When you step onto the field, your nerves might get the best of you. Despite your best efforts to avoid it, performance anxiety is a common issue for athletes at all levels. In fact, anxiety is common in everyday life too.
Performance anxiety is also known as ‘competitive anxiety’. It’s kind of like stage fright in that physical symptoms include a racing heart, nausea, sweating, and other symptoms like feelings of anxiety and a general feeling of dread.
It can be especially challenging for young athletes who are just starting out and may not be used to playing in front of an audience. Perhaps they have a fear of failure or don’t know how to cope with the pressures of competitive sports.
Thankfully there are ways to cope with performance anxiety and even prevent it from happening again. Here are five tips for overcoming sports performance anxiety.
Practice, practice and more practice
Practice isn’t just running drills, it’s a chance to get comfortable with the pressures of the game, whatever game you might be playing.
If you’re new to the sport and feeling on edge, try visualising yourself going through the motions. Run through scenarios and drills until you’re confident. This kind of mental rehearsal will allow you to get comfortable with the sport and the coach’s instructions, but it will also help you mentally prepare for the game and lower your anxiety levels.
When you’re feeling that pressure, you don’t have to rely on instinct. Instead, you can go through it in your head so you know what to do when the time comes.
If you’re an experienced player, but you’re still experiencing performance anxiety, try breaking down what makes you nervous. Is the game too important? Are you worried about letting your teammates down? Are you afraid of getting injured? Once you identify what makes you anxious, you can start finding ways to deal with that anxiety.
According to Sports Studies professionals, one of the best ways to calm your nerves is to slow your breathing. Taking deep, controlled breaths can calm your nerves, lower your heart rate and help you refocus. If you’re having trouble slowing down your breath, try placing your hand on your stomach. As you breathe in and out, imagine your stomach rising and falling.
If your anxiety has already taken hold, try the same deep breathing exercises to calm yourself down in the moment. As you take in a deep breath, try to think about something other than the game. Focus on the way your body feels, the rhythm of your breath, or even the floor under your feet.
Have a pre-game ritual
A ritual is basically a fancy word for a pre-game habit. It can be something simple, like eating the same meal before every game. Or, if that doesn’t work for you, consider something more involved like a visualisation exercise. Whatever it is, make it a habit before every game.
If you’ve already tried a few different pre-game rituals and nothing’s working, don’t be afraid to try something new. It’s important to find what works for you and what doesn’t so you can make sure you’re prepared for game day.
One way for top-level athletes to overcome their pre-game anxiety is to listen to music. Do you have a particular song or artists that gets you hyped for the game? Or maybe try something more calming that can help you recentre and relax before things start.
Talk to your coach or mentor
If you’re having trouble overcoming competitive anxiety and it’s becoming a problem, reach out to your coach or mentor. They might be able to offer some advice or help you find ways to calm your nerves down. If you’re feeling overwhelmed and need someone to talk to, they can be a great resource and they’ve likely dealt with it before so they know the best way to help.
Not only can they help you get through your nerves, but they can also help you find ways to prevent them from happening again. If you’re nervous about talking to your coach or mentor, consider talking to a therapist. A mental health professional can help you work through your anxiety and develop new coping strategies that are right for you.
Exercise and diet
Exercise is a great way to ease anxiety and lower your stress levels, especially when it comes to tackling sports performance anxiety. Exercise helps you focus on the game once the clock starts ticking. If you’re finding it difficult to focus on the game and your nerves are getting the best of you, try going for a quick jog or walk around the field to take yourself out of the moment.
If you’re in the middle of a game and your nerves are taking over, try squeezing your muscles, especially in your legs. Squeezing and releasing your muscles helps regulate your nervous system, which can make it easier to focus.
As for your diet, there aren’t any specific foods that will ease your nerves. Instead, the goal is to eat well and eat regularly, so you don’t get too hungry and end up making bad decisions. Focusing on eating healthy, whole foods can also help you stay calm, focused and ready to perform.
Elite professional athletes have carefully planned diets. The consistency not only helps physiologically (your body) but also psychologically (your mind) too.
Don’t let your anxiety control you
Sometimes negative thinking, anxiety and nervousness are unavoidable, but they don’t have to control you. While you can’t always control how you feel, you do have the power to control how you react to those feelings.
When you experience performance anxiety, try these tips to calm your nerves and get ready to perform your best. Remember, at the end of the day, your health is more important than a game.