Getting nervous before a big game or competition is something that most athletes experience at least once in their career, and for many it can be a common occurrence. Regardless of whether you are playing at a recreational, high school, college, or professional level, there is a good chance that at some point leading up to the game that you may feel some anxiety or pregame jitters.
Even in my fourth decade as an athlete, I still get a couple of butterflies floating around before a game, whether I am playing or coaching.
Although many of us can play through it, some individuals struggle to get past their nervousness. It ends up negatively impacting their performance and potentially the result of the game.
Depending on the individual, the length of the jitters and anxiety can disappear minutes after warmup, the first shift, or for some, they continue throughout the entire game. Fortunately, there are numerous strategies that can be implemented in order to help overcome these personal stresses and help athletes enjoy the game.
Causes Of Pregame Jitters
In order to help find the solution to your pregame jitters, athletes need to figure out if their anxiety is caused by thoughts of doubt, lack of confidence, lack of ability, or being unprepared. The first two are mental, whereas the second two are physical. It can be more overpowering than a lack of physical preparedness when it comes to one’s inner voice.
Creating small, challenging yet achievable goals are a helpful way to break down the game into small chunks. Whether it is first shift, first period, first half, making sure that your goals are quickly attainable is a helpful way to help bring you a sense of accomplishment and security.
For many athletes individuals, using visualization is a challenging concept. Asking an athlete who is used to constantly moving and reacting to slow down and picture everything in advance can be a harder exercise than a grueling two-hour practice session. However, more and more athletes have found that visualization helps with their confidence and anxiety levels by creating a picture or mental movie of yourself successfully executing a play or entire game. It is important to do whatever you can in order to make the visualization as real as possible, which could mean putting yourself in that environment (football field, basketball court), adding in crowd noise, and viewing the situation from your own perspective, not that of a fan or coach.
How often have you been told by a coach or your parents to relax? If only it was just that easy. By implementing relaxation strategies into your pregame routine, anxiety levels can be decreased, tight muscles can loosen, breathing patterns can become normal. These same strategies can also be implemented during the performance or competition. Deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation (isolating, contracting, and releasing muscle tension), meditation, and yoga are just some of the ways to help athletes mentally and physically relax.
While you don’t want to be distracted during a game or competition, finding a way to separate yourself before the event is sometimes a good thing. Going for a walk, doing yoga, reading a book, playing a video game, listening to music are just some options to help keep your mind from worrying about the upcoming game causing negative thoughts and anxiety.
I have been chewing gum during games, practices, and workout sessions (for the amount of Bubblicious and Trident that I have chewed, I should have a lifetime sponsorship). But for me, the distraction of chewing and occasionally blowing bubbles helped me get through any nerves I had, allowing me to relax and focus on the game.
Control What You Can Control
Whether you compete in an individual or team sport, they are both impacted by certain things out of your control. Whether it be officials, the weather, playing surface, fans, or the other team, all of those elements are aspects of the game that you are not in control of. Rather than worrying about what the crowd is yelling or a call the officials made or the direction of the wind, focus on what you can control, which is your own performance. Eating properly, getting enough rest, knowing the plays, practicing with focus and intensity, and coming to the game prepared are all parts of the game that you can control.
Next Play Mentality
How many times have you taken a shot and missed badly, taken a questionable swing, or telegraphed a pass that was picked off by the other team? Chances are you have done and will do it many more times in your career. The thing is, you can’t get it back no matter how hard you try or how mad or upset you get with yourself. Focusing on what just happened rather than what is happening is a recipe for failure, causing a snowball effect. Worrying about that missed jumper will likely result in you missing a defensive assignment. Stressing over a strikeout may lead to you jumbling an easy out. Take a deep breath and focus on what is important, which is the game’s next play.
Understanding that pregame jitters are a natural part of being an athlete and competition and that there is nothing wrong with you is the first step to overcoming your jitters. Just as it is important to execute pre and during competition exercises to help with your jitters, post-game follow-up is just as helpful. Reviewing what you did well and acknowledging obstacles that hurt your performance will help you prepare for the next game.
While the above tips will most likely take some time to integrate and fully master, when you find the method that works best for you, you will be able to transfer all of the energy spent on pregame jitters into making yourself a more successful and positive athlete.