Practical Tips for Performance Anxiety

I can clearly picture my worst experience with performance anxiety nearly 15 years after it took place.  My college lacrosse team was playing an away game against Vanderbilt, and the first few goals sailed by me.  From that point forward, I felt frozen.  I was worried about missing the next one, feeling intense pressure to finally make a save, and I was plagued with negative thoughts that I just couldn’t do it. I was overthinking and I was stuck. I felt like I couldn’t snap myself out of it, I felt increasingly tense, and I was so in my head, it was like I just watched the ball go by me time and time again.  Performance anxiety can feel intensely overwhelming when you don’t know what to do to alleviate it. There are so many techniques for managing anxiety that could have helped me in that Vanderbilt game and the games that followed, and I wish I had known then what I know now. It is normal to experience anxiety when we play sports and some level of anxiety enhances our performance.  However, sometimes our anxiety increases to the point where it becomes debilitating and limits our ability to perform up to our potential.  When we experience performance anxiety, the following strategies can be helpful:

 

-       Use physiological relaxation techniques like diaphragmatic breathing and progressive muscle relaxation

-       Shift your perspective toward anxiety- view anxiety as helpful instead of harmful

-       Create balanced thoughts that acknowledge your strengths and any small positives, instead of only focusing on the negatives

-       Imagine yourself coping with high anxiety situations

-       Approach feared performance situations, instead of avoiding them

-       Create consistent performance routines that incorporate anxiety management techniques

-       Anxiety takes you out of the present, so practice mindfulness meditation, to increase your ability to return to the present moment

 

If you experience performance anxiety, a sport psychologist can teach you techniques for managing anxiety and create a plan to help you work toward performing up to your potential.   

The Power of Positive Beliefs

For many years, people believed that it was impossible to run a mile in under 4 minutes.  Many doctors at the time even said that the human body was incapable of accomplishing such a feat. Then, in 1954, Roger Bannister ran a mile in 3 minutes and 59.4 seconds.  As a result, what was once impossible, became possible, and fifty other runners ran a mile in less than 4 minutes over the next two years.  This is one of my favorite examples of how powerful it is to create a belief that we can accomplish something.  When we set a goal, it’s incredibly important to believe that we can accomplish it.  Sometimes, it’s as simple as consistently reminding yourself that you can do it.  However, when your negative beliefs are really convincing, as they often are, we need to back-up our positive beliefs with evidence that we can accomplish our goals.

Here are some ways to create convincing positive beliefs that can help you accomplish your goals:

  

 

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Mindfulness for Athletes

When we zone out in class or go through the motions at practice, we are being mindless or on autopilot. Mindfulness is about bringing your full awareness to the present moment through paying attention to your experience as is, on purpose and nonjudgmentally. It’s the idea that as thoughts come up we can notice them, accept them, and guide our attention back to the present moment task, over and over again. As an athlete, the ability to focus on the task at hand without being weighed down by thoughts is essential. However, mindfulness isn’t about pushing thoughts and feelings away.  To better understand this, consider the following metaphor:

Have you ever tried to get work done while watching TV or listening to music. Are there moments when the TV totally pulls your attention away from your work? And the more you think about how loud the TV is, the harder it is to focus on your work? Are there moments when you’re so engrossed in your work that it’s almost as if someone turned the TV down. That’s the idea with our thoughts- when we directly try to suppress them/turn them down, they get louder. When we continually focus on bringing our attention to the task at hand, they quiet down over time, and we perform at our best when our mind is quiet.

 

Mindfulness is a way of training our brain to be in the moment and better able to handle internal and external distractions.  As an athlete, you can benefit from regularly practicing mindfulness meditation outside of your sport.  A simple mindfulness meditation is to focus on your breath for 5-10 minutes.  When your mind has wandered away from the breath, as it naturally will, congratulate yourself for noticing and guide your attention back to your breath.  You may feel like you have to guide your attention back to your breath one thousand times, and that’s okay! With consistent practice, this is likely to feel easier over time.

 

While playing your sport, you can incorporate mindfulness in several ways. You can focus on your breath to anchor yourself in the present moment. You can complete your warm-up in a mindful manner, focusing on the sensations in your body and paying attention to the movements.  You can identify a focal point that applies to your sport, and repeatedly work on bringing your attention to that point of focus.  For example, as a lacrosse goalie, my main focus was on seeing the lacrosse ball.  Focusing on seeing the ball well and continually guiding my attention to the lacrosse ball helped me stay in the moment, as opposed to getting lost in thought about past goals scored or caught up in worries about missing the next shot.  There are several apps that offer guided mindfulness meditation, including Headspace and 10% Happier.  In addition, it can be helpful to work with a therapist or sport psychologist who specializes in mindfulness-based techniques, in order to learn how to harness the full power of mindfulness meditation. 

Student-Athlete Study Tips

As a student-athlete, time management is extremely important. When you have a test coming up, it can often feel like there’s not enough time to study.  Instead of persistently worrying about how little time you have, create a study plan to map out how and when you will study:

Creating and Following a Study Plan:

  1. What is the format of the test?
  2. List study tasks (make a study guide, flashcards, quizlet, practice test, review)
    • Include active study tasks
    • Estimate how long each task will take
    • If possible and helpful, do timed practice questions to get used to test conditions
  3. Designate chunks of time for studying
    • Map out time for specific study tasks, and be prepared to be flexible with your plan
  4. Make time for breaks, primarily non-electronics breaks, such as going for a walk
  5. Limit Procrastination
    • Start with one task
    • Work in concentrated chunks of time with no distractions- 50 minutes, 10 minute break; 20 minutes, 5 minute break
    • Forgive yourself for past procrastination and move forward
    • Play a song that gets you energized
    • Work with a friend who is a good influence
    • Change your environment
    • Put your phone in another room
    • Use Apps to block websites on your computer, such as the App SelfControl

 

Growth Mindset Coaching

When I coach lacrosse, I love working with athletes who are coachable.  These athletes are receptive to feedback and use that feedback to improve.  Instead of getting caught up in focusing only on how great they currently are and seeing feedback as a threat, they view feedback as a useful tool to facilitate continued growth.  Coachable athletes have a growth mindset.  They believe their talents can be developed through hard work and techniques that incorporate input from coaches and peers.  They are better at handling criticism and setbacks because they consider everything to be a part of the learning process.  Athletes with a fixed mindset believe their talents are innate gifts, and are therefore vulnerable to mistakes, setbacks and criticism.

As a coach, there are several things that you can do to foster a growth mindset among your athletes, and when an entire team has a growth mindset, athletes often feel more empowered, collaborative and committed.  Here are a few tips to create a growth mindset culture on your team:

Modeling

o   Talk about ways that you have improved and the work that it took

o   Talk about how you would like to continue to grow

o   Ask for feedback from your players- how can I help you learn and grow?

Provide Solution Focused Feedback

o   You are amazing at _____ and you can improve at _____, let’s talk about how

o   Offer specific ways to improve a particular skill

Substitution Patterns

o   Questions to ask yourself: When do you make substitutions? When an athlete makes a mistake are they taken out immediately? What kind of conversation happens when they’re taken out? Are you especially tough on some players (one mistake and they’re out)?

o   Tips for substituting after a mistake: As much as possible give them an opportunity to recover; Have a conversation that praises what they did well, effort, appropriate risks, and recovery from mistakes; Talk about it as something that can be improved upon

Foster Positive Self-Talk

o   Encourage positive thinking by asking athletes what’s going well

o   Praise athletes for encouraging their teammates

 

Starting Your College Athletic Career: Finding Internal Validation

From awards to praise, there are numerous opportunities for validation as an athlete.  It’s easy to become dependent on external validation, meaning that others tell you that you’re doing a good job.   For many high school athletes who have committed to playing in college, having their talents recognized is a common occurrence.  For some, the availability of accolades and consistent praise fades when they make the transition to college.  As a result, they might feel uncertain about their abilities and have a hard time measuring how well they’re doing.  This is when internal validation becomes essential.  Athletes have to be able to find ways to recognize what they’re doing well and give themselves positive feedback, so that they can stay motivated and continue improving once they’re in an environment where they’re not consistently told that they’re the best.  Here are some tips for improving your ability to provide internal validation:

1.     After each practice and each game, think about what went well. While it’s also important to reflect on what areas need improvement, start with the positive.

2.     Talk to others about what went well.  For example, instead of asking your parents for positive feedback, start by telling them what you think you are doing well.  Parents can help by pulling for the positive: instead of simply telling your child what they’re doing well, ask them to talk about the positives first.  It’s important for athletes to practice generating positive self-talk and engaging in a positive self-reflective process.

3.     Find ways to measure your performance and progress, both using objective measures, like stats and examining the intangibles.  As a lacrosse goalie, I used save percentage as my measuring stick, but I also measured my success in regard to how hard I was working and how positive and supportive I was being as a teammate. This well-rounded approach helps athletes focus on a realistic view of their performance while giving them variables, like work ethic, that they can control.

4.     For those of you who haven’t yet made the transition to college, start working on this now! The better you get at providing internal validation, the more positive your sports experience will be as you continue through your athletic career.

 

Perfecting your Performance Routines

I always enjoy learning what professional athletes do to feel ready for games. While some people make light of them as superstitions, sport psychologists consider performance routines to be an effective way for athletes to get in the zone before and during games.  From Dwayne Wade’s pre-game pull-ups on the rim to the number of times Serena Williams bounces the ball before her tennis serve, there are a variety of components that go into crafting the perfect performance routine. While many athletes and teams incorporate a consistent warm-up, consider what you can do to create a personalized routine that will help you perform at your best. Here are some tips for developing effective performance routines:

1.     In addition to your pre-game routine, consider what components of your performance would benefit from a routine: the serve in tennis, the putt in golf, the face-off in lacrosse, the foul shot in basketball, etc.

2.     Incorporate a relaxation technique like belly breathing and/or an energizing technique like upbeat music depending on your optimal performance state.

3.     Refine and specify the simple components that are already a part of what you do, like bouncing the ball a certain number of times before your tennis serve or foul shot or doing a particular series of stretches.

4.     Consider adding a grounding technique that helps you get out of your head and focus on the moment, such as squeezing your fist, gripping your bat in softball, or seeing the net in soccer.

5.     Keep it simple and make sure your routine is 100% within your control.

6.     Implement the routine consistently so it becomes a cue to get you in the zone of optimal performance.

Practice Under Pressure

When your team is down by one with seconds left in the game and you are sent to the free throw line, how often do you make it? When the score is tied and your team has possession of the ball with one-minute left to play, are you able to score a goal and assure a victory? When faced with a ten-foot putt that would secure a win, how do you perform?

These are all examples of pressure-filled moments in competition.  Sometimes we thrive in these moments and at other times, we crack under the pressure.  Fortunately, there are ways to get better at coping with high pressure situations, and one fantastic approach is to create conditions in practice that are as similar as possible to the conditions in games.  While it may not be possible to fully recreate that feeling you experience in the heat of competition, even training under mild levels of stress can have a positive impact.  Getting used to the anxiety we experience in these situations helps to limit the negative impact of the anxiety we naturally feel during competition.  Here are some examples of things you can do to practice under pressure:

-       Do 10 in a row of a specific skill, like free throws, putts, or tennis serves, and start again every time you miss one. 

-       Do a sprint for every missed free throw or penalty kick in practice.

-       Set a timer for 1 minute and create a scenario that could happen in the last minute of a competition, like being up or down by one.

-       Create distractions, such as playing a recording of the sound of the crowd.

-       While reffing scrimmages in practice, purposely make a few bad calls and challenge your team to cope with any negative reactions.

-       Videotape practice and tell your athletes that you will be analyzing their performance with other coaches.

By practicing under pressure, you become accustomed to it, which helps you perform at your best when it counts the most. 

Goal Setting

Sometimes, athletes set goals that are vague and outcome focused, such as to play well and win.  These types of goals are so obvious that they actually aren’t that helpful.  Goal setting can be extremely powerful, and these guidelines can help make the most of this strategy:

Set outcome goals and process goals

It is important to know your destination, so start your goal setting process by identifying the outcome you want to achieve.  From there, recognize that the more you think about your outcome goals in competition, the further you get from achieving them. Thinking about winning in the midst of a performance can take your focus away from the necessary steps it takes to win.  Therefore it’s important to set process goals, which are the specific steps you have to take to achieve your desired outcome- these goals focus on the skills to be performed.  For example, if a lacrosse player wants to achieve the outcome of scoring goals, their process goal could be to challenge the goal every time they have the ball.

Set goals that are concrete and controllable

Simple, concrete goals help to focus your mind.  They also help you stay positive.  If you’re playing basketball and you have the goal of not letting the player you’re marking score, you could easily slip into a negative mindset after their first lay-up.  However, if you break it down and focus on keeping your hands up and your feet moving on defense, this allows you to focus on concrete actions that are 100% in your control.  Make sure that your concrete, controllable goals are framed positively- don’t say don’t.  Notice that instead of setting the goal of not planting your feet, the above goal is to keep your feet moving on defense.

Set goals for practices and games

Practices are great opportunities to set goals that focus on developing your skills.  For example, a tennis player can set skill specific goals during drills, such as focusing on technical aspects of their forehand and backhand, following the ball, using proper footwork, and approaching the net. For matches, it’s important to set simple goals that focus in on what’s most important to help you avoid overthinking.   A tennis player can identify a few simple goals that help bring their entire skill set together, such as quick feet, see the seams of the ball, and stay positive.  

Set physical and mental goals

It’s important to set goals in every domain, from physical fitness goals, to technical and tactical goals, to mental goals. Working on your mental game involves selecting a set of mental strategies and making time to practice them.  For example, if your mental goal is to be more positive, make a specific plan for working on this, such as by writing down positive accomplishments 3x/week, rehearsing positive thoughts once/day, and visualizing yourself staying positive in difficult situations 3x/week. 

Write down your goals

Write down your goals and review them. Update them based on your progress and feedback from coaches.  Make note of which goals help focus your mind so that you can perform at your best. Revel in your small successes and build on that positive energy to accomplish more and more challenging goals.  With practice, you can use goal setting in the most effective way possible, and it will be an extremely valuable tool in helping you achieve optimal performance.

When to Put Your Game Face on

What does it mean to put your game face on?

When an athlete puts their game face on, they show a level of focus, determination, confidence, and intensity that sends the message that they are ready to perform at the highest level and they are there to win. This involves a set of concrete actions that convey a sense of confidence and determination.  These actions can be as simple as keeping your head up and your shoulders back. For some it means having a serious, intense look on their face, and for others it means smiling.  It’s all about what works best for you, and by consistently putting your game face on in performance situations, you improve your ability to look cool, calm, and collected, even in the most high-pressure moments.

Putting your game face on

Putting your game face on is an effective strategy in a variety of performance situations, from sports to exams to job interviews.  When you step onto the field looking self-assured, demonstrating a sense of calm, focused energy, you set the stage to perform at your best, and your opponents will notice.  Not only can it can serve as a way to convince others that you are confident and prepared, it can actually help to convince yourself that you are ready to play.  When we act confident, we feel more confident.  When you are feeling tired, anxious, or insecure about your performance, make sure to put your game face on. Over time, taking those steps to act confident and energized will create positive feelings and help to produce the desired result of enhancing your performance. 

Setting your game face aside

I’ve worked with many athletes who have their game face on all the time, and when it becomes their only way of coping, it can be problematic.  Athletes who always have their game face on often push through difficult situations without acknowledging feeling stressed. They don’t talk about what’s bothering them, they power through, acting like everything is going well even if they feel like it’s not.  Even when they have a free moment, they keep their game face on, taking little time to relax or reflect. While it’s helpful to have your game face on in performance and training situations, it’s important to have a wide variety of strategies for coping with emotions aside from keeping your head up, smiling and pushing through your busy schedule; that's why it's called your game face and not your all day everyday face.  Make time to take care of yourself, engage in relaxing activities, do things you enjoy, and have people that you can talk to, whether friends, family, coaches, and/or a psychologist. 

Sport Psychology for Goalies

In some ways, being a goalie is like playing an individual sport within a team sport. You are an integral part of the team and benefit from stepping-up as a leader of the defense. And yet, a lot of the time you are alone, on your own little island in the goal. You are the last line of defense, which can be a daunting task.  Each time you make a save, play continues, you have to be ready for the next shot, and you may not even remember that save when you reflect on the game later.  Each time you miss a shot, play stops and you often replay that missed shot in your head- this makes it easier to think in a negative way and dwell on your mistakes, while it’s more difficult to see the positives in your performance.  Add to this that you have so much more time to think than any other player.  Sport psychologists often advise you to think less, get out of your head, and stay in the zone.  Well it’s certainly difficult to do that given that the ball is on the other side of the field for a large portion of each game.  Your mental game is essential to your success and the uniqueness of the position brings about its own challenges.  Here are a few tips to help:

 

Act Confident

-       Be a presence in the goal and keep your head up

-       When you act confident, you feel more confident

Use a coping mantra

-       Something you say to yourself that makes you feel positive and confident in the goal

o   For example: Calm and confident, I’ve got this; Stand tall, step to the ball

Choose a simple focal point

-       In practice, focus on one specific goal for each drill

-       In games, choose one or two unifying things to focus on that help bring it all together to meet your ultimate goal of making the save- give yourself something to focus on that is 100% within your control.

Imagine pressing the reset button after each goal

-       Take a deep breath, close your eyes, and picture pressing a reset button

-       Each shot is a fresh opportunity to step up

When the ball is on the other side of the field…

-       Focus on watching the game as it’s going on at the other end of the field

-       Focus on something positive to avoid getting too in your head during these times

-       Take a few deep breaths

-       Start communicating with your team and get into your ready position as soon as the other team has the ball- this allows you to get back in the zone before the next shot

Motivation, Mindfulness, Performance and Commitment in Young Female Athletes

Introduction

            Commitment and performance are both extremely important variables within youth sport.  It is important for athletes to experience high levels of commitment so that they engage in continued sport participation and have time to reach their athletic potential.  Continued participation may allow athletes to develop the skills and abilities to eventually attain higher performance levels.  High levels of performance are desired as performance may contribute to a variety of positive psychological factors, such as feelings of competency.  I conducted a study in 2012 in which I examined the relationship between self-determined motivation, mindfulness, sport commitment, and performance in young female athletes. One hundred ninety-seven female athletes from a competitive club lacrosse organization ranging in age from 11 to 18 completed measures of motivation, mindfulness, and sport commitment, while their coaches completed ratings of performance.   

Variables

Motivation was measured using the Sport Motivation Scale. Motivation exists along a continuum from lacking motivation to various forms of extrinsic motivation to intrinsic motivation, which is the most self-determined form of motivation.  Intrinsic motivation is enhanced when a behavior is engaged in because it is interesting and valued. 

Mindfulness was measured using the Children’s Acceptance and Mindfulness measure.  Mindfulness is defined as present moment awareness in an open, accepting, nonjudgmental way. It involves our ability to direct attention toward the immediate present moment. 

Commitment was measured using the Sport Commitment Scale and is defined as the desire and resolve to continue sport participation.

Performance was measured by coach ratings assessing execution of relevant behaviors or actions as related to one’s skill level and athletic ability, essentially performing up to one’s potential.

Results and Implications

This study found that self-determined motivation was a significant predictor of commitment and mindfulness was a significant predictor of performance. 

          Given the connection between self-determined motivation and commitment, athletes can benefit from increasing intrinsic motivation.  One way to increase intrinsic motivation is to create an environment that fosters the basic needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. An athlete might feel as if their basic needs are met if they are interested in their sport and play an active role in shaping their sport experience, are successful within a challenging environment, and feel connected to their teammates.  An athletic environment that supports basic needs therefore might involve a coach who gives athletes a say in their training regimen, creates challenges in practice that are consistent with the athletes’ skills, and fosters team unity.

            Mindfulness is all about present moment awareness.  It is not only related to performance, but it is also correlated with other variables in this study: commitment and self-determined motivation.  Mindfulness is not about changing the way one feels or getting rid of thoughts; rather it is focused on noticing one’s thoughts and emotions and guiding one’s attention to the task at hand (passing, playing defense, shooting, seeing the ball, etc.).  Athletes can increase present moment awareness by practicing mindfulness exercises, like meditation.  In performance situations, athletes can be mindful by focusing on the task as opposed to the outcome and returning their attention to the present moment instead of dwelling on mistakes.

            Self-determined motivation and mindfulness were examined in this study because they have direct intervention implications.  Sport psychologists can work with coaches, teams, and individual athletes in order to increase levels of self-determined motivation and mindfulness with the potential goal of increasing levels of commitment and performance.

Understanding Sport Psychology

What is the purpose of sport psychology?

Sport psychology helps us understand how psychological factors, like your thoughts, feelings, focus, and level of confidence, impact your performance.  It provides concrete tools for overcoming performance anxiety, improving when in a slump, going from good to great, and great to even better.  Sport psychology also helps us understand how participation in sports impacts your emotional well-being. It provides insight into the importance of taking care of yourself on a broader level and recognizes the way that sports have an effect on your life outside of sports (e.g., how a slump impacts your mood, how sports participation impacts self-esteem).

Why work with a sport psychologist?

When comparing your best and worst athletic performance in the past few months, think about what percentage of the difference in those performances had to do with your physical skills and what percentage was mental? Keeping that percentage in mind, how much time do you spend working on your mental game? For many people, the answer is, not that much. Working with a sport psychologist can help you learn strategies for peak performance so that you can gain a mental edge and perform up to your potential. In addition to peak performance, here are other reasons why athletes seek the help of a sport psychologist:

-       Coping with pressure from others’ expectations and/or your own expectations

-       Managing anxiety: from typical performance anxiety to debilitating performance anxiety

-       Increasing confidence

-       Managing emotions and getting in the zone

-       Increasing your motivation and enjoyment

-       Improving concentration and learning how to stay in the moment

-       Shifting thinking patterns: managing self-critical, negative thoughts and working toward    positive, balanced thoughts

-       Learning how to more effectively cope with injury

-       Addressing body image concerns and/or disordered eating

-       Balancing the demands of athletics with those of everyday life

-       Coping with life stress and its impact both within and outside of sports

-       Coping with depression or anxiety and its impact both within and outside of sports

-       Coping with the end of your sports career