Overcoming Performance Anxiety

In the last post, I introduced the topic of performance anxiety.  If you recall, there are two basic ways to reduce anxiety to a manageable level in athletic competition: reduce the cognitive load of the athletic task and/or reduce the anxiety.  In this post we are going to address the first of these two options, reducing the cognitive load of the task.  As we will see, this is not always possible, but knowing how to do it and when to use it will give you yet another tool in your mental game tool box!

Think back to a time when you were learning a brand new skill, driving a car for example.  Do you remember how effortful it was to execute what now are the most mundane driving tasks?  Pressing the gas pedal down the correct distance, knowing how far to turn the wheel for a lane change, slowing down sufficiently for a right-hand turn?  And in the beginning if you simultaneously tried to do anything else such as adjusting the radio or carrying on a conversation, the results would be scary!  You may also remember the added stress, and performance anxiety, if a driving instructor was in the other seat, or perhaps a parent who would decide whether you could get your coveted license that day.  This is because learning any new task requires conscious effort, of which we have a limited amount of resources.  What happened over time is, through hundreds of hours of practice, these once laborious tasks became subconscious or automatic.   Once these tasks were automated, it freed up resources for remembering where we needed to go, changing the station on the radio, and even messing around with our cell phones (not recommended!).  Now, as expert, veteran drivers, we could be significantly anxious or otherwise preoccupied with something without any noticeable decrement in our driving performance.

Performance Lapses, “choking”

These concepts also apply to sports.  Often, performance lapses that athletes attribute to anxiety or “choking” is really due to the task not being sufficiently automated.  A bowler needs to convert a 10-pin for his/her team to win the game, and with tight muscles and a nervous stomach fails to do so.  What caused that lapse?  To find out, I would want to know what the bowler’s conversion rate is under normal circumstances, and how often she or he practices that particular spare.  Is it sufficiently automated, or does it still require a lot of conscious effort?  Very often, tasks that we think are automated are really not.  For you golfers out there, think about this the next time you are tempted to accept a “gimme” on a two-foot putt, either from yourself or your playing partner.  Is that any way to automate that task and reduce performance anxiety?

What can you better automate?

You’ve probably already realized that this “tool” of automating athletic tasks cannot be used for all aspects of athletic performance.  It’s much easier to automate a two-foot putt, a single-pin spare, or fielding a routine ground ball than a 275-yard drive down a tight fairway,  throwing six strikes in a row on a tough lane condition, or stabbing a hot ground ball up the middle.  In the next article I will discuss another tool for conquering performance anxiety that is more applicable to these non-routine or difficult skills.  For this week, I challenge you to think about those tasks in your game that can be better automated and thus less susceptible to anxiety in your game, and set up a plan for automating those tasks.  Doing so will put you head and shoulders above a lot of your competition, and strengthen your Mind For Sports!