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Proven Strategies to Crush Performance Anxiety

Almost every day of my childhood was spent playing a sport. My elementary and middle school years were filled with worry-free practices and stress-less games. When I was around 13 years old, I decided that I wanted to play soccer in college and I amped up my training to improve my skills on the field. I made the varsity team as a freshman in high school; however, it wasn’t until I joined a more competitive club team later that year that I first experienced anxiety due to the pressure I felt to succeed on the field. I was constantly worried that I would have a bad game, or a college coach would see my performance and no longer be interested in bringing me on their team. I was so focused on not making a mistake that I ended up making many and my performance on the field suffered.

I quickly realized that I was correct in thinking that a college coach wouldn’t want if I continued to play the way I was – so I decided to make a change and look into mental performance training. These are the 2 techniques I was taught to help me manage my performance anxiety. 

1. Thought Stopping

Right before a game I would get so nervous that I would have constant negative thoughts about how I was going to miss hit a ball or a forward was going to beat me 1v1 and score. These thoughts that crept into my mind would ruminate and repeat throughout the game. They were also often accompanied with nausea and then more anxiety would overcome me about how I was going to be sick on the field; it was a constant vicious cycle. However, after I was introduced to thought stopping, which is the process of recognizing a negative thought and then replacing that thought with a positive one, I found myself enjoying pre-game warmups and my nerves turned into excitement. If I found myself thinking “I am going to have a terrible game” I would recognize that thought as negative and stop it in its tracks, then I would replace it with a positive thought such as “Today I am going to have a great game.” I would repeat these thoughts to myself in my head, but sometimes I would repeat them out loud as well! After I learned how to use thought-stopping, I found that I experienced fewer negative thoughts before a game and performed better during competition. This technique gave me more control over my performance anxiety and decreased the frequency of the negative thoughts.

2. Deep Breathing Exercises

When athletes are anxious, they tend to take rapid, shallow breaths that come directly from their chest; this is called thoracic or chest breathing. This type of breathing causes an upset in the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the body resulting in dizziness, muscle tension, and increased heart rate which can further lead to panic attacks (1).

When I became anxious before games, I would struggle to breathe during the simplest of tasks such as a warmup jog. I first attributed it to my asthma, however, I would use my inhaler and not see much improvement. When my breathing would quicken, I would become more anxious and therefore struggle to breathe even more; another vicious cycle.

My coach suggested I may not be breathing correctly and to try diaphragmatic breathing (diaphragmatic breathing is taking even, deep breaths that expand your abdomen) and at first, I looked at him like he was crazy! Who was this guy telling me I didn't know how to breathe correctly?! It is the easiest thing in the world! But after he taught me what to do, I quickly was able to use breathing as a technique to calm down quickly and effectively. Next time you're feeling anxious before a game try this simple breathing exercise:

  1. Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose for 3 seconds. Relax your shoulders and put your hand on your abdomen. Your abdomen should expand, and your chest should rise very little.

  2. Exhale slowly through your mouth for 3 seconds. Purse your lips and blow air out. Keep your jaw relaxed. Repeat this exercise until you start to feel you breathing slow down and your anxiety lessen.

Performance anxiety is common and even the best athletes get nervous sometimes. There are many more techniques that can help reduce performance anxiety, but these 2 proven techniques were ones I used consistently and helped me the most. Recognizing that performance anxiety was normal and asking for help allowed me to take control of my soccer career and go on to play Division 1 soccer at Saint Joseph’s University.

How can you take control of your performance anxiety today?

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