Performance anxiety is one of the leading reasons athletes struggle to consistently perform at their capabilities. So learning how to channel your nerves is key to performing at your best when it matters most.

Unfortunately most athletes focus on the threats of high-pressure situations.

Pressure can Provoke a State of Fear

As a result, the pressure provokes a fear state that leaves the athlete tense, overthinking, and underperforming. Here are 3 other common reasons athletes don’t perform under pressure:

Zoomed In on the Context
Overly focused on the context and making the results seem more important than they are is a sure fire way to feel the burden of the results weigh heavily on your mind.

Survive Over Thrive
Are you focused on not screwing up, or are you focused on going out there and having an impact? This is the difference between a fear mindset vs attack mindset.

Need To, Have To, Should Mindset
Creating an unhealthy relationship with your desired results often leads to a decrease in performance. The sport culture perpetuates this language with coaches often saying “this is a must win game” but this narrative often provokes the fear state.

The good news is you can overcome these limiting mindsets by following the 3 steps below – as a result you will be able to perform at your best when it matters most.

Step 1: Plan to Cope

Coping planning is essential to stress management for all areas of life, and it works particularly well for handling high pressure situations.

In short – Planning to Cope is simply what it means. You are planning for how you will respond (cope) when a stressor (pressure) is presented. It is like studying for a test – it works way better when you study before the test – not trying to figure it out in the thick of it.

We use a trifecta of coping planning concepts that reliably help athletes perform under pressure:

Zoom Out
This helps athletes that struggle to get perspective of the context. This especially helps the classic “practice player” where you perform free in practice but then tense up and underperform in games or pressure situations. The premise of Zooming Out means to see the bigger picture. This includes:

      • How games and practice are more similar than different – yes the context is different but the game is the same.
      • That it is only one game – yes it might be really important, but it’s still just a game.
      • That we are all just a speck of dust – reminder to REALLY zoom out and not take ourselves too seriously.

To be clear this is NOT about caring less. It is about seeing the situation for what it is and not making it bigger than what it is. This is key accepting it.

Flip the Risk
It’s easy to see the risk from making mistakes. Coach Nicholas came up with the ‘Flip the Risk’ strategy to help overcome the fear of mistakes. The premise is to break down the risk vs reward of playing safe vs attacking. The safe approach might decrease short term risk, but it costs long term rewards. The attack approach may increase short term risk, but you gain better long term rewards. This framework exposes the safe approach to having a greater risk in the long term. The end goal is to see and feel that it is okay to take smart risks and go out there and trust yourself.

The Screw Its
The bottom line is you need to let go of results. You can have a goal and intention to achieve a certain result, but being detached from it is the superpower and the paradox to giving you the best chance of achieving it. The key to doing this is accepting the range of results. If you are not willing to accept losing – then you could benefit from reflecting on quitting. I don’t want you to, but the reality is you can quit. Reflecting on this forces you to remember that it is a CHOICE to play your sport. So if you choose to play then what are you going to choose?

      • I need to, have to, should get the result.
      • Screw It – I accept the range of results – I’m just going to go play my game and trust my training.

All three concepts are interrelated and will help you get a healthy perspective on ‘pressure’ so that you can play free. The goal for you is to lean into the ones that resonate the most.

Step 2: Mental Rehearsal

Most athletes think imagery and mental preparation is only for focusing on what you want to do and being positive, but one of the best benefits of imagery is to mentally rehearse how you plan to cope with stressors.

It is what Todd Herman calls the Positive Power of a Negative Script.

By mentally rehearsing how you are going to respond to a pressure situation makes you way more likely to respond that way.

So not only do you want to study and clarify how you want to respond then you want to hammer that into your brain.

Repetition is the mother of learning!

Step 3: Measure Your Progress

By getting steps 1 and 2 down pat you are well on your way to start performing at your best when it matters most.

This step helps lock it in and ensure you really hone your ability to perform under pressure. Here is example of what this looks like:

Identify What to Measure
E.g., I want to zoom out, feel relaxed, ready and excited before performances.

Set a Baseline
E.g., I currently feel I’m 40% relaxed, ready, and excited before performances – meaning I’m 60% tense, worried, and doubting myself.

Track Your Progress
Reflect on that number after each game and see it go up!

Adjust & Learn
When the number dips or when it stops rising, reflect on what is holding you back and refer back to Step 1 – find which coping planning strategy will help the most. This also could be a key time to getting a mental performance coach to be a third party and help you improve faster and more effectively.

The Long Term Goal
The end game is about being 95% plus in the mental state you are working on. You have full control over this – but you need to do the work above and keep pushing yourself. Note we don’t set the standard for 100% because that can cause you to fall into the trap of perfection. Instead, it’s about doing your BEST to be relaxed, ready, and excited.

In summary you can overcome performance anxiety and perform under pressure by following these three steps:

  1. Plan to Cope
  2. Mental Rehearsal
  3. Measure Your Progress

I hope you found this helpful. Let us know if you have any questions.

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