How To Overcome Pre-Game Anxiety

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When Chris Bosh left the Toronto Raptors for the Miami Heat, he gave up being the go-to guy to become part of a power trio. Since then, Bosh has been hit by critics claiming he hasn't lived up to the hype created when his Heat star teammates [LeBron James and Dwyane Wade] famously proclaimed that one or two championships would not be enough. The criticism came to a boiling point after Bosh admitted being nervous at the start of the NBA Playoffs.

On Sunday night, however, Bosh had a breakthrough performance against the Bulls, scoring 34 points and leading the Heat to a 2-1 lead in the Eastern Conference Finals. This presumably put his nerves to rest.

At another level, for younger athletes, the transition from superstar of their high school teams to one of many great players on their college teams can elicit the same sense of anxiety that Bosh experienced.

How you respond to nervousness and feelings of anxiety, or of inferiority, impacts your level of success and how fans, the media and your teammates perceive you.

"Sports and performance anxiety often go hand-in-hand," says Arlin Cuncic, a clinical psychologist and an expert on anxiety-related disorders. "While many athletes become 'pumped up' during competition, when the rush of adrenaline is interpreted as anxiety and negative thoughts begin to swirl, it can have devastating effects on your ability to perform."

Negative thoughts are typical in high school athletes making the transition to college, due to high expectations placed on them by themselves, friends, family, media, teammates, coaches and fans. But before you learn how to handle feelings of nervousness and anxiety, you need to understand how it can affect your performance.

"The coordinated movement required by athletic events becomes increasingly difficult when your body is in a tense state," says Cuncic, adding that a certain level of physical arousal is helpful in preparing for athletic competition. However, such arousal can easily set off "severe cognitive symptoms of anxiety such as negative thought patterns and expectations of failure." This can bring about a self-fulfilling prophecy [i.e., envisioning failure will cause you to fail].

An easy way to assess how much you suffer from anxiety is to note the difference in your performance between practices and games.

Anxiety in sports is brought on by a variety of factors. Besides the pressures mentioned above, evidence indicates that playing away games induces higher levels of anxiety than playing at home.

Athletes in individual sports experience more anxiety. They don't have teammates for support.

The good news is, the more experienced you are in your sport, the less likely you are to experience anxiety.

There are ways to combat nerves before games (and other defining moments). Strategies include visualization [see STACK's write-up on visualization]. Self-confidence is the most effective tool for calming nerves. According to Cuncic, that means you believe in your ability and have properly prepared for competition. He says, "Worry and confidence are at opposite ends of the spectrum. When confidence is strong, it tends to crowd worry out of the mind." Self-confidence allows athletes to exceed expectations and deal deadly blows to opposing teams, like Bosh did to the Bulls on Sunday night.

Cuncic, says, "People who are confident in their abilities are more likely to have a positive reaction to arousal and anxiety and thrive on the challenge of competition. Elite athletes are often so focused on their behavior that they interpret arousal as excitement rather than anxiety."

If these self-help strategies don't work for you, consider consulting your doctor to rule out social anxiety disorder.

Conquering nerves during transitional periods of an athletic career can be extremely difficult. But as Bosh showed in Game 3 against the Bulls, it can be done—even under enormous pressures on an international stage.


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