The Top 5 Ways to Beat Sports Anxiety
When it comes to sport success, it’s often not how much potential talent you have, but instead how you use it. For example, you might be the best player in practice, but how do you play “when the lights are on” in pressure game situations? Countless otherwise talented athletes have fallen victim to their own negative thinking in big games, resulting in performances that don’t look anything like what the athlete is capable of achieving. The problem is sports anxiety, and it’s vitally important that athletes learn as much as they can about how anxiety develops — and what to do to beat anxiety.
The top 5 ways to beat sports anxiety
Human anxiety is commonly defined as intense, excessive, and persistent worry and fear about everyday situations. Increased heart rate, shallow breathing, excessive sweating, negative self-talk, stomach butterflies, and feeling excessively tired just a few of the more common symptoms people experience when dealing with anxiety — and none of these symptoms generally help improve athletic performance. In order to beat anxiety, you must first understand anxiety, and then learn proven methods to minimize the negative consequences of uncontrolled anxiety during sports.
- Understanding anxiety. First, it’s important to understand that anxiety isn’t something you contract or “catch,” nor do you possess anxiety in the absolute sense as I sometimes hear people say (i.e. “I have anxiety”). It might be best to think of anxiety as something we experience when we think and feel that things aren’t right — kind of like a defense system. In many examples anxiety serves us well, like when we feel anxious climbing a ladder and realizing that an injury could occur if we fall. In other instances, however, anxiety can hold us back — like when athletes worry so much that it distorts thinking and tightens muscles. The big takeaway here is to accept that anxiety is something we all experience, and that anxiety doesn’t need to be eliminated, but instead analyzed and controlled.
- Anxiety and human perception. Anxiety, just like excitement, is an emotional experience based on human perception. For example, if we believe we are in harms way (even if we’re not) our defense alarm system will trigger and lead to anxiety. Similarly, if we perceive that we like something, our system will release endorphins and create a euphoric experience. How we view things, people, and situations dictates how we react and respond physiologically.
- Moderating arousal. Arousal is human energy, and when we feel like we are being threatened arousal is experienced as anxiety. Fortunately, we can moderate arousal through thinking and behaviors, resulting in a different (and hopefully better) arousal state. Practically speaking, you might think of how you calm down before generally anxious situations – like going to the dentist. Your thinking and deep breathing likely helped you turn an otherwise terrifying situation into a more manageable one.
- Cognitive solutions. Sometimes you can simply think yourself to calmness, like when you use self-talk as a reminder that you are going to be OK even though the situation might be stressful. Imagery is another helpful tool for beating anxiety, and can be used to re-frame thinking away from bad thoughts and into more positive and productive thoughts.
- Behavioral solutions. Our bodies can also be directed to relax by purposely using deep breathing, or systematically going through our body tensing and relaxing each muscle group (also known as progressive muscle relaxation).
Simply put, if you don’t learn to control anxiety, you likely won’t reach your full athletic potential. Sport competition is full of pressure moments, and athletes who learn how to handle those moments succeed, while athletes who succumb to pressure fail to play their best. The good news is that sports anxiety can be improved upon, and by beating anxiety it allows athletes to maximize their abilities and win more games.