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Helping athletes manage their anxiety

This is an excerpt from Successful Coaching-5th Edition by Rainer Martens & Robin S. Vealey.

If some arousal is good, why isn’t more of it better? High levels of arousal usually occur when athletes become anxious and worried about whether they will be able to succeed—especially failure-oriented athletes. Anxiety is based on the threat of failure and being evaluated by others in the very public arena of sport. Athletes are often uncertain if they can meet the demands and perform well, especially in situations where the outcome is very important (e.g., championship competition).

Anxiety hurts performance in two ways. First, it causes muscles to tense so that athletes’ movements are not as smooth and easy as when their muscles are more relaxed. Second, anxiety disrupts the focus needed to perform well. It can cause athletes to think about how they are doing a skill rather than concentrating on just doing it (as the famous Nike tagline reminds us). Anxious thinking is typically future oriented and involves worries about outcomes, which disrupts athletes’ optimal focus on task-relevant cues.

How can we help athletes manage their anxiety? Several strategies are suggested here for coaches:

1. Decrease athletes’ feelings of uncertainty. Coaches can emphasize that athletes and the team as a whole are ready and well-prepared leading into competition. They can remind athletes that all they need to do is play and compete like they do each day in practice. At halftime of a national championship game, Alabama football coach Nick Saban (2007) reminded his team, “All we’ve got to be is us.”

2. Teach athletes that anxiety, which may feel unpleasant, can be a helpful response to get their bodies ready to compete. Our bodies are biochemical wonders that prepare us to exert great effort and intensity to perform amazing feats. Anxiety can be a helpful mental and physical response that enables athletes to perform at higher levels (Hanton et al., 2008).

Whether anxiety helps or hurts performance is largely determined by how athletes interpret their anxiety symptoms. If athletes feel anxious and think of that as a harmful thing, they tend to shift their attention to the threatening aspects of competition (e.g., how I might screw up, what could go wrong, I’ll let others down). However, mentally skilled athletes perceive anxiety as a signal to engage in coping and focus strategies to productively manage their thoughts and feelings (Hanton et al., 2008). Athletes should think about using the energy versus allowing the energy to use them. Tiger Woods explained how he views his anxiety (Morrice 2019, p. 58):

Am I ever nervous? Are you kidding me? I’m nervous on the very first shot. I’m nervous throughout the entire day. But it’s how I channel it, how I harness it. How do I put that energy into deeper focus or deeper intensity? That’s something we all can do. It’s not being afraid of it or ashamed of it. Go after it.

Teach athletes to accept the anxiety that is a normal response to competition, and to use the feelings as a sign of readiness and excitement.

3. Provide athletes with some strategies to use when they feel anxious. Athletes should focus on controllable process goals to keep their focus on the task (e.g., “next play” or “solid”). Instead of thinking, “I’m nervous,” they should think, “I’m excited” or “I’m ready.” Deep breaths help our bodies to relax, and a strong posture and confident walk helps us to feel more in control. Athletes should plan and then stick to preperformance routines to prime themselves in a familiar way for performance. These are preplanned ways of preparing for competition­—doing certain things and thinking in productive ways. For some athletes, being distracted from the upcoming competition (and thinking too much), such as hanging out with teammates, is helpful.

More Excerpts From Successful Coaching 5th Edition