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Have you ever felt “batty” with feelings of anxiety prior to a hard work out or a competition? Many athletes often seek a sports psychologist for this very reason. The biggest problem is when athletes try to NOT have anxiety. The problem with this is it starts a cycle of worrying about having it, which brings it on, which makes someone more anxious, and then because the person feels anxiety it somehow seems like a failure or at the very least, the athlete feels upset because this was not supposed to happen again! This is why I call it a batty feeling. There is at first a feeling of fear and then the urge to get away from it or avoid it.
The Cycle of Performance Anxiety
The cycle of anxiety is interesting. Oftentimes, when one feels strong anxiety or even a sense of panic in a very intense way it can feel overwhelming. Too much anxiety or panic can also affect breathing so if there is a sense of not getting enough oxygen then the feeling of fright kicks in even stronger. And who wants to experience this again? One time is enough. This is part of the reason athletes who experience intense anxiety will try to not have it. Look at the cycle of anxiety in the image below and consider worry on the bottom of the cycle as stage one.
You had a bad experience and you worry it will occur again. You recall the bad memories of the feeling and possibly the outcome and this shakes your confidence. More worry or nervousness kicks in when you recall this and the feeling of uncertainty gets stronger. You doubt you have the skills to cope with intense performance anxiety and this brings on more stress. And so it goes, the cycle is set up. And the way most athletes try to cope is to try to not have it.
This typically does not work. There is a quote that explains this well:
The more you resist the more it persists
How to Deal with Performance Anxiety
- Be aware of the thoughts and feelings you associate with anxiety. Every athlete might be different. So, have some awareness of your signs and also your triggers. If you know you have certain people you need to avoid because they stir anxiety in you than stay away if you can. Or, are there certain thoughts you have that set up the cycle? One big trigger is when you start to WHAT IF yourself. This means, you begin to start asking yourself: what if the panic sets in? What if I am not ready? When this happens do step two.
- Admit you have performance anxiety to yourself. Naming something in your mind can be very helpful. “I feel anxiety.” “I am doing the “What if” dialogue in my head. The reason for this is now you can deal with it constructively. If you avoid, or talk to yourself and say I don’t want to have this you sometimes get mad with yourself. Then you have anxiety and the anger or upset feeling that you have it! Now you have two emotions you do not want!
- Have a plan. Be prepared for anxiety to occur. This is exactly what you do for any competition or race, you have plays or a plan. So, as a smart athlete, have a plan for anxiety management as well. There are many mental tools for this. There is one really important tool to have as your foundation and this is perspective.
Perspective and Performance Anxiety
Perspective entails having a certain attitude or outlook. The reason this is a mental tool for managing anxiety is because it interrelates to so many other mental tools athletes use, like self talk, focus and visualization. And perspective helps break the anxiety cycle.
When a athlete is anxious about performance one of the first things that might be going through this person’s mind is:
fear of being embarrassed
Anxiety escalates quickly when athletes worry about what others think of them if they do not perform in a certain way or at least to the level they expect they should. If athletes worry about being embarrassed they increase their “what if” dialogue and the sentence in their head often ends badly. For example: What if I look stupid or miss the easy lay up? They picture mistakes more than successes. This keeps the cycle of anxiety in full swing. So, gaining perspective helps interrupt this. One way to demonstrate this is to consider the example below.
When I was running sprint races there were times I had to purposely lower my anxiety level or manage it from getting too high. If it was too high for me I found it hard to get a razor like focus when I needed it. When this occurred I would make myself take perspective and remember this was a race, and only one part of my life. I would tell myself that one race will not make or break me as a person. And, I reminded myself I liked to compete! I also made myself take the perspective that my anxiety was also about excitement.
Other times I purposely had to increase my anxiety level in order to perform at a more optimal level. This occurred when there were low level meets or cold rainy days when no one really wanted to be outside sprinting. One way to increase my level of anxiety (or excitement) was to change my perspective on the importance of the race. When there was low stress and I needed more angst I would talk to myself about rising up to the challenge when others might not. Now the race mattered because I made it about me and my inner strength to be 100% there. I liked this because it became more about my personal level of grit and making myself dig little deeper to compete. This was a really different perspective than being at big competitions where I sometimes had to lower my anxiety. For these reasons make perspective part of your mental game plan. It can help tame the batty feeling of anxiety.