Mind Games: Accept Competitive Anxiety and Know That You Can Cope With It

Picture the following scene: Ricky, a running back for his high school football team, takes the handoff from his quarterback and runs off-tackle as the play is designed. As he turns the corner, a large, menacing linebacker suddenly appears, possessing an evil intent to pummel Ricky to the ground into submission and rip the football from his clutching hands.

To avoid this unfortunate turn of events, Ricky must be able to respond quickly – either forcefully or elusively. If only his brain and body had the ability to summon the mental and physical energy in that short amount of time to avoid being tackled (or perhaps worse!). Fortunately for Ricky, his innate “fight or flight” response will allow him to do just that.

What is the innate “fight or flight” response, you ask? When you perceive a threat, your brain automatically triggers the release of chemicals, such as adrenaline, into your bloodstream that result in various bodily changes, such as a faster heart beat, more rapid breathing, and less blood flow to your hands and feet. These changes ultimately result in more blood and oxygen being made available to your large muscle groups, such as your chest, back, and legs, equipping you to either fight or flee from the threat.

In Ricky’s case, perceiving the linebacker as a threat is a normal response that will prepare his body to meet his opponent head on and either force his everyday competitions as threatening. That is, they believe that they have something to lose as a result of competing, such as their starting position, their status of being better than their opponent, or even approval from their parents or coaches.

If you have ever perceived competitions in a threatening manner such as this, you likely worried too much about the competition, were apprehensive about performing, and perhaps even were fearful of how you might play. In addition, you likely noticed that your heart was pounding in your chest, your muscles were tense, you were having some difficulty catching your breath, and/or perhaps your stomach felt queasy.

Although this is a normal response to a threat, sport psychologists refer to these unpleasant perceived feelings of worry, tension, and nervousness experienced by athletes as competitive anxiety. Research in sport psychology consistently indicates that too much anxiety typically results in poorer performances. Mentally tough athletes, however, are able to manage their competitive anxiety, which plays a very important role in helping them achieve at their best.

You might be inclined to think that better athletes are not as anxious prior to a competition compared to less skilled athletes. If so, you would be mistaken. Rather, successful athletes simply deal better with their anxiety by peaking in anxiety just prior to the competition, automatically using anxiety-coping strategies, getting their anxiety under control by the start of the competition, and interpreting their anxiety more positively.

To help you cope better with your competitive anxiety prior to a competition, apply these three simple strategies:

¦ Tell yourself over and over that your anxiety is your brain’s natural way to prepare your body to face your competition who is trying to take away something that you want.

¦ View your anxiety as a sign that you are being challenged vs. threatened, and you are ready and prepared to compete as a result of being somewhat anxious.

¦ If you feel overly anxious before a competition, breathe deeply by inhaling prior to the start. If you notice yourself worrying too much or feeling too nervous during the competition at any point, simply take 2-3 deep breaths (inhale for a count of 2, exhale for a count of 4) and tell yourself to “relax” to gain control over your mind and body.

Mentally tough athletes realize that competitive anxiety is normal, interpret their anxiety as being helpful to their performance, and use strategies to effectively cope with too much anxiety to achieve a peak performance. Are you mentally tough? for a count of 2 seconds and exhaling for a count of 4 seconds for 2-3 minutes

The Argosy University/Phoenix Center for Excellence in Sport (ACES) offers programs that teach athletes how to excel at using mental skills, instruct coaches how to develop mental toughness in their athletes, and inform parents how to cultivate performance and personal excellence in their children. For more information about ACES, contact Dr. Harmison at rharmison@argosyu.edu or visit www.argosyu.edu/phoenix/aces or 602-216-2600 .