If there is a marked difference between how you perform during training vs. racing, anxiety may be affecting your performance.
In this article, Sports Psychologist Dr Andrew Lewis will help you identify if you truly suffer from sports performance anxiety or if it is more a case of pre-event nerves.
Often athletes will highlight the marked difference between their training sessions in which they are calm and on point; as opposed to a competition where their minds are racing, muscles are tight and everything is generally freezing up. Responses by these athletes to this variance in performance vary widely. Some attribute this as normal pre-competition nerves and try to just get rid of these feelings, thoughts and behavior to focus on the competition at hand. Others feel totally overwhelmed and may even fail to start the race or DNF. As it happens, anxiety is an integral part of sport but an athlete’s ability to control ‘the nerves’ can be very beneficial or detrimental to their performance.
The right level of anxiety will improve your performance. By design, those pre-competition nerves keep you sharp and prepared. However, too much anxiety before a race or even over-thinking an upcoming competition can result in a host of uncomfortable feelings, thoughts and performance. If an athlete experiences things like difficulty in making decisions, irritation, negative focus, negative self-talk; digestive problems, reduced enjoyment and self-confidence then the anxiety level will be considered as too high and detrimental to performance.
Different from that of an anxiety disorder which requires specialized help from a medical professional, having certain levels of anxiety is part of being human and needs to be understood in order to manage it. One explanation of anxiety is the ‘fight or flight’ response to a threat. In essence, our minds and bodies are getting ready to deal with a real or an apparent danger. Chemicals such as adrenaline start flowing to the parts of the body that require extra energy in dealing with this threat. The body responds to the mind’s interpretation of these events in a multitude of ways: rapid heartbeat and breathing which allows for increased blood and oxygen flow. Sweating cools the body down; ‘butterflies’ in the stomach and even nausea is the result of blood flowing from the digestive areas up to the ‘engine room’ of the heart and lungs; there is a tightening of the muscles in preparation for the threat. We even go into an excessively narrow way of looking at situations that sharpens our attention and focus. In a race, this all can result in not looking at the whole picture and focusing solely on the end result of a competition. One may experience erratic thoughts which don’t allow our race to flow as it did in the training sessions and so one will ‘freeze up’ or want to stop. It can lead to anger and frustration too.
The ‘fight or flight’ response has helped us since time immemorial to protect us from danger. It is who we are as human beings and can be used to our advantage to harness the performance response. So essentially, it’s how we look at the challenge that determines how we react: do we embrace and manage the anxiety of a race or competition and use the opportunity, or do we see it as a threat and allow it to ruin our sporting endeavours?
Tools to manage sports performance anxiety
Understand what is going on with your mind and body during these high-anxiety periods. Allow yourself to recognize and experience these different emotions and behaviors so as to move towards embracing them rather than resist and ‘fight’ them. Being in touch with your body and mind allows you to recognize that you are getting ready for a challenge. Ask yourself: where in your body and mind do you most experience this reaction to a challenge? How can I embrace these feelings, thoughts and behavior? Once you understand this you are on your way to using anxiety to your advantage.
Focus on the process rather than on the end result. Being in the present rather than in the future prevents us from overthinking our race by thinking ‘what if, what could and what should?’. Bring yourself back to the here-and-the-now by allowing your five senses to take in what is currently happening. What do you see, hear, touch, taste and smell? Take it all in. Focus on the journey as opposed to fixating on and worrying about the future destination. Trust the process: you have prepared for this journey, so trust your mind and body to get you to your destination.
Explore different approaches, one is to breathe…deeply. Regulate those anxiety reactions by, amongst other things, breathing deeply through your nose…down deep…and out through your mouth. Do this until you feel more comfortable. The more you practice this, the more you can develop the skill of regulating the adrenaline response of your racing heartbeat and overly shallow breathing. This activity highlights the brain-body connection in that when you are anxious the brain calls out for more oxygen. By breathing deeply, the brain gets the heart to calm down and the lungs work more efficiently thereby enabling you to relax and use the anxiety to your advantage.
Reframe negative and distorted thoughts. Identifying some of the negative labels, expectations and irrational beliefs that fill your head before or during a competition is a way of starting this process. You might believe that you are not a good climber, but with a realistic and holistic mindset, you can see that you have many other strengths. Doing a mental assessment of your strengths allows you to explore other qualities that you do have which are to your benefit in a race. Replacing negative beliefs with positive, realistic beliefs and thoughts is central to ensuring performance flow.
Remind yourself of successes. Paging or scanning through your collection of accomplishments and even watching previous triumphs allows you to remember these successes and will nudge you away from fixating on the negative, anxiety-driving performances.
Talk to someone such as a coach, friend or family member also allows you to process your anxiety and allow you to put things into perspective. This support system often reminds us of our positive accomplishments. Seeing a sport psychologist also assists in processing and managing too much anxiety.
For some riders, social situations such as a competition and what others think of you can also be anxiety-driving. For example, just before a competition worrying about who will be at your competition to watch you compete may cause you to be distracted and place undue pressure on you. A pre-competition routine that helps you to relax, focus and concentrate on your riding and not on worrying about what others will think of you are useful. This routine includes visualizing yourself performing well; listening to music that makes you feel relaxed; or even stretching and focusing on your current state may allow you to embrace the anxiety to your advantage.
In parting, recognizing that anxiety allows opportunity can help reframe your thinking, feelings and behaviour to that of adopting a constructive and creative mindset allowing you to explore and experience flow; and develop your sport and self on many fronts, and so…embrace anxiety, practise managing it and have fun at the same time.
Dr Andrew Lewis is a Health Professions Council of South Africa (SA) and Health and Care Professions Council (UK) registered Educational Psychologist with rooms in Stellenbosch and Somerset West. With a post-graduate qualification in Sport Psychology, he works with individual athletes and teams who compete at all levels―national and international; and those who compete for pleasure. Andrew also collaborates with institutions and schools and publishes Sport Psychology- and Educational Psychology-related articles in peer-reviewed academic journals, newspapers and popular magazines. He also presents Sport Psychology workshops to other health professionals and athletes; as well as scientific papers at international and national conferences. Andrew also has an extensive sporting background and understands the demands and pressures of competitive sport―himself competing in the Ironman triathlon. Andrew is currently a senior lecturer at the University of the Western Cape and was also a senior lecturer at Stellenbosch University and the University of South Africa for 19 years where he trained Educational Psychologists and teachers; lectured students and conducted research. He also taught at two primary schools for 5 years.
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