While it might be unfair, Rick Ankiel is more known to baseball fans as a player who regularly struggled with the mental side of the game (known in lay-terms as “the yips”), instead of the super-talented player he was over the course of his career. Ankiel not only was an above-average outfielder, but he was also at one time a pitcher with great potential –a rarity in a sport that spans over 150 years.
Since Ankiel’s mental challenges have been widely known, it probably came as little surprise to people this week when he admitted to drinking before games in order to calm his nerves. To the average fan this confession might be shocking, but to sport psychologists Ankiel’s use of alcohol to control nerves isn’t surprising at all. In fact, Ankiel’s revelation demonstrates the importance of mental toughness, the very real on-field problems that occur when mental toughness weakens, and the lengths some players will go in order to numb their nerves so they can play their best.
Sports anxiety symptoms
Rick Ankiel’s story, as sad as it is, can serve as a teachable moment to the millions of athletes out there right now struggling with sports anxiety. Some of the more common signs and symptoms of sports anxiety include the following:
- Distorted thinking. Athletes who struggle with sports anxiety often deal with distorted, or scrambled, thinking. When this occurs the focus shifts away from what is relevant and controllable (i.e. breathing before each play and focusing on the next pitch) and redirects to things that are irrelevant and uncontrollable (the fans, or how quickly the coach will replace you).
- Physiological responses. When athletes are nervous the body often responds with shallow breathing, rapid heart rate, tense muscles, and stomach butterflies. When athletes don’t learn how to control these responses, mind-body synchrony is disrupted and the athlete usually ends up playing scared and below his or her potential and abilities.
- Playing to “avoid losing.” A successful mindset is to play to WIN every time you go out to the field. When athletes struggle with anxiety, however, the mindset quickly changes from playing to win to playing to avoid losing. While this might seem like a subtle change, it is often the single biggest difference between average and good, and good and great.
- Perfectionism. When athletes try to play perfectly they actually set themselves up to experience even more anxiety. This makes sense when you think about it — none of us are perfect, and if we don’t accept this reality we will soon be faced with stress, adversity, and frustration (and more anxiety) when we do inevitably fail.
- Poor coping/resiliency. When we recognize that nerves are normal and simply a part of healthy competition, only then can we develop effective coping mechanisms for those moments where our thinking becomes distorted and our bodies succumb to the physiology of anxiety.
Most athletes struggle with anxiety
While you might only think of Rick Ankiel and a short list of other famous players who once struggled with the yips, the truth is the majority of athletes deal with sports anxiety in varying degrees. Unfortunately, we tend to only hear of famous athletes who have trouble with nerves, but there are athletes on every team at every skill level across the country right now that can blame nerves for missed free throws, dropped balls, errors in the field, and defensive fouls due to lapses in mental toughness. In fact, sports anxiety is the single biggest factor that prevents athletes from reaching their full athletic potential.
What to do if you’re dealing with sports anxiety
One challenge many athletes have is letting their guard down and admitting they need help. I think this do-it-alone mindset develops over time from the many instances where athletes are expected to work harder and longer in order to beat the competition, and a lot of this extra effort occurs by themselves and during their own time. In essence, a machismo mindset develops where success is directly tied to working harder, even if it means working alone, and seeking outside help is often viewed as a weakness rather than a smart, strategic move.
If you struggle with sports anxiety the first thing is to admit you are human and faced with a problem. Until you make this admission, nothing else I say here will make any bit of difference. If, however, you acknowledge the mental side of your game could use some help, I have 2 big tips for you to consider:
- Try learning sport psychology anxiety-reducing skills. There are countless very effective mental toughness tools and techniques that can help you beat anxiety, including deep breathing, imagery, positive self-talk, and cue word utilization. For more information check out this resource to help you get started.
- Seek professional assistance. Admitting you are having anxiety problems is the biggest step, seeking help is the easy part! Check to see if there are sport psychologists or other mental health professionals trained in anxiety-reduction in your town and set up an initial consultation to discuss your situation.
Sports anxiety is a common occurrence in sports, but it doesn’t have to hold you back from becoming the best player you can be. Be honest about your situation, accept feedback from trusted people in your life, and be proactive about finding solutions to help.
What resources helped you beat sports anxiety? Do you have any additional tips for athletes dealing with sports anxiety right now?