One of the biggest challenges athletes face on a daily basis is synchronizing their minds and bodies so they are able to play in the zone. Unfortunately, when athletes experience pressure, they often “tighten up” as a result—leading to less-than-optimal athletic performances. When athletes experiences pressure, tasks that used to be routine can all of a sudden seem almost impossible to perform. The end result: athletic performances far below the athlete’s potential.
Why athletes tighten up
If you tighten up as an athlete, it helps to know why it occurs so that you can minimize the chances of anxiety taking you out of your game in the future. If you do not address your mental toughness and ability to handle anxiety, it is unlikely you will ever reach your full athletic potential. For this reason, sport psychologists spend a lot of time helping athletes develop their self-confidence—especially as it applies to handling sports pressure.
The easiest way to explain why athletes tighten up is to outline a basic working model on “choking” and anxiety:
1. PERCEPTION. The first thing that normally triggers the tightening up response is an athlete’s perception of fear and self-doubt. When you are afraid of the competition, doubt your ability to be successful, or fear losing to an opponent, you are experiencing negative pressure.
2. REACTION. When athletes perceive competition as pressure (rather than as a healthy challenge), thinking becomes distorted and bodies respond with a slew of physiological symptoms, including shortness of breath, tense muscles, rapid heart beat, and sometimes upset stomach. In addition to these physical symptoms, distorted thinking can include negative self-talk and poor focus and concentration. Obviously, none of these things help with athletic success.
3. OUTCOME. Perceived fear and distorted thinking leads to low self confidence, and inevitably poor on-field play. As you might have guessed, when this occurs, the athlete usually feels even more self-doubt and fear, which leads to even more tightening up. It’s a vicious cycle, causing what most of us know as a “slump.”
Tips for improvement
So what can you do to prevent tightening up? Below are a few mental toughness tips that can immediately help:
- Minimize your fear by viewing your competition as a challenge. You get to decide how you perceive things in your life, so choose wisely. When you view sports competition as a challenge for you to play your best, your focus and confidence improve, and your anxiety decreases.
- If you feel like you are tightening up, try using controlled deep breathing coupled with positive self-talk. Take 2 or 3 deep breaths into your belly and say positive things to yourself. Soon you will experience firsthand that it is impossible to stay at a high-anxiety state while at the same time controlling your nerves by using deep breathing.
- Keep in mind that the only reason your body tightens up is because you have prompted it to; in other words, when you think you are going to be dealing with pressure as the game approaches, your body will react and respond accordingly by panicking.
- Even if you do tighten up early in a game, that does not mean you will be tight for the duration. Stop, breath, think positive thoughts, and remind yourself that you have tightened up only because of how you perceived the situation. Re-frame the game in your mind, and before you know it you will be on your way to loosening up and achieving success.
While virtually every athlete battles nerves and anxiety, not every athlete succumbs to the negative effects of pressure. Where some athletes falter because of their own thinking, other athletes turn tough situations into healthy challenges and benefit from better confidence, focus, and ultimately better on-field results. Begin winning the mental game, and soon you will see your game take off to the next level.
anxiety, athletes, choking, focus, mental, nerves, perception, preparation, psychology, sports, Stress