Stress can affect an athlete's performance as much as an injury. Fans have seen players go from unstoppable forces to subpar performers on the field or court because something feels off and something is holding them back.
In early 2017, Stephen Curry hit a slump that affected his entire team. While three-pointers normally come naturally to him, he went four for 31 in three games on the road in March. It’s not that he forgot how to shoot; it’s that his stress and mental game were off balance.
This can happen to any player, and will probably happen at least once during a player’s career. Here’s how players can cope with stress on gameday to limit the effect nerves can have on performance.
Understanding Stress and Its Sources
There are countless things you can’t control when you take the field, but your stress is one of the few things you can. Dr. Alan Goldberg at Competitive Advantage explains that nervousness is caused by our inner response to outside elements.
“It’s not the size, skill level or reputation of your opponents that makes you nervous,” he writes. “It’s what you say to yourself about them in the days, hours and minutes leading up to the game, match or race that’s the real culprit in sending your heart rate and blood pressure through the roof!”
This stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Rory McIlroy says players are always nervous when they tee up at a major championship because it means they want it. If they didn’t care, they wouldn’t have the nerves.
Dr. Patrick Cohn at Peak Sports believes stress can make players more alert, more motivated to practice and more committed to win. It’s only when stress moves from healthy levels to unhealthy levels that it leads to performance anxiety and affects game play.
Reducing stress levels is particularly important for student athletes, who also have to juggle classes and school activities. The team at Oklahoma Sports & Fitness explains that the body can’t differentiate between performance stress and lifestyle stress. All of the body’s stressors build up and have an overall effect on an athlete's hormones, metabolism and immune system.
By maintaining balanced levels of stress during the week — and limiting stress spikes on gameday to healthy levels — there’s room for student athletes to stress about midterms and essay assignments as well.
The key to succeeding on gameday is to balance this stress and keep it at a healthy level. There are a few ways players can do this in the days and hours leading up to a game.
Know When to Tune Out the Game
The first step any player can take when they’re looking to reduce stress is to learn when to turn on their game prep. It can be excruciating waiting for a game to start, especially if it’s in the afternoon and evening.
Unfortunately, stress tends to build on itself, which is why the team at One Million Skates encourages hockey players to think about anything else but the game when they’re not at practice.
“Focus on your homework, read a book, watch a movie, listen to music, get involved in non-hockey related conversations with friends and do things to keep yourself busy and distracted,” Dr. Goldberg writes.
By essentially “changing the channel,” players can mentally relax and only channel stress when they’re ready.
Worrying about something like your technique during this time can do more harm than good. Dr. Jim Taylor, a renowned sport psychologist, believes athletes need to get out of their heads on gameday and trust their technique. He says one of two things will happen if you take the field thinking about the technical aspects of your game:
By focusing on the technique during the game, you won’t play well.
You may play technically well by focusing on the technique, but you won’t perform at your best because you’re not focused on playing hard.
Essentially, he compares gameday to a major test or final exam: You can’t learn several months’ worth of material in a few hours. When the teacher hands out the exam (or when the opposing team steps onto the court), you’re either prepared or not.
Don’t Mess With Pregame Rituals
Pregame rituals have been proven to help athletes, but not in the way you may think.
Olivia Goldhill explains in an article for Quartz that these rituals help during the down time before a game. They give players something to do and focus on that’s not on the other team or their performance.
Further, these rituals give athletes a feeling of control. Will wearing lucky socks actually improve their performance? Probably not. But if players believe they can control the outcome of the game by wearing them, then they’re taking the field or court with more self-confidence than if they were wearing average socks.
Drake Baer at New York Magazine confirms this. He reports that pregame rituals become more pronounced the higher the stakes are. As players advance to college and professional levels, they take their rituals with them. They also increase in importance just before big events, such as a championship game.
That’s why professional hockey players grow playoff beards and refuse to shave until the postseason ends.
These rituals aren’t typically correlated by region or sport, and many have to do with a student athlete's support system and family. In an article for UConn Today, Julie Bartucca curated a list of rituals that student athletes follow to ensure a win, including:
Third baseman Willy Yahn wears long-sleeved undershirts every day (regardless of the temperature) because it’s what he’s worn since he was 11.
Field hockey captain Roisin Upton writes the initials of who she plays for — her mom, dad, or brothers who are cheering her on back home — on her stick before the game.
Annie Belanger on the women’s ice hockey team only retapes her stick if she loses, and uses different sticks for practice and for playing. She also wears a purple bathing cap under her helmet — the same one that she’s worn for every game since she starting playing at age nine.
As long as the practice isn’t detrimental to the player and people around them, parents and coaches shouldn’t try to interfere or discredit pregame rituals. Doing so risks hurting a player’s self-confidence and giving them a sense of hopelessness and anxiety going into the game.
How Families and Friends Can Reduce Stress
Student athletes play as much for their parents and coaches as they do themselves. For these coaches and parents, a few words of support can go a long way.
According to the National Alliance for Youth Sports, mentioning to a player how you saw them improve during the week or last game can give them a morale boost before taking the field. Further, emphasizing that you’re excited to see the skills they honed in action makes students want to do their best. Instead of approaching the game with fear, they’re taking the field ready to show off their skills.
These words of encouragement directly boost self-confidence, which has a bigger effect on performance than you might think. According to Arlin Cuncic, self-confidence plays a role in how athletes respond to stress during a game.
“People who are confident in their abilities are more likely to have a positive reaction to anxiety and thrive on the challenge of competition,” she writes. “Elite athletes are often so focused on their behavior that they interpret [stress] as excitement rather than anxiety.”
Elite players like Cam Newton and Odell Beckham Jr. are often called out for their cocky behaviors, but in many ways that behavior a defense mechanism against stress.
Self-confidence and familial approval has been proved to have real effects on performance. Dr. Allen Fox shares a story of one student tennis player who couldn’t get back to pre-injury levels no matter how hard she trained. Her anxiety created a mental block that prevented her from advancing in the game.
“Julie confided she desperately wanted to prove to the other players, her managers, her equipment sponsors and her friends that she again belonged in the higher levels of the game and that she was worthy of notice and respect,” Fox writes.
Her source of anxiety came from a lack of internal confidence and a desire for approval from others. She didn’t want to be viewed as a bust.
Families can turn those natural pressures into healthy motivators, however. One fantastic example of this can be found on the Averett University women’s basketball team. The seven-year-old sister of Joelle Deese, one of their players, has joined their cheerleading squad and helps support the Cougars during their games. This reduces Deese’s stress because she knows she has the familial support while giving her something to play for — her little sister.
Stress Management When You Have Your Game Face On
When players head to the court or field and turn on their game thoughts, they can continue to reduce their stress levels with a few basic exercises.
Practice Controlled Breathing
Robert Piper is an advocate of meditation to reduce stress. There’s not a lot athletes can control, but they can always control their breathing. Whether they’re sitting at home before a game, driving to the stadium or standing during the National Anthem, they can consciously breathe in and out to stay calm.
“What’s one of the first things a professional athlete does before a free throw?” he asks. “They take deep breaths. A lot of boxers and mixed martial artist will monitor their heart rate before they go out into the ring or cage. When they walk out, they’re taking deep breaths — to slow their heart rate down.”
Find a Good Playlist
Music is one of the most popular stress-busting tactics athletes use, but they’re not all counting on their music to get them hyped. Some athletes prefer slower, more rhythmic artists to get into the zone.
For example, CoachingUp explains that LeBron James listens to Kanye and Jay-Z while J.J. Redick prefers Kings of Leon and Coldplay. They’re both playing the same sport, but require different music to get into their own headspace.
Get Used to Game Play
In the days and weeks leading up to a game, athletes should get into gameplay simulations to prepare themselves for the emotions that come with winning and losing. If the only time players win or lose is when it actually counts, then they’re bound to see their stress levels spike on gameday.
In an article for Livestrong, Kenneth D. Hartline explains that coaches can add scrimmages to the end of their regular practices to get players familiar with a high-stakes environment. Whichever side loses will have to run extra laps or complete more exercises, which motivates players to perform at their best because there’s actually something on the line.
All of these steps work together to keep a player calm as they take the field. Scrimmages make them familiar with the environment, their playlist gets them in the zone, and their breathing allows them to control their anatomical responses to stress.
With the help of pregame rituals and family support, players have the confidence and community they need to banish nerves. The only thing left to do is play.
images by: ©stockbroker/123RF Stock Photo, minibaby, ©martinkay78/123RF Stock Photo, KeithJJ
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