Athletes often experience stress during games or competitions, which in turn compromises their physical performance. These negative thoughts can cause athletes to “choke” even if they would otherwise have a high performance level. This common form of anxiety that occurs before or during play time can have a devastating effect on athletic performance. This is where the relatively new practice of sports psychology comes in to play.
Our bodies are programmed with the fight or flight response, which takes action in an athletic setting when the player is afraid of losing or performing poorly. The way to override this fight or flight response is not with more practice, but with mental conditioning. Practicing is good for improving upon a skill, but when an athlete experiences performance anxiety, their skill level usually isn’t the cause of the problem. The problem lies in the mental aspect of the game, so mental conditioning and relaxation techniques are more likely to solve the issue than traditional practice.
Professional sports players are often criticized when they do not perform at their best all the time; they are expected to be machines. Behind the scenes, many pro athletes suffer from anxiety. Dontrelle Willis, of the Detroit Tigers, missed the first six weeks of the 2009 season due to an anxiety disorder. Khalil Greene of the St. Louis Cardinals agreed to be placed on the disabled list for 15 days due to anxiety. Boxer Mike Tyson has admitted to suffering from chronic depression, most likely from the pressures of his sport. Anxiety and other mental disorders are not uncommon in professional sports, but most athletes do not talk about these problems in the public light.
Sports stars often hire sports psychologists to help them with common anxiety problems. Most of the time, the athletes simply work to develop their self confidence and mental strength before and during a game. Sports psychologists help athletes learn coping skills so they can look at the game in a new light.
The first mistake that some sports players make is to overthink their performance. This causes them to dwell on potentially disastrous outcomes, which in turn leads to severe performance anxiety as they try to fight their negative thoughts. Sports psychology professionals work with athletes that have these problems and help to train their brain to be supportive, not destructive, during sporting activities. There are a few common methods that sports psychologists use to promote good mental practice.
The first method to reducing performance anxiety is learning relaxation techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation or diaphragmatic breathing. Practicing these techniques reduces the physical response to anxiety, such as tense muscles, shallow breathing or a skyrocketing heart rate. All of these effects on the body can lead to a poor performance on the field, so keeping them under control is important for success. The techniques can be practiced weeks, days and hours before a competition to ensure nerves will be kept at bay.
Another way sports psychologists reduce anxiety in athletes is through cognitive restructuring. Cognitive restructuring is the process of changing habits, and it is especially helpful to athletes in this situation. The process of changing habitual thinking helps athletes channel adrenaline and pressure into excitement and motivation instead of worry. The athletes that have mastered this are able to rise to the challenge time after time without fail.
Although these strategies can be practiced alone, people often lack the discipline and motivation to coach themselves in this issue. Sports psychologists specialize in helping athletes of every skill level overcome their anxiety problems and perform to the best of their ability every time they play.