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  • Writer's pictureShaylan Ahearn

Attacking Preseason Anxiety

August 21, 2019. I am 18 years young. I am on my own for the first time in my life. I am walking into possibly the most successful collegiate sports program of all time that is coming off of its’ 15th national championship spring season. My palms are sweaty, my heart is racing, and I have 1,000 butterflies in my stomach. I get done with my first practice and the flood of anxious thoughts and feelings begin. Did coach notice that pass I dropped? Did the seniors think that I was too aggressive? How in the world am I supposed to fit into this team? Am I going to start? All of these questions are coming from a state of uncertainty and unfamiliarity.

Anxiety refers to “a feeling of unease, such as worry or fear, that can be mild or severe.” Most often, this feeling of anxiety comes from two main components, 1) the presence of an unfamiliar situation and 2) the presence of an unfamiliar task. As athletes, we do not like this feeling of unfamiliarity, therefore our instinct is to try and acclimate to the situation as soon as possible. When this acclamation process is slow or lacking, we begin to develop that uneasy feeling that can lead us to a downward spiral of worry, doubt, and overthinking.

Performance anxiety is something that most athletes will struggle with, or have already struggled with during their careers. The American Psychology Association defines performance anxiety as “apprehension and fear of the consequences of being unable to perform a task or of performing it at a level that will raise expectations of even better task achievement.” There are an infinite number of factors that can contribute to performance anxiety and most fall into one of three overarching themes. These threat themes are rooted in Social (e.g.,“I can’t breathe because I am so nervous I may let my parents down if I don’t play well”), Personal (e.g., If I don’t play well it will show that I am just not good enough and I suck at my sport), and Professional consequences (e.g., If I don’t catch the passes thrown to me my coach is going to bench me). These social, personal, and professional threats can lead to overthinking/analyzing, distrust of ourselves and our teammates, and overall performance below our athletic abilities.

If you feel like you have experienced performance anxiety in the past, you are not alone. Looking back, I can now understand my preseason butterflies as performance anxiety experienced while adjusting to a new team. Performance anxiety is especially relevant during the preseason and early parts of the athletic year. During this time, some of us are undergoing tryouts which may put us in an unfamiliar situation with a new coach, new teammates, a new school, etc. Others may be on the same team but unsure of what our role or position will look like. These unfamiliar and ambiguous situations can lead to that feeling of anxiety, and if handled improperly, that anxiety can lead to a decrease in performance.

Now for the good news. We do NOT have to let the anxiety win! Believe it or not, there are many simple skills we can develop that can help us manage and work through performance anxiety to ensure we are mentally prepared come game time.

Here are 3 simple skills that I like to use to attack my performance anxiety during the preseason:

1.) Preparation/practice:

My favorite tool to use to limit my performance anxiety during the preseason is preparation. I like to think of preparing as “controlling the controllables”. What do I mean by this? Well, we cannot always control how much playing time we get, who we are playing against, the weather we are playing in, etc., but we CAN control how hard we work, train, and prepare. Practicing allows our minds and bodies to become familiar with situations we may encounter in a game, leaving us more prepared and confident. This increase in confidence and familiarity can then help decrease and even prevent performance anxiety at times.

2.) Positive self-talk/ affirmations:

Positive self-talk is a skill that I use to combat performance anxiety in every practice, game, and training session. Preparation is great to limit or even prevent performance anxiety from its onset, but positive self-talk can be a good tool to use when you are beginning to feel anxious and need to manage and respond to it. Self-talk can come in two forms, motivational or instructive, and both can be beneficial! You can think of Motivational self-talk as being your own biggest fan. When using motivational self-talk you focus on encouraging and motivating yourself to exceed in a task or situation with a positive inner dialogue (i.e. “you got this”, “you're amazing”, “keep playing”, etc). Instructional self-talk is more like being your own coach. It involves offering yourself guidance through a specific task (ie. Sit low on defense, box out after this shot, etc.) that will lead to an increase in performance. Both versions of self-talk are useful at different times and for different people. Try them both out and see which you like better and what situations you could use them in.

3.) Visualization exercises:

Visualization is an extremely helpful skill that I use before every single one of my games. It is a great skill to use in preparation for a task that you know could cause you some performance anxiety. Visualization is a mental rehearsal of how you would want to perform in a specific situation. It involves engaging all of your senses (sight, taste, smell, hearing,touch) to make the visualized situation as real as possible. Visualizing can help you feel familiar with a situation before it happens and more confident in your performance when it does. Instead of being anxious or unsure, you will be calm and prepared after using visualization.

There are so many skills you can build to attack performance anxiety. Preparation, positive self-talk, and visualization are great options to consider, but there are other skills that can help just as much. It is all about finding the strategies that work best for you. Everyone experiences performance anxiety in different ways and because of different triggers, what matters is that we realize that we can push through the unfamiliarity and discomfort to come out resilient and confident come time to perform. If you need more assistance with attacking performance anxiety, it is always best to get help from licensed practitioners. See the “Meet the Team page” on our website for more information on available practitioners and always know there are other athletes in your same corner, struggling with, adapting to, and pushing through the same mental barriers to sport.

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