Nerves and Stress
Understanding The Biggest Mental Barrier In Sports
All athletes will experience nerves and stress from time to time. Using them productively can be the difference between success and failure.
“Never let the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game.”
– Babe Ruth, Sporting icon
Competitive sports are among the most emotionally charged activities that anybody ever partakes in. Unsurprisingly, nerves and stress are common issues experienced by student-athletes and professional stars.
Almost everyone who has played competitive sports can recall feeling nervous or stressed before the big game. However, learning to control those emotions is crucial to developing mental toughness and a strong mindset for sports. Moreover, controlled nervous energy can provide an edge over the competition.
Why do people experience nerves and stress in sports?
The presence of stress and pre-game nerves in sporting environments should be no surprise. Athletes feel nervous for various reasons, whether it’s the big high school game or the NBA finals. Some of the key issues include;
Everything they have been working for has built up to this moment,
There is pressure to impress fans, coaches, and parents – the intense pressure in youth sports can also affect athletes in other aspects of life.
Athletes worry that they won’t deliver a fair account of their ability.
There is the knowledge that a single mistake could undo all that hard work – which may explain why individual athletes experience worse mental health than team athletes.
Like injuries – are out of their control.
Expectations are out of alignment.
Perhaps most tellingly, there is a biological reason. Stress activates the HPA axis, which – as per simplypsychology.org – controls interactions between the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands to raise blood pressure and heart rate for sports. While it might not always feel like it, stress plays a vital role in supporting athletes in some ways.
Meanwhile, Forbes explains that anxiety is “physiologically almost the same as the feeling of excitement.” So, nerves can actively feed into channeling positive emotions ahead of the big game.
Ultimately, stress and nerves are natural phenomena humans feel ahead of big moments, especially when they cannot control all of the outcomes. The sporting arena isn’t any different.
How do nerves impact sporting performance?
While nerves and stress may be commonplace, that should not detract from the need to overcome them. They may assist the body concerning heart rates and blood pressure. However, stress and pre-game nerves can negatively impact an athlete’s performance.
Research shows that motor function is negatively affected by stress and the activation of the HPA axis. For an athlete, this translates to a compromised ability to complete the physical movements and cognitive tasks needed to thrive on the court on the field. The results include slower movements, missed shorts, dropped balls, or slips and falls.
Furthermore, reduced performances can be coupled with mental stumbling blocks that lead to confusion and a lack of focus. It has also been anecdotally and statistically shown to increase the risk of injuries due to increased muscle tension and coordination difficulties. Naturally, stress can also severely compromise your enjoyment of sporting activities.
Coping mechanisms to overcome pre-game nerves
Nerves and stress are among amateur and professional athletes’ most significant mental obstacles. The pressures they bring have seen soccer superstar Lionel Messi miss penalty kicks. Coping mechanisms are crucial.
Firstly, experience is crucial and can help reduce stress. While nerves won’t completely fade away, they will be less impactful as you’ll know how to respond. However, plenty of additional steps can be taken to overcome the mental jitters (aka the Yips) in sports. Some of the most effective include;
Developing breathing techniques. Deep breathing is shown by studies at Harvard to quell stress.
Visualize success during pre-game moments. It takes you out of the stress-fuelled moments and helps you use excitement in a positive way.
Focus on what you can control and stay in the moment. This can be especially important in team sports, where success isn’t only reliant on your performance.
Recognize your negative thoughts and learn to address them before they escalate into something that impacts your performance.
Develop pre-game routines. This makes everything become natural so that even a big game feels like any other.
Meanwhile, parents of student-athletes can play a positive role by learning not to add extra pressure. Be supportive but let your athlete work with their coaches and teammates to regain control of their state of mind. By achieving clarity and finding ways to efficiently manage stress before high-pressure situations, both physical and mental performance in sporting environments should remain undisrupted.
Optimal performances and unlocked potential await.