Why Athletes "Tighten Up" and What To Do About It

January 3, 2013 | Chris Stankovich

Wes Welker
One of the biggest challenges athletes face on a daily basis is synchronizing their minds and bodies so they are able to play "in the zone." Unfortunately, when athletes experience pressure, they often "tighten up" as a result—leading to less-than-optimal athletic performances. More simply, when an athlete experiences pressure, tasks that used to be routine can all of a sudden seem almost impossible to perform.

But why does this happen?

If you tighten up as an athlete, it helps to know why it occurs so that you can minimize it or prevent it from happening again in the future. If you do not address your mental toughness and ability to handle anxiety, it is unlikely you will ever reach your full athletic potential. For this reason, sport psychologists spend a lot of time helping athletes develop their self-confidence—especially as it applies to handling sports pressure!

Probably the easiest way for me to explain why athletes tighten up is to outline a basic working model on "choking" and anxiety:

1. The first thing that normally triggers the tightening up response is an athlete's level of fear and self-doubt. When you are afraid of the competition, doubt your ability to be successful, or fear losing to an opponent, you are experiencing negative pressure... which leads to:

2. When athletes perceive competition as pressure (rather than as a healthy challenge), their thinking often becomes distorted and their bodies respond with a slew of physiological symptoms, including shortness of breath, tense muscles, rapid heart beat, and sometimes upset stomach. In addition to these physical symptoms, distorted thinking can include negative self-talk and poor focus and concentration. Obviously, none of these things help with athletic success.

3. At this point the perceived fear (point 1.) has led to distorted thinking and nervous body movements (point 2.), which leads to low self confidence, and inevitably poor on-field play. As you might have guessed, when this occurs, the athlete usually feels even more self-doubt and fear, which leads to even more tightening up. It's a vicious cycle, causing what most of us know as a "slump." (Learn how to break out of a slump)

So what can you do to prevent tightening up? Below are a few mental toughness tips that can immediately help:

  • Minimize your fear by viewing your competition as a challenge! You get to decide how you perceive things in your life, so choose wisely. When you view sports competition as a challenge for you to play your best, your focus and confidence improve, and your anxiety decreases.
  • If you feel like you are tightening up, try using deep belly breathing coupled with positive self-talk. Take 2 or 3 deep breaths into your belly and say positive things to yourself. In no time, those nerves will turn into positive energy!
  • Keep in mind that the only reason your body tightens up is because you have prompted it to; in other words, when you think you are going to be dealing with pressure as the game approaches, your body will react and respond accordingly by panicking.
  • Even if you do tighten up early in a game, that does not mean you will be tight for the duration. Stop, breath, think positive thoughts, and remind yourself that you have tightened up only because of how you perceived the situation. Reframe the game in your mind, and before you know it you will be on your way to loosening up and achieving success.

All athletes battle nerves and anxiety. If they are not addressed, tightening up will occur. This is why you need to work as much on your mental toughness as you do your physical toughness if you truly want to become the best athlete that you can be!

Chris Stankovich
- Chris Stankovich, Ph.D., is a licensed professional clinical counselor and founder of Advanced Human Performance Systems, a counseling and performance center based in Columbus, Ohio....
Chris Stankovich
- Chris Stankovich, Ph.D., is a licensed professional clinical counselor and founder of Advanced Human Performance Systems, a counseling and performance center based in Columbus, Ohio....
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