Overcoming Sports Performance Anxiety with Mental Training

The most important thing is our heads and our mentality

-Karim Benzema, Pro Soccer Player

Have you ever set big ambitions for your sports career but your performance anxiety stopped you from pursuing them? You are not alone. Sports performance anxiety is a very familiar thing for so many student-athletes like you. On one hand, feeling anxious about competing or taking risks is normal. Anxiety is just a human reaction trying to protect you from danger. Yet when it becomes uncontrollable, anxiety can be a real mental health barrier, leaving you with very few resources to fulfill your athletic potential. Fortunately, there are solutions for it. Plenty of athletes have conquered their biggest nerves and fears through mental training and with the right support. If you’re one of the athletes who hasn’t got to the other side of their fears yet, hang in there. In this article, we are going to help with some information on how to overcome performance anxiety in sports

Identifying Performance Anxiety Triggers

Performance anxiety doesn’t come out of nowhere. It’s usually triggered by some hidden beliefs you have about yourself or the world. Or there might be a certain environment, person, or smell that will make you anxious. Your triggers will be different from another student-athlete’s, which is why it’s crucial to become familiar with them. There are several types of performance anxiety, so identifying the one you’re struggling with is the first step to conquering it.

Try to reflect on what’s causing you to feel performance anxiety in sports. Is it the thought of letting someone down? The thought of people making fun of you? A memory from your childhood when you were punished for your mistakes? If you cannot immediately put your finger on what’s making you feel anxious, try to remember the last time when you felt this way.

Was sort of things were you thinking?

Were you stressed by something in particular?

It is well-known that stress and sports performance are not a great combination, which is why another crucial step is reducing your stress levels.

Identifying Performance Anxiety Triggers

Once you’ve identified your performance anxiety triggers, the next step is figuring out what you need to overcome them. If your anxiety is severe and drastically alters your performance, you should seek professional mental health support. Your medical practitioner can also prescribe you medication that will keep your anxiety under control, or can additionally refer you to a qualified psychologist or counselor. They will be the best person to know the right course of action once they’ve taken a sports performance anxiety test.

However, if your sports performance anxiety is manageable and only mildly interferes with your goals, some changes in your mental training routine might be appropriate for you. Perhaps you could benefit from mental coaching for performance that would teach you how to work with episodes of stress and anxiety. Mental training might sound complicated, but it’s way more simple in practice. To train your mind is to discipline it so that you feel calm, more focused, and less anxious. Here are some ways to train your mind to overcome performance anxiety:

Student athlete having self doubt

Talk gently to yourself

Positive self-talk in sports is a must. Student-athletes are often harsh to themselves because they think that by pushing themselves, they become more motivated. While this is possible in the short term, it might do more harm than good in the long run. When you tell yourself harsh things and criticise yourself, you will begin to internalize those words as the truth about who you are. As a result, your self-esteem will suffer.

You need to talk gently to yourself because you need to be your biggest supporter. If you don’t see yourself as someone worthy of love and encouragement, how can you allow yourself to receive these things from someone else? One major of how to improve sports performance is learning how to treat yourself with more gentleness and care while aiming high in your sports career.

Practice emotional regulation

High performers know how to improve mental performance because they know how to deal with their emotions. They don’t become controlled by them — instead, they use emotions as data about what’s going on internally. If they feel fear, they know their thoughts aren’t aligned with the person they want to be.

A major part of mental training for high sports performance is emotional regulation. In simpler words, this is learning to ride the waves of intense and difficult emotions. One way you can do this is by observing an intense emotion when it arises. Don’t become consumed by it: just observe it. Then ask yourself what you would need to make that emotion easier to process. Do you need to talk to someone? Do you need to cry or shout? Do you need to spend time by yourself and in silence? Don’t try to “fix” your emotions as if they are something wrong. Meet them where they are and respond to the deeper need of that emotion. Athletics sports and performance isn’t just about being ‘tough’ and insensitive – it’s also about dealing with emotions in a gentle way.

Nourish your brain

A healthy lifestyle — including diet is key to good mental health, and you know that mental health does affect performance in sports. To complement your mental training, make sure that your diet does not fuel your performance anxiety. Limit caffeine, eat a few hours before training, and have nutritious meals as often as possible. You can also use brain performance supplements but only when advised by your medical practitioner. These can help with your cognitive performance and enhance your focus when competing.

Find your anchor (or safe space)

Mental performance in sports depends on your ability to access your highest state of mind. If you are frightened before a competition, you will only play with your mediocre self. Calming your anxiety when you feel nervous can start with finding a place, person, or object that anchors you into a calm state of mind. What anchors you when you feel restless? What stops your thoughts from racing? Anything that makes you feel grounded, at ease, and relaxed can be used to calm yourself when feeling nervous. Finding your anchors in times of distress can be part of a sports anxiety treatment. It is a therapeutic intervention that anyone can practice by themselves when wanting to shift into a calmer state of mind.

After identifying that safe space where you can just be yourself without worrying about anything, simply bring this place to mind whenever you feel anxious and imagine there is nothing in the world that could harm you.

Build a confident mental state

If you don’t usually feel confident, you have to teach your mind and body how this state of mind feels. The great part about the brain is that is flexible and it can be “tricked” into mental performance, meaning that you can learn how to be a confident athlete if aren’t one already.

One of the most efficient mental training practices used by elite athletes and high performers is visualization. It’s a mental imagery technique that entails that you are bringing to mind an image of your desired state of mind, and you connect with that state until it becomes natural to you. The brain cannot tell the difference between imagination and reality, so even if your confident state of mind is just an imagined one in the beginning, your mind will learn how this state feels. Over time, once you access this confident state again and again, you will begin to feel and act like a confident person. Mental performance in sports is directly impacted by confidence, so this practice is a must if you want to overcome performance anxiety.

Final Words

Anxiety in sports psychology is a major topic. Many athletes struggle with it, so don’t feel alone in your struggle. Unless it becomes unmanageable — in which case a medical professional is the first person you should seek — anxiety around sports performance can be managed with therapy, lifestyle changes, and mental training. You can start by building a toolkit of resources to use whenever you feel anxious — such as a grounding technique, breathing exercises, and visualizations — and getting used to riding the waves of anxiety when they arise. Anxiety is a core mental health key performance indicator, so make sure that you always look after your well-being and ask for help when you need it.

Lastly, don’t forget that performance anxiety in sports doesn’t make a less talented athlete. It’s an emotional issue that everyone faces occasionally, but it can definitely be overcome!