By Dr. Alan Goldberg
The BIGGEST secret to you playing your best when it counts the most is learning how to keep yourself CALM and COMPOSED. If you allow yourself to get too nervous or too excited right before or during a competition, then your muscles will tighten up, you’ll lose your confidence and your play will go right down the tubes! This is what it means to CHOKE! The athlete gets so nervous that he/she ends up performing tight and tentatively — a mere shadow of his or her normal self!
Runaway pre-game nervousness can come from a lot of different sources: how good your opponents are; how big and aggressive they are; how important a competition is; how big the crowd is (and who in it is watching you); whether you’ll play well today and win; how “excited” your coach may get; how much playing time you’ll get; the court, field or arena you’re playing in — the list goes on and on.
While there are many things about your competitions that can potentially make you nervous, the true cause of your performance-disrupting nervousness isn’t any of the things that I’ve just mentioned above. The real cause of your out-of-control nerves is you! That’s right! YOU make YOURSELF nervous!
What I’m saying here is very important — It’s not what’s happening around or outside of you that makes you nervous. It’s what’s happening INSIDE that is the real cause of stress!
Here’s what I mean: It’s not the size, skill level or reputation of your opponents that makes you nervous. It’s what you say to yourself about them in the days, hours and minutes leading up to the game, match or race that’s the real culprit in sending your heart rate and blood pressure through the roof! Nervousness is always caused by our inner response to the things that are going on outside of us. But here’s the good news about that: If YOU make yourself nervous, then YOU have the ability to change your inner response to calm yourself down under competitive pressure.
Most players who get too nervous to play well do so because of what they focus on and think about as the game approaches. They worry about how well they’ll play, how fast and skilled their opponents are, whether their team will win or lose, what people may think or say about them, etc. Focusing on any or all of these things will guarantee that your stress level will go through the attic and your play will get stuck in the cellar! To stay calm under pressure, you must learn to go into competitions with a completely different headset and focus. I’ve called this proper headset a “CHAMPIONSHIP GAME PLAN.”
A championship game plan is a series of little mental goals that you want to bring into the performance with you. If you follow this game plan, it will guarantee that you’ll stay calm and relaxed when you perform. Remember, playing your best when it counts the most is all about being loose right before and during your competitions.
- Keep Your Concentration in the NOW
When athletes allow their focus of concentration to jump ahead to the future, or drift back to the past, the result is always an increase in their nervousness. If you want to stay cool and calm in the clutch, then you have to train yourself to keep your focus in the NOW — especially during your games, matches or races! This means that leading up to the performance, you don’t want to think about and focus on the upcoming competition and its importance. If you want to play loose and relaxed, you must learn to keep your concentration in the now. When you’re in the action, you want to focus on one present-moment play at a time.
- Recognize When Your Focus “Time Travels” and Bring Yourself Back
It’s very easy to understand that you need to focus in the now, but much harder to consistently do it! The way that you stay in the now is by immediately becoming aware whenever your focus drifts back to the past or ahead to the future, then quickly return your concentration to the now. Losing your focus won’t make you nervous. What will make you nervous is losing your focus and not bringing it back right away! It’s the break in concentration that you don’t immediately catch that will drive your stress level through the roof and sabotage your play.
- Keep Your Focus on You, Your Job, and Your Play
Allowing your focus to drift to anyone or anything other than you, (i.e. your opponents, who’s watching, who might be disappointed in you, how well your teammates may be playing, what the coach is thinking, etc.) will quickly make you feel nervous. Staying focused on you and your job will keep you calm and confident. This also means that whenever you perform, you want to make sure that you DON’T COMPARE YOURSELF WITH OTHERS! Comparison will always make you too nervous to play at your best.
- Have Fun
Performing your best under pressure means that you have to be having fun. Fun is the secret ingredient to staying calm and doing your best when the heat of competition is turned up high. If you make a game, match or race too important, if you put too much pressure on yourself, if you get too serious, then you’ll start getting nervous and your game will do a major disappearing act. When fun goes, so too will all of your game skills. If you really want to perform well, then you have to get into the game, enjoy the tournament, embrace the challenge from a tough opponent, have fun with your friends before, during and after the game!
- Leave Your Goals at Home
One of the biggest tension-inducing mental mistakes that you can make as an athlete is to take your goals with you into the competition. For example, you think, “I want to go 3 for 4,” “pitch a shutout,” “win this tournament,” “score a goal,” “break two minutes,” or “prove to the coaches that I’m good.” Focusing on such outcome goals will make you too nervous to play well and, ironically, cause you never to reach them. Instead, leave your goals at home and keep your focus in the action, on “this” play, shot, pitch or move, one moment at a time!
- Keep Your Mind Distracted Before and After Games
Thinking gets most athletes into trouble and makes them nervous. While you can’t really stop yourself from thinking, you can purposely distract yourself from it. So, in the days and minutes leading up to a big performance or tournament, keep busy. Do not allow yourself a lot of free time to think. Focus on your homework, read a book, watch a movie, listen to music, get involved in non-sports related conversations with friends and do things to keep yourself busy and distracted. “Changing the channel” in this way will help you stay calm and composed in the days and hours leading up to your BIG performances.
- Keep Your Focus of Concentration Away From the Uncontrollables
There are a lot of things that happen in your sport that you do not have direct control over. Any time an athlete focuses on an “uncontrollable” (UC), they will get really nervous, lose their confidence and play badly. So make a list of all of the things about this upcoming competition that you can’t directly control. For example, the officiating; the crowd; coaching decisions, (i.e. playing time); the future, such as the outcome of the game, how well you’ll play, winning or losing; how you are feeling that day; other people’s expectations; etc., and post the list in a highly visible place in your room. Keep in mind that these UCs are mental traps. They are lying in wait for you and every other athlete in that competition. The only way to avoid a trap is to know that it is there! If you find yourself thinking about or focusing on one of these UCs, quickly return your concentration to something in the now that you can control.
Remember, if you really want to play well, you have to stay loose and relaxed. To do this, focus on executing this CHAMPIONSHIP GAME PLAN!
Dr. Alan Goldberg is a nationally-known expert in the field of applied sport psychology, Dr. Goldberg works with athletes and teams across all sports at every level, from professional and Olympic caliber right down to junior competitors. He is the author of 25 mental toughness training programs and Director of Competitive Advantage. His website is www.competitivedge.com.