Every athlete has been afraid. Every athlete has been nervous. That rush in your throat and difficulty breathing happen to all of us who worry that we will walk out onto the field and fail. And though we all know that game-day nerves hurt our performance, the sensation continues to exist no matter how much we try to suppress it.
But you should not just suppress your fear. Fear is fundamentally about the unknown, so you have to learn how to focus and think to make your fear dissipate naturally. Here are five things you can do to ensure that you will be calm, composed and unafraid on game day.
1. Focus on the now
In sports competition, we want to win the game to accomplish some goal.
"If I win the game, my team can reach the playoffs."
"If I score a goal, I can show my coach that I deserve to be on the team."
But that sort of thinking can lead you to focus on the future, not on the immediate reality of the field or court where you are competing.
Even great athletes aren't immune to this. According to Bill Simmons in his Book of Basketball, San Antonio Spurs stalwart David Robinson was too worried about how the playoffs would affect his legacy, so he shrunk in the playoffs time and time again. Other players, like Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan, didn't focus on their legacy, just on making the next shot or the right move in play after play.
At the end of the day, you can't control what the media or the coach think about you. All you can do is think about yourself and perform to the best of your ability.
2. Routine is important
Thinking in sports can be bad. If you have to think about what you need to do, you will be a step slower than someone who can do the same thing automatically. And if you combine thinking with game-day nerves, your brain may start going down a road of "what if's," and your performance will deteriorate even more.
One way to lessen how much you think is to follow routines. Routines teach you to act automatically, without thinking about what you need to do. This is classic fear psychology: you just do it, without fear or nerves getting in the way.
Even a small, insignificant routine can make difference. Basketball players are known for their small routines before they shoot free throws, which can be one of the most mentally taxing parts of a basketball game. They do it because it works to calm them down before they swish a basket.
3. Breathe deeply
When you were a child, your mother probably told you to calm down and breathe deeply when you were upset. The Harvard Medical School has noted that deep breathing can "slow the heartbeat and lower or stabilize blood pressure."
Deep breathing works best when you find a quiet, comfortable place to sit. Take five to 10 deep breaths. Even a few deep breaths taken right before a game can momentarily calm you down and remove stress and anxiety.
4. Accept failure
"I have failed over and over again in my life, and that is why I succeed." Michael Jordan said those words, yet countless athletes sabotage their success because they are terrified of failure. It is fundamentally the fear of failure and desire for perfection that lead to stress and destroy their performance.
So how do you conquer that fear? By not letting it define you. When you fail, don't beat yourself up over it. Sit down, calmly analyze what went wrong and figure out how to do better next time. Failure should be treated as an unfortunate thing, like stubbing your toe, instead of some horrific wrong.
By treating failure as normal, you can learn not to be afraid of it and banish fear during a game.
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5. Have fun
We play sports because we want to win, get a good workout, and enjoy being on a team. But on a more fundamental level, we play sports because we want to have fun.
In our obsession to succeed all the time, we tend to forget that, but we never should. If you are having fun, you cannot be stressed. And if you are not stressed, you are not afraid.
To have fun, you need to think positively. If you are up against a formidable opponent, do not stress about what to do. Embrace it as a terrific challenge and take him head-on. Before and after the game, relax with your friends. If you can view your game as enjoyable instead of stressful, it will do a great deal to conquer your fear.
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