I’ve always been intrigued by the Olympic Games. Not because I have a big interest in most of the sports on display. I don’t.
But I love watching elite athletes attempting to deal with the pressure of performing on the world’s biggest international stage. Compounding that pressure is the fact the Olympics come around only once every four years.
For many of the athletes that have filled our screens the last couple weeks, they have a couple minutes to perform at their best and that’s it. Their biggest competitor is not some athlete from another nation, it’s choking. The medal winners are usually the athletes that are most successful in battling the choking monster.
Choking is a phenomenon that’s common to all athletes, whether it’s the Little League baseball player, recreational weekend warrior, or professional football player.
Those of us who have competed in athletics — or who are still competing — know there’s one thing we all share: at various points we’ve all choked during a sporting event. We’ve gotten so nervous, so tight, that we couldn’t perform anywhere near our potential. As a result, we’ve made mistakes and we’ve lost games or matches we probably shouldn’t have.
Despite this universal experience, the subject of choking remains almost a taboo subject amongst athletes. It’s almost as if the mere mention of the word will elicit the choking sensation.
At various points in my career in sports — coach, sports industry consultant, sports studies professor, writer — I’ve examined the choking phenomenon. I’ve researched the topic, analyzed it, written about it, and read more than a few sports psychology books addressing the issue. My research has resulted from as much personal curiosity as it has professional duty.
Recently, I was listening to a couple basketball analysts discuss the topic of choking in sports. It got me thinking. I jotted down the best things I’ve read, heard, and experimented with, regarding sports anxiety …
First, as long as you play sports, you’re going to experience anxiety on a regular basis. Whether it’s during the seconds before tip-off in a basketball game or the few moments when you’re standing on top of a ski mountain before starting an Olympic downhill run.
Anxiety, nerves, butterflies, jitters, fear, whatever you want to call it, the sensation comes with the territory and it’s part of what makes sports exciting and fun. I once heard a pro football player say, “If you’re not nervous before a game, you’re not ready to play.” I think that’s true.
Nevertheless, it’s important to realize that every athlete “chokes” at some point. Choking goes beyond pre-game butterflies. Choking negatively impacts performance. Even the greats like Roger Federer, Peyton Manning, and Michael Jordan have choked at critical times. They’ve screwed up in games or matches because they were overly anxious or tight. Once again, it’s part of the game and part of being human. The challenge is to manage your anxiety and limit those choking moments.
Here are five tactics for dealing with nerves in sports that I think can be helpful for athletes at any level:
1) Realize Your Opponent is Nervous Too — A lot of times we think we’re the only athlete nervous during a game or match. In reality, our opponent is usually as nervous as we are — and maybe more so. So, it’s a matter of how each opponent deals with it. Tell yourself, “I may be nervous but my opponent is nervous too (whether or not he/she shows that anxiety outwardly).”
2) Admit to Yourself That You’re Choking — Serious. The natural reaction when you start to feel anxious is to try and push it away or ignore it. That seldom works. There’s an old adage that says, “What you resist, persists.” Fighting against anxiety just makes it stronger. According to famous golfer turned golf analyst Johnny Miller, the best approach to choking is to simply admit it. Say to yourself, “I’m choking. It’s completely natural. It just means that what I’m doing is important to me. So, I’m going to acknowledge the nervous feeling and then focus on what I’m trying to do on this next play.” If you’re really adventurous, you can joke about it, e.g., how you might set the all-time record for choking that day. Or, you can even ask your brain for more choking sensations. “Bring it on!” This actually helps dissipate the choking feelings.
3) Be Willing to Fail and Make Mistakes — It seems counterintuitive but being willing to mess up is the best attitude to take. Most fear in sports comes from being unwilling to fail, or make a mistake. The more you resist losing, failure, or making an error, the tighter you become. The natural tendency is to try and avoid being embarrassed. Ironically, the key to success in sports is the willingness to fail. And that’s where a big part of confidence comes from too. If you say to yourself, “I prefer not to fail or make a mistake but if I do, I do. I can handle it,” you’re going to have the advantage over the athlete who’s telling him/herself “I can’t screw up. We have to win this game. If I mess up, or we lose, that would be terrible.” That athlete’s going to be as tight as a drum, while the first athlete, who’s mindset is “If I fail, I fail, I can handle it,” is going to play a lot more loosely and confidently.
4) Focus on the Present Task — There’s a famous sports psychology book called, The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey. One of the key things I remember from reading it is to focus on what’s happening NOW, not what happened last point, or last play … or what might happen in the future. Easier said than done, right? Well, to do that Gallwey recommends what could be called the “One-Two Technique.” Here’s how it works: Focus on the opposing player, when he/she serves, say to yourself “One.” Then, focusing on the ball, say “Two” when you make contact and hit the ball back; “One” when he/she hits it back to you and “Two” when you return it, etc. This gets your mind focused on the present point rather than thinking about a missed shot in the last game, or a potential outcome in the future (e.g., “What if I lose this set?”).
5) When Nervous, Focus on Your Process Routines — When a match or game gets close, focus on your pre-established routines in order to stay in the moment. For example, if shooting a free throw, focus on your free throw process (e.g., bounce the ball three times, spin the ball once, focus on the rim and shoot). A tennis example: before serving, take a deep breath, adjust your strings, bounce the ball twice, look at your target and serve. Whatever your routine, always do the same thing. Therefore, whether it’s during practice or the national championship game, your brain and body will recognize the routine, allowing you the best chance to perform effectively.
The mental game is a big part of sports but an aspect that coaches don’t talk about much – even at the Olympic level — relative to the time they spend on physical topics. The mental/emotional side of sports remains the next great frontier in elite-level sports competition.
For the rest of us non-Olympic caliber athletes, here’s the takeaway: As long as we’re going to continue participating in sports, we might as well adopt a mental approach that maximizes our chances of success and enjoyment.
Adopting the mindset in these five tips is a good place to start.