Sports anxiety is the #1 reason why athletes fail to live up to their full athletic potential, and is also the #1 frustration for sports parents and coaches when witnessing an athlete perform below what the athlete is capable of achieving. It is a common occurrence for me to talk to parents and coaches who tell me how great a kid hits a golf ball on the driving range, how consistent a kid hits baseballs in a batting cage, or how successful a kid is at making free throws in an open gym — but then performs poorly when it comes to real matches and games.
Why is it that an athlete performs at a high level in one setting, but then far differently in another setting where the task is virtually the same? In other words, a golfer who makes great contact at the range is faced with the same task in a real match, the baseball player uses the same bat and faces the same kind of pitching in a real game, and the basketball player uses the same ball and basketball hoop in games as he or she does in practice. Still, performances can — and often do — vary dramatically with the same athlete in different situations. The following classic clip from the 1986 movie Hoosiers further illustrates how the game doesn’t change, but how athletes perceive the game can lead to undue anxiety:
Anxiety is nothing more than the body responding to perceived threats. When we experience situations that prompt us to doubt our abilities, we feel many physiological symptoms, including rapid breathing, increased heart rate, tense muscles, and butterflies in the stomach. These body alarms also trigger our thinking, specifically as this pertains to “fight or flight.” In the very moment we feel a threat, we must make a decision to either gather our strength and try to overcome the threat, or retreat in fear and try and avoid the situation or confrontation. The key point is that our human perception triggers anxiety (or no anxiety), as well as directs us whether to use our strength and overcome, or succumb to the situation and hope to escape.
Real or irrational fear?
An interesting point that should be made when describing anxiety and fear is that our human perception is not always accurate, and at times can even be very distorted. For example, while it makes perfect sense to try and escape the dangers of a bear charging at you in the woods (rational fear), it doesn’t make a lot of sense for us to experience nerves that literally prevent us from properly shooting a basketball at a hoop (irrational fear). Real fear is derived from previous knowledge attained or direct experience that tells us we could be in danger; irrational fear occurs when we fear we could be embarrassed, humiliated, or exposed in some way (but, unlike real fear, not in any real danger).
Ironically, the net result is it really doesn’t matter if our anxiety is triggered by real or irrational fear as our minds and bodies respond in the same exact way. What this means, in simple terms, is that if we experience fear (regardless of source), our bodies will respond with rapid heart rate, shallow breathing, and tense muscles — all factors that prevent mind-body synchrony and prohibit us from performing our best.
Beating sports anxiety
In order to beat sports anxiety, it is important to first understand how we experience general anxiety (described above). Anxiety created from sport situations is simply one example of how our irrational thinking can (and often does) directly impact our ability to successfully perform a sport task (like hitting a baseball). This is an important lesson for all athletes, and one that can be taught to young athletes so that they can develop the mental toughness needed for success with their future athletic careers.
- Discuss anxiety in simple terms. Help athletes understand that there is no person or situation that makes them nervous, but instead that nerves are a product of their own thinking.
- Perception matters. When we look at situations as challenges rather than as threatening, only then can our minds and bodies work in synchrony and allow athletes to experience the same success in real games as they do in practice situations. The good news is that our perception of people, situations, and events are entirely up to us, and can be completely controlled by our thinking.
- Plan ahead. Help athletes think into the future about specific situations that they fear, and develop a pre-game approach to prepare for the likely anxiety. Imagery, self-talk, deep breathing, and progressive muscle relaxation are just a few examples of sport psychology techniques that can help.
- Practice in-vivo. Try to create as many real-life situations in practice as you can. Create distractions, make noise, and set up clutch game situations to mimic what you are likely to see when you play real competition.
Sports anxiety is the biggest reason why athletes fail to live up to their potential, yet sports anxiety is arguably one of the most overlooked pieces to helping athletes reach their full potential. While it may seem like a big deal when a kid plays perfectly in practice, unless he or she can carry over a confident mindset to real games then you might end up witnessing two very different levels of play. It is also important to note that when you see dramatic differences between practice and games, “practicing harder” is not the answer. Instead, practicing smarter by learning about how to beat sports anxiety is the real answer, and by developing these skills athletes will soon see their efforts in games match what they experience in practice situations.