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Performance Anxiety in Sports

Prashant Magar Mar 22, 2020
The ability to deal with anxiety is an integral part of sports training. People who are able to overcome their anxiety perform much better than some of the strongest contenders of the game.

Did You Know?

Gregory John Norman, a.k.a Greg Norman is an Australian golfer who retained the world number 1 ranking for almost a year. His aggressive golfing style and looks earned him the nickname of "The Great White Shark."
He has a glorified record, winning over 80 championships. However, he is also popular not just for his golf, but also for the game of 1996 Masters in Augusta, where this seasoned professional player gave in to performance anxiety and "choked."
The world of sports has drastically changed from being the entertaining realm, to an ambit of pugnacity. In a competitive game, all physical and mental limits are stretched, providing the inevitable gap for anxiety to fill in. The pressure to retain the top spot and dominate the sport can get to you.
The coordinated movement that is required for athletic events becomes tough if your body is in a tense state. Certain amount of worry is okay and can help your performance, but too much of it can induce negative thoughts, affecting your self-confidence.
If your performance during practice sessions and competitions displays a significant difference, anxiety may be affecting your performance. Although you may not totally get the better of it, there are many things you can try to reduce anxiety.

What is Performance Anxiety?

The feeling of restlessness and nervousness gradually leading to self-doubt is known as performance anxiety.
It is common in stage artists and sportspersons, who are required to present themselves and their skills to a large crowd. It is believed that the pressure of attaining excellence as marked by the audience is one of the greatest triggers that causes a sportsperson to choke.

Types of Sports Anxiety

According to 'Athletic Insight', a journal of sports psychology, anxiety can be classified in two ways: trait anxiety and state anxiety.
State anxiety is situational stress induced by situations in the game. A sportsperson's autonomic nervous system is aroused in this state, which is the natural reaction of any individual. On the other hand, trait anxiety can be thought of as a world view that an individual uses when coping with stress.
In sports, individuals who are state anxious and low on the trait anxiety in tough situations, often deliver good performances consistently. On the other hand, athletes who have higher levels of trait anxiety, added with state anxiety, tend to perform below expectations.

What Causes Performance Anxiety?

Various psychologists have tried to figure out why is it during high tension situations that our brain fails to cope up and leads to a detrimental effect on our performance. Researches have shown that expert athletes behave like amateurs under pressure.

Unfamiliar Environment

During training and preparing for any competition, an athlete focuses on improving skills in a familiar environment. All the efforts taken and practice done are, thus, stored in the procedural memory.
However, in a real competitive setup, the conscious awareness of unfamiliar grounds and the presence of a crowd corrupts the memory of the practiced game. It is also found that with more involved and encouraging crowds, the pressure to achieve the best is accentuated.

Wrong Perception of Jitters

A reason for career-ending bout of anxiousness is the perception of pre-game jitters. Our body releases certain hormones to accommodate for the upcoming exciting situation, which induce quickening of the heartbeat and sweaty palms.
These signs are often misinterpreted by an athlete as fear and lack of ability to perform. Over thinking a situation and trying to control the practiced movements can trigger and result in a full-fledged panic attack.

Undermining Oneself

While training, some athletes set unrealistic targets for themselves. Failure to achieve those targets is perceived as lack of skill and puts the athlete in self-denial of one's own improvement. Even if they are fully prepared for an event, they tend to underestimate their capabilities. Such reactions can affect any player, thus, derailing their performance.

How to Overcome Performance Anxiety

With many elite players falling prey to the adverse psychology of pre-game anxiousness, sports authorities and teams have started taking measures to contain the effects to minimum.

Distracting Oneself

For every sportsperson, it is very essential to recognize the jitters felt before, or during the game, and accept that these jitters are absolutely natural.
One of the best ways to overcome such a situation is distraction. As soon as you have the awareness of anxiety setting in, distract your attention to something else―may be singing or asking a fellow sportsperson about something that is not related to the game.
One example is from the final moments of 1989 Super Bowl. Joe Montana, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback, recognized the pressure his teammates were facing. Instead of giving in to the anxiety, he fought it back with distraction.
He recognized John Candy, a Canadian actor and comedian, in the crowd and called out to him. This simple gesture completely changed the focus point of the team. They forgot about the pressure and played a wonderful game.

Winning Over Anxiety

A sportsperson whose mind interprets anxiety as a debacle often ends up losing. The dominant and top players of the game convert their anxiety into excitement, which stimulates the positive hormones, resulting in winning performances. They take anxiety arousal as a facilitator to come up with a better performance.

Small Effective Steps

  • Practice, practice, and practice.
  • Cut down on caffeine and sugar. Have a carbohydrate-rich meal before the game to preserve energy.
  • Focus on what you can do rather than what might go wrong on field.
  • Always try to practice in competition-like settings.
  • Avoid thoughts of self-doubt. Think about your strengths.
Sports psychology has become an area of deep study and research. The competition, especially at the international level, has induced a great deal of anxiety-related problems. The game is played on two fields; the playing field and the mental field.
For example, sportsmen, like Rafael Nadal (lawn tennis), Michael Phelps (swimmer), or the US basketball team are at the helm of their affairs, not because of their talent alone. It is their balanced mental state, which gives them an edge over their equally, or perhaps more talented athletes.
It has been proved, that talent and ability can take you only to a certain level in sports. In fact, after you cross a certain threshold of performance, talent becomes almost an 'useless' virtue to possess, because it breeds pride, complacency, and hence, ignorance. It is only the hardworking and the stable minds with only a spark of talent, who rule sports.
Performing to the best of one's abilities has become more relevant in today's sport, because of the extensive media exposure. Sports are at the peak of their popularity all throughout the world, cutting across the barriers of richness, or poverty, nationality, race, or religion.
In order to maintain a high ranking in the international arena, it is important to perform well. Self-confidence, strong resolve, humility to accept defeat are needed to counter anxiety effects.
Anxiety is not a disease that a sportsperson can get rid of once and for all. It has to be used as a booster to improve performance so as to achieve sporting glory.