Everyone gets a little nervous before a big game or athletic event. However, for those who experience the severe symptoms associated with social anxiety disorder (SAD), the quality of their athletic performance will often suffer. The relationship between anxiety and athletic performance is so strong that a whole field of psychology -- sport psychology -- has been devoted to helping athletes combat nerves. Fortunately, you can use a number of strategies to help overcome game-day jitters and manage anxiety before it gets out of hand.
Many elite athletes use visualization to improve performance, develop confidence, and manage anxiety. Visualization, also known as imagery or mental rehearsal, involves imagining yourself successfully competing at an athletic event.
In order to make visualization work, close your eyes and imagine the physical movements that you would make in order to be successful in competition. Try to imagine yourself moving at the same speed as you would in real life. Also, make sure that you are imagining from your own perspective -- not from that of an observer. You should be viewing the scene (the crowd, the field) as you would if you were really there -- not watching yourself compete.
Some tips for making visualization work? Do whatever you can to make the imagined experience seem as real as possible. If going to an empty football field and sitting on the bench helps you make the imagined experience more real, by all means do so. If the noise of the crowd is likely to distract you during competition, see if you can find an audio recording with crowd noises that you can play while you visualize the event. Whatever you can do to make the imagined experience feel real will aid in translating what you imagine into what you achieve.
Clearly defined goals help to measure success -- but goals that are too lofty can leave you overwhelmed and unsure of your abilities. Choose goals that are achievable but challenging, and when possible, break tasks down into smaller parts with a series of short-term goals.
Relaxation techniques are helpful for reducing the physical symptoms of anxiety such as an increased heart rate, tense muscles and quick and shallow breathing. These techniques can be used at any time leading up to a performance or competition, and may be particularly helpful when practiced the night before or in the hours preceding an event to help keep nerves at bay. Two of the most common relaxation techniques are diaphragmatic breathing and progressive muscle relaxation.
Cognitive restructuring refers to changing habitual ways of thinking. In the case of anxiety about athletic performance, cognitive restructuring helps you evaluate bodily arousal differently -- much in the way that elite athletes channel arousal into excitement and the ability to rise to the challenge. Changing the way that you think about competitions can also be helpful. Planning to always do your best regardless of how important you think a competition is allows you to attach less significance to major competitions, and in turn reduce anxiety about your performance.
Being aware of your thoughts and feelings is also key to managing the cognitive symptoms of anxiety. Recognizing negative thoughts when they first enter your mind allows you to stop them before they take hold so you can replace them with more positive ones.
It can be hard to imagine being confident in a competition if you usually crumble under pressure. However, you can take specific steps to help increase self-confidence. Focus on past successes instead of failures. Make practice and preparation a priority and continue until you have no doubt left about your ability to succeed.
Still having trouble with self-confidence? Remember to visualize. Imagine yourself confidently competing over and over again until that becomes your new reality.
Of course you don’t want to be distracted during a competition, but immediately before -- why not? Talk with teammates or fellow competitors, read a book, listen to music -- whatever helps keep your mind from generating negative thoughts.
Focus on That Which You Can Control
If you find yourself worrying about who is in the crowd watching you, or that the other competitors are better than you -- remind yourself that these are aspects of the competition that are out of your control. What you can control is your own performance, how well prepared you are, and how well you implement techniques and strategies such as progressive muscle relaxation and imagery.
Unfortunately, some people experience severe anxiety in athletic performance situations that is not improved through the use of self-help strategies. Indeed, sometimes just visiting with a therapist can boost the usefulness of these strategies –- first, because you are accountable to someone for the work that you do and the progress that you make and second, because there is someone who believes that you can get better. If your symptoms are getting worse, consider speaking to your doctor or asking for a referral to a mental health professional who can determine whether you meet criteria for a diagnosis of SAD, and what form of treatment is best suited to your situation.
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Riewald ST. Strategies to manage performance pressure. NSCA’s Performance Training Journal[serial online].