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Anxiety in Sports

           Anxiety is a part of sports, and anyone who plays sports will agree. However, it is not only too much anxiety that can affect a person’s performance, it is also not having enough. An athlete suffering from too much stress will more likely make technical mistakes or errors in judgment, whilst someone with too little stress may feel overconfident, lacking in motivation, or feel insufficiently aroused to notice critical moments, and as such, his or her performance will diminish.

          Choking is a word that is often used in sports, particularly when an athlete, or a team, has success in their hands, only to see it drift away under the pressure to win. But isn’t choking just another word for anxiety? Isn’t controlling one’s anxiety often the difference between winning or losing. As a sports psychologist I meet with many athletes who struggle with their anxiety controlling them, rather than them controlling it, and as a result, their potential is never realized.

          In my opinion, routine is the enemy of anxiety. Anxiety encourages fear and stress, whilst routine offers feelings of control and safety. I suggest to athletes, whether they be golfers, footballers, or baseball players, that they develop a routine that they will start at least the day before they compete. This will include eating well the night before and keeping hydrated. They will begin to visualize their positive performance, concentrating on enjoying the game and being successful. They will also go to bed early. On the day of the game they will eat a pre-arranged meal, approximately three and a half hours before they compete, and arrive about two hours before they play. Between then and when they start to warm-up, they should do what ever they feel prepares them for the game. This can include listening to music, carrying out more visualization, or talking to the teammates or coaches.

          Using a mantra is another way to ward off anxiety. I once worked with a baseball pitcher who was fantastic until he walked a batter, and then couldn’t stop. Anxiety gripped him and his ability to pitch vanished. As you can imagine, he was pulled soon after. So, we came up with a mantra he would use as soon as he began to feel stressed. The human mind is unable to think of two things at the same time, so if that one thing is anxiety, it will control the body and mind. However, if that one thing becomes a three-word mantra that the athlete quietly repeats to himself, over and over again occupying his or her mind, then muscle memory takes over and normal service resumes. So our pitcher would repeat the words, ball-throw-pitch. As he looked at the catcher for instructions he would be saying quietly to himself, ball-throw-pitch. As he checked the bases, ball-throw-pitch, and as he wound up, ball-throw-pitch. This simple technique breaks the anxiety chain, and added to routine allows an athlete to perform at his or her optimal level. Try it, it works.

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