How to Deal with Performance Anxiety (from a high-level athlete)
No matter if you’re heading out to No-Gi practice on Thursday nights or you’re warming up for the IBJJF Worlds, you may feel a level of performance anxiety creeping up. You’re not the only one.
This sort of stress may look like an athlete performing relatively well during practice or training but then falling short of their in competition—not because of lack of skill but simply because of feelings of nervousness, anxiety or fear.
There are two main reasons why performance anxiety can hit—normally it’s related to the fans…having a much larger audience than you would normally have during practice OR it could be the high expectations you or others have set for yourself.
No matter what the case is, if you’ve had it before you should definitely be aware of one thing: you DO have control. With a deeper look into sports psychology and mental practice, let’s see how we can deal with performance anxiety.
First and foremost, let’s dig a little deeper into the anxiety: why is it there? Were you recently injured and is this your first game back? Can the result of this competition have a big impact on your future career? Is this your first competition—ever?
There can be so many reasons why anxiety comes on. Knowing why those feelings of nervousness are coming on can help you control it. Understand your opponent. It can help you conquer them.
Signs of Anxiety
Don’t know if you’re having performance anxiety? If you are breathing fast, have an increased heart rate, have butterflies, your muscles are tense, feel like vomiting or are sweating (and not due to exercise), any of these signs can signify performance anxiety.
Muscle tension, an increased heart rate, and shortness of breath are all symptoms of performance anxiety, which can lead to poor performance.
Types of Anxiety and How to Deal
Although in some cases, some high-performance athletes thrive off of pressure, with the anxiety coming in the form of adrenaline rather than negative stress, other athletes are not so lucky.
So while the athlete next to you might be pumped up and ready to go, you might be feeling your pre-game snack coming back up again.
Here are a few types of competition-day jitters you might have and a few ways to help you combat them:
Before the Event: “Pre-Competition Jitters” are extremely normal—especially if you are competing in a high-level environment where a lot is at stake. Instead of trying to fight it off, try and accept it, using that adrenaline rush to propel you forward.
You can prepare yourself with purpose. Have a routine that you normally do before competition. Eat the same things, warm-up the same way. This can consciously get you (and your body) ready, making you feel confident in your routine.
Envision the competition or match taking place in your head. See the venue, the mat, the opponent. Whatever you think you’re going to see, let it fill you up and get you prepared for those images in real life.
During the Event: Normally, most anxiety goes away within the first bit after the whistle blows. However, you might find that your anxiety is producing negative thoughts—especially when you make a mistake. Instead of letting those negative thoughts consume you:
Focus on the positive and the small, executable tasks. Complete your first pass, focus on your body movement, and doing the very first thing correctly—everything else will fall into place.
Try and smile. Take a step back and reduce the amount of pressure on your shoulders. Even if it feels mechanic, a smile can exert feelings inside of you that counters that anxiety.
After the Event: Still feeling anxious? Especially if you’ve made a few mistakes, you might be feeling stressed about your performance. Instead of replaying bad moments in your head, you should:
Focus and remember all the things you did well or that was positive in your performance.
Wait until a day or two after a loss—wait until that sting lessens—to go back and watch or think about your performance. Watching video helps you grow but will leave you feeling bitter if done immediately after a poor performance.
How to Overcome Performance Anxiety
Although there are so many different methods recommended to help overcome or reduce performance anxiety, it might take you a few tries to find the things that work well for you.
Coming from a top athletic background, a few things that personally worked for me—whether you’re playing for a fun, intramural league or representing your country—would be to:
Breathe. Just breathe. You can either simply focus on your breathing in the moment, counting your inhale and exhale or even meditate. Gentle stretching—some form of light yoga—can also help you get mentally (and physically) prepared for the big competition.
Stop bad thoughts in its tracks. No matter how high-level of an athlete you are, self-doubt will inevitably come around. Focus on everything you’ve accomplished, all you’ve trained, and what you’re good at. You have to train yourself mentally to stop a negative train of thought before it even begins to pick up speed.
Be prepared. Know how your body reacts to certain foods, drinks, and routines. If black coffee helps get you hyped, go for it—but if it leaves you feeling jittery, lay off it until way after the match. Try and keep your pre-game nutrition similar before every competition, that way not only will your body be ready, taking the same food in will trigger your mind that you’ve got to get ready for battle.
Performance Anxiety is Normal
However, if you let it hinder your performance, you’re letting it get the best of you. Take control! Try these methods out to help you manage your anxiety and focus on your abilities rather than having it have a negative impact on your body.