How to overcome pre-performance fears in sports

If you’ve ever performed in any event where expectations, judgment, and the potential for failure were on the line, then it’s likely you’ve experienced some performance fears.

It’s that feeling of being jittery, uncertain, having difficulty staying calm or focusing your mind, sweating, being sick in the stomach, and various other physical and mental discomforts that might start hours or even days before a big competition.

Before we get into how to overcome your performance fears, let’s make a clear distinction between that and a healthy, normal amount of nervousness.

While most people consider being nervous before a game, or even practice, to be a bad thing, it’s actually a perfectly normal physiological response. Some nervousness can help focus your attention by tuning out the other things in your life that aren’t relevant right now, charging your body to prepare for peak performance, and getting you excited and revved up for the challenge and fun of the game, which will serve you well in the arena.

In biology terms, we’re basically talking about an arousal of the nervous system and there are varying degrees to which this can occur. This is a concept I frequently reference in my books and workbooks for athletes in many sports, and here’s an illustration that can help explain further:

Under-arousal – (“not enough nervous”) where you’re not really invested in what’s happening, are distracted or bored, over-confident and/or generally not interested in the game or your own performance.

Optimal arousal ­– (“good nervous”) where you’re a little nervous but also focused and feeling positive and confident, excited for the game to begin so you can participate in the challenge and pleasure of the sport. This is the ideal state for peak performance.

Over-arousal – (“bad nervous”) where “performance fears” and dread are felt as an extreme experience, dominating your mind with negative thoughts and your body with stress and physical tension, ultimately leading to a lack of confidence and a poor performance.

I share this to emphasize that not all nervousness is something that needs to be overcome, and urge that you think deeply about what you’re really feeling. If it’s butterflies in your stomach that calm down once you get into the action, then you’re totally fine and should simply accept and appreciate this process for what it is: a normal level of physiological arousal that helps get your energy where it needs to be to do your best.

1. Deep breathing.

Since this feeling is directly tied to your body’s stress response, it’s important to tone down the parasympathetic nervous system and invite the brain’s natural calm response to balance everything out. Deep breathing is the best, most effective, and quick-acting way of doing that. When you’re being plagued by performance fears, simply close your eyes and take several deep, slow breaths. It might be just what you need to bring you back into the normal range of nervousness and get into the game. If your pre-performance nerves are an ongoing issue, then don’t just save it for game time, practice deep breathing every day, several times a day. Over time you’ll find that it prevents performance fears from bubbling up in the first place.

2. Go to your “safe place.”

Your mind is an incredibly powerful tool if you know how to use it. Just like it can run wild with negative thoughts and push your body into a stress response if you allow it to, it can help calm you down and leave you feeling positive and free. Your “safe place” is any thought or memory of a place you love, a positive experience from your past, or any place you can go in your mind’s eye to feel completely removed, relaxed, comfortable, and confident. Let your imagination be your guide and connect with this place for a moment or a few minutes whenever you feel over-aroused. Just make sure not to allow negative thoughts to keep running in the background, such as “this isn’t working, this is dumb, it’s not going to do anything..” and indulge yourself in really concentrating on this safe place instead. Hopefully you’ll find yourself calmer and more relaxed after this exercise so you can get into the game.

3. Take action to minimize your fears.

This last recommendation is less about a quick fix in the heat of your performance nerves, and more about your ongoing efforts to prevent it. Analyze the thoughts you get and make a plan to address them. If you’re worried that you’re not strong or fast enough, then practice more. If you’re feeling too much pressure from your coach, parents, or others then have an open dialogue to express yourself and manage their expectations. If you’re putting too much pressure on yourself, then remind yourself that it is a mental mistake to bring your goals/expectations with you into a competition. Remember goals are a motivational tool for practice ONLY!

By addressing your performance fears head on and taking action to minimize them, rather than allowing yourself to get increasingly nervous, you will find yourself more and more within the normal range of nervousness and performing at your best.

Have you experienced and successfully overcome pre-performance nerves? Please share your experience and what worked for you in the comments below so we can all benefit from different strategies.

Alan Goldberg on Twitter
Alan Goldberg
Sports Coach at Competitive Edge

As an internationally-known expert in the field of peak sports performance, Dr Alan Goldberg works with athletes and teams across all sports at every level, from professional and Olympic calibre right down to junior competitors. Alan specialises in peak performance and mental toughness for athletes of all ages at www.competitivedge.com.


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