The moment before the big game has arrived. You might be feeling a roller coaster of emotions ranging from sheer excitement to debilitating fear. Rapid breathing, increased heart rate, sweaty palms, trembling hands, dry mouth, and a massive knot in your stomach – sounds familiar? If so, you’re likely experiencing one of the most common challenges that an athlete, and really any performer, struggles with during their careers.
According to a recent Gallup poll, about 40 percent of all adults in the U.S suffer from some degree of performance anxiety. While this number is alarming within itself, the prevalence is expected to be even higher in youths. This shouldn’t come as a surprise considering the ability to manage emotions comes from the greatest teacher of all, which is experience.
When the Pressure Arises
As any athlete will acknowledge, there’s nothing quite like the moment of stepping up to the free throw line, setting up a penalty kick, positioning yourself on the starting blocks, or kicking a field goal. Almost everybody will say that they want the opportunity to shine and become the hero, but nobody wants to carry the burden of losing on their shoulders. The simple fact is that a singular play never truly decides the outcome of a game, but many people (yes, I’m talking about common fans) choose to ignore all of the plays that preceded that pivotal moment.
Everyone becomes an expert in that very moment as critics voice their displeasure and do their best to say what they would have done. Only, they weren’t in the spotlight with all eyes on them. They weren’t feeling the overwhelming pressure. Their bodies didn’t begin working against them. Their minds weren’t flooded with destructive thoughts that quickly snowball into worst case scenarios. And this isn’t isolated to just athletes – we all feel it from time to time. Whether you’re giving a sales pitch, operating on a patient, trying to convince jurors that your client is innocent, or even going on a first date – performance anxiety doesn’t discriminate.
So, what can be done to manage these common performance-related challenges? While there are various options to choose from, we’re going to highly two specific methods that have been extensively researched and implemented by elite performers. The first method is meditation. Simply put, stress reduction is vital to optimizing one’s performance. By remaining calm under pressure and maintaining focus, you increase your likelihood of success. Through regular meditative practice, you gain insight into yourself and begin the process of having your body work for you, rather than against you. Phil Jackson, the legendary basketball coach who has amassed a total of 13 championships (11 as a coach and 2 as a player) regularly trained his team on meditation and believed, ““As much as we pump iron and we run to build our strength up, we need to build our mental strength up, so we can focus, so we can be in concert with one another.”
Just in case you need further proof, a study published in the Journal of Health Psychology showed that the results of meditation are associated with reduced stress levels in addition to decreased levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
The second tip for managing performance anxiety is guided imagery, which is commonly referred to as visualization. We’ve all done this at one point or another. For example, have you ever imagined yourself stepping up to the plate and smashing a game-winning home run? If so, you’ve already been introduced to this highly effective method for improving performance. Now, it’s time to hone that skill.
For a quick explanation, this works because neurons in our brains interpret imagery as equivalent to a real-life action. When we visualize an act, the brain generates an impulse that tells our neurons to perform the movement. In doing so, we can effectively trick our minds into thinking we’re physically practicing a skill when in fact we are only using our minds. The subconscious mind doesn’t know the difference between fantasy and reality. Alright, enough of the science stuff. Here’s a quick and easy way to practice on your own, but keep in mind that practice is imperative, just like any other skill.
Step 1: Relaxation Breathing
Spend 5-minutes of focused breathing to calm your mind and body and prime yourself for what you will be imagining. I recommend box breathing, which means you will inhale for 4-counts, hold for 4-counts, exhale for 4-counts, hold for 4-counts, and repeat. Don’t worry if your mind wanders – just acknowledge your thoughts and come back to the present.
Step 2: Channel All Five Senses
As stated earlier, the subconscious mind doesn’t know the difference between fantasy and reality. In order to convince your mind, you must activate of five senses. What are you feeling? What are you smelling? What are you tasting? What are you seeing? What are you hearing? If you can’t imagine how the ball feels in your hands or what a swimming pool smells like, do your best without any judgment. Keep this in mind as you move onto the next step.
Step 3: Select A Sport Scenario
Begin to imagine a specific situation in your respective sport. For example, visualize yourself diving into the pool with a perfect start. Focus on every detail: your stance, your toes gripping the starting block, your head down, the moment before the gun fires, everything.
Step 4: Direct Your Focus
Imagine the act of performing your best for what you came up with in Step 3. Essentially, you will be mentally rehearsing your skills flawlessly. As mentioned before, practice is key. Repeat this visualization until you feel confident and ready to move onto a different area of your sport.
Learn About Restoic
If you’d like to learn more about Restoic, our 1-to-1 coaching, or our science-backed sport psychology approach, we encourage you to pay us a visit, to view our website, or to reach out to us directly to speak with a member from our team.