear. Remember, irrational fear is the type of fear stemming from potential humiliation and embarrassment, not physical pain. It is important to talk to kids about this type of fear, with a specific focus on how regularly we all deal with stress, adversity, frustration, and failure. As you normalize these human experiences it will help kids realize they are not alone or unique with their fears, and their new confidence by way of strength in numbers will begin to help their own battles with sports fear.
- Learn relaxation techniques. Psychologists sometimes use biofeedback as an objective measure to illustrate how much control we have over our physiology. For example, when we calm ourselves down through self-talk, deep breathing, imagery, or any other method, we immediately feel our bodies relax (heart rate decreases, muscles relax, etc). The point is we have ample evidence that we can self-calm, now we just need to learn how to do it in specific situations and consistently.
- Remember fear and anxiety can be minimized! Piggy-backing off the last point, if a youngster is still struggling with sports fear it is important to revisit whether he or she is actually using relaxation techniques! In other words, you can’t just try deep breathing once or twice and if it doesn’t immediately work throw it out the window. Instead, remember that calming the body is incompatible with staying nervous, making it important to stay with the plan rather than give up quickly. More simply, if a kid is still struggling with sports fear, you can almost guarantee he isn’t using the techniques recommended here.
- Chart your progress. As you work on beating sports fear, it is important to journal daily victories along the way. As you experience small success, your confidence will grow and your fear level will reduce as a result.
Sports fear is easy to fall victim to, and the consequences can be immediate and dramatic. The good news is that every athlete, regardless of fear or phobia, can improve upon conditions by understanding fear and applying established cognitive-behavioral approaches to help.