How to Manage Pre-Game Stress and Anxiety

Preparation can help make sure you can stay focused during competition.

Athletes often play their games at the end of their day, and if you are still in school, you have to take care of your school responsibilities also. Having "gameday focus" goes beyond eliminating distractions. Preparation is vital.

You may be an anxious athlete—all you can think about is how nervous you are, previewing events in your head that may happen in the game and completely unfocused on what's in front of you. Or, you may be an overly excited athlete, where all you can think about is the new move you learned and how you can not wait to do it in the game. Both of these situations are distractions; why? Because you are not in the present moment.

For the anxious athlete, thinking about the game can cause more anxiety, and for the overly excited athlete, thinking about the game can cause you to be too pumped up and you may not perform as well as you expected (unless you know your optimal activation level and know how to get yourself there).

Nervous Football Player

You have the best chance of succeeding when you are completely immersed in the present, regardless of what task you are performing. When you begin to focus on the past such as a mistake, or the future such as an expected outcome, your performance will suffer.

Preparation for a game begins at least the night before. This ensures that you know your game responsibilities, you are aware of your scouting report (if applicable) and you have done what is necessary to mentally prepare for the game. This helps to stay focused in class, in shoot-around and possible in the team huddle.

Your gameday focus has been lost when you pay attention to irrelevant cues (the crowd, the ref, your negative thoughts, etc.), inappropriate divided attention (past mistakes, future outcomes, what you're going to eat for dinner, what your friend said in first period, etc.), or when you leave the present moment. These are called distractions.

In what situations do you find yourself losing focus? This is an important question for you to ask yourself—you need to know this to know when you need to use a refocusing technique.

You want to be able to control your focus, staying in the here and now, the present moment, as well as being able to quickly direct your attention to the appropriate cues, like switching your attention from all of your teammates running through the play to that one teammate who you are passing it to.

An internal strategy to eliminate distractions you can implement right now is "Cues and Triggers." The point of this is to focus your attention and to refocus when you have lost it. This method helps athletes bring their attention to the most important task at hand and helps them avoid distracting thoughts and feelings.

You want to find cues that focus on positives, the process or external factors related to the game and the present, instead of cues that focus on negatives, the score and the past or future. An internal cue for a basketball player at the free-throw line can be "breathe, relax, see the ball through the net, hold your followthrough." You want to choose a cue that works for you and potentially helps to increase your performance. Cues should be individualized, because all athletes are not the same. What might work for one may not for the other, or some may need frequent cues and others may need to use fewer cues.