Welcome to Part 3 in the series “Understanding and Overcoming Performance Anxiety.” So far we have discussed the basics of performance anxiety as well as reducing the cognitive load of the athletic task so that performance is less likely to be adversely affected. But what about those athletic tasks that cannot be easily automated? In these situations, we must target the anxiety rather than the athletic task.
As was stated in the first article on performance anxiety, anxiety is a physiological reaction in our brain and our bodies. In fact, it is a fairly generalized reaction, meaning that it is not all that much different from other emotional reactions such as extreme excitement, happiness, anger, etc. It is the context of the situation that leads to us labeling the emotion as anxiety. Think about this for a moment. Have you ever heard anyone say that they performed poorly because they were too happy? I doubt it. So it’s not the physiological reaction that’s limiting us, it’s our interpretation of that reaction. The good news is that we can change that interpretation!
The answer to this problem lies in what psychologists call cognitive restructuring. It refers to the process of interpreting the situation differently in order to feel better and improve performance. For example, instead of seeing the big game coming up as something to be nervous and worry about, a better interpretation might be that you as the athlete are truly blessed to be part of such a wonderful event, and the feelings inside your body are simply a reflection of the excitement of this rare opportunity. As another example, anxiety often feels like extra energy. An athlete can learn to harness this energy to his or her advantage instead of allowing it to be a detriment.
Do elite athletes experience performance anxiety? They sure do! But in scientific studies of these top performers, we learn that they are able to re-interpret these feelings and actually use it to their advantage. The same anxiety that may result in distraction and suboptimal muscle control in a one athlete may instead be manifest as increased concentration and power in another player. Note that the anxiety does not disappear, some players are just able to use it to their advantage!
Learning these techniques and applying them to your specific sport may require some work with a mental coach, and if you experience anxiety often and want to take your game to the next level I recommend that you do so. But in the meantime, you can now see that it is possible to control the anxiety you experience during big games, and even use it to your advantage.
The next time you are anticipating an important game or event and find yourself getting nervous, think about how lucky you are to be in a position that many other athletes would love to experience. You worked hard and earned the right to be there! Put a big smile on your face (even if you have to force it a little) and use those feelings inside of you to concentrate, focus, and execute the way you know how. How is that for harnessing your Mind For Sports?
Feel free to leave a comment or email DrRich@mindforsports.com with any further questions.