Accept it; don’t fight it
I’m going to let you in on a little-known secret that can help you let go of your performance anxiety. Most of us think we have to feel confident to perform our best. Or we have to think positively to play at our optimal level. While feeling confident and thinking positively certainly can improve performance, they are not always necessary. It is possible to face anxiety, fear, and wavering self-confidence and still bring it. And bring it hard!
Most of us have been taught that we need to fight the anxiety, stop the fear, and turn off those critical voices in our heads. I’ll admit, we sport psychologists are armed with tools to help you do just that. And those skills have their places.
But sometimes we just can’t fight it. In those moments, the anxiety may turn to terror, and the voices may start screaming at us. When this happens, our muscles tense up, our focus shifts to the stuff going on in our heads, and performance ultimately suffers. All of this just confirms our initial fears that we can’t play our best when we’re anxious, thus making pre-performance anxiety a choke-worthy signal that we just aren’t gonna have a good day.
How to accept it
So instead of fighting the jitters, try these two steps*:
- Accept the thoughts and feelings. Tolerate their being there. In fact, those ways of thinking and feeling are probably trying to make you better, though they may be going about it the wrong way. So, acknowledge they’re there: “Oh, there are those butterflies in my gut again.” “Ah, hello, I know this trusty voice in my head that says I better not mess up.” We can learn to pay attention to these thoughts and emotions without judgment and without trying to avoid them, and in doing so we can see that they don’t control our actions.
- Re-focus on what you are doing. You don’t have to be anxiety-free to perform. You do have to be focused on the moment. Learn the cues that help you focus back on the task at hand. You might try visualizing the actions you need to carry out next, or see yourself successfully completing the task. The idea is to focus your attention back onto what you need to do now to reach your goals.
This certainly isn’t easy. It requires practice and commitment. For many of us, this means finding a whole new way to relate to our negative thoughts and feelings. It may even take a few sessions with a sport psychologist to help you get the hang of it. But if you’ve tried fighting your performance anxiety and that hasn’t worked, it may be time to learn to accept it.
*Based on research by Gardner & Moore (2007).