I am often asked how to deal effectively with jitters and anxiety about an upcoming game or match. In my experience with athletes and coaches at all levels, two important mental skills for coping with the problem emerge consistently—focusing on the next shot/pitch/play, and having a routine. These skills are connected, because having a solid routine helps with focus, and vice-versa.
One way to develop these mental skills is to cross-train your mind. This is similar to physical cross-training, which is designed to improve skills for a certain sport, like basketball, through participating in a different athletic activity, like biking.
I suggest mental cross-training through bowling, because it has characteristics that can help with your sport. It’s also great when the weather isn’t cooperating.
The Next Shot
Like it is in many other sports, the “next shot” is crucial in bowling. What you bowl after a spare or after a strike is hugely important. Picking up a spare or rolling a strike is great, but if you follow it with an open frame, it essentially goes for naught. This makes bowling an ideal sport to practice focusing on the next shot. If you rest on your previous ball or start thinking about the final score, an open frame will quickly bring you back to focusing on the next shot.
Routine, Routine, Routine
Pre-performance routines are designed to isolate focus on only what’s important. To some, this may be the approach or the release; to others, it may be the pins or a spot on the alley. Whatever your focus, in bowling it is easy to recognize what a solid routine feels like—and it’s also easy to recognize when a routine is sloppy. Really pay attention to where your focus should be and develop a proper routine.
Pre-game jitters are natural and will never go away completely. In fact, these moments are exciting, and they can serve as a signal that you are ready to play. But you must understand that if you are too nervous, you are focusing on what could happen rather than the next play, or even the first play.
We must train our minds to focus only on the next play and to develop a consistent routine for our preparation and play. Bowling not only shows us the importance of focus, but also how to extend a routine to our own sport and life. And both those qualities can be used to defeat pre-game jitters and anxiety.
Dr. Rob Bell is an assistant professor at Ball State University and a certified sport psychology consultant with The Association of Applied Sport Psychology. He also works as a caddy on professional golf tours. His first book, Mental Toughness Training for Golf, was published in 2010. A prolific writer, Dr. Bell has been published in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, Journal of Athletic Insight, Journal of Sport Behavior and Encyclopedia of Sports. He writes extensively on the mental game—for, among others, Runner’s World, The New York Times and STACK magazine—and he has been a presenter for numerous teams, schools and organizations. Dr. Bell earned his B.A. in psychology from Shepherd University; his M.Ed. in kinesiology, with a specialty in sport psychology, from Temple University; and his Ph.D. in sport psychology from the University of Tennessee.