Performance Anxiety & Choking Under Pressure

Performance anxiety, which can lead to choking under pressure, is a concept familiar to many athletes. The key is composure. Learning to find your best performance zone or intensity level and then learning to maintain it regardless of the circumstance.

Many athletes experience performance anxiety. This can range from slight pre-game jitters to dehabilitating anxiety. Sport psychologists are often referring to state anxiety regarding performance. State anxiety is the level of anxiety before a certain event, often the athlete’s sport competition.

What Performance Anxiety Looks Like

The situation may go something like this.

You love your sport. You live for your sport. You are great in practice, but get so nervous when game time rolls around. It’s influencing how you play. You know you’ve got what it takes, but can’t seem to execute when you need to.

When game day arrives, the nervousness shows up. You start to feel sick. Wondering, “should I even play today?” You feel the sweaty palms and weak feeling in your legs. You know it’s nerves. You take the deep breath that everyone talks about. Maybe it will work this time.

Inhale….Exhale….Nope. Still there.

You want to cry. But then you remember the BS line there’s no crying in _______ (insert sport here). So now you think you’re weak. Yep. Weak and anxious. That’s how you see yourself. These negative thoughts lead to the dreaded downward spiral.

It feels almost impossible to come back from the spiral.

Meanwhile, people are suggesting that you should “just calm down” and “take a deep breath” (again!) and you want to either 1) punch them or 2) run away. It’s miserable.

It’s so tough because you want to be less nervous. You’d love to relax and play. You feel like you’ve tried everything. You’re starting to experience burnout. At this point you might have even considered quitting.

Quitting the sport you love.

BUT you’ve got goals and you know you’ve gotta get past this.

At Sterling Sport Mindset, we help athletes do just that. Let’s talk tips for overcoming performance anxiety without losing your intensity.

Tips for Overcoming Performance Anxiety

Green/Gold Zone: In order to reduce anxiety, it’s important to know when you need to be game ready and when you can (and should) relax. Knowing the green & gold zones for your sport will help you make a clear decision about when you’ll put your game face on. In addition to reducing anxiety, this will limit distractions and increase concentration while helping you save your energy for when it really counts.

The green zone is everything leading up to the game. It’s important to stay loose and relaxed in the green zone. The gold zone is game time. This is the point where you leave everything else behind and only focus on the task at hand. In the gold zone your sole focus is your role as an athlete.

It’s important to know when to allow yourself to stay chill and when to flip that switch. Decide where that transition is for you.

Routine: Develop a repeatable routine. Something you can do at every competition. Your routine can be used when you notice your anxiety levels start to rise. It’s a way to clear out the anxious energy and thoughts so you can compete at your best. Great routines have three components. Something visual (a focal point), something physical (an action that you’ll take), and something mental (a go-to phrase you’ll say to yourself). Pair it with a breath, which we’ll go over next.

The following mental skills are the behind the scenes work. These are the skills that you build up so that the deep breath (that everyone suggests) is actually available to you when you need it.

Box Breathing: Focusing on your breathing allows your heart rate to slow down, your body to relax, and your thoughts to stop racing. Square or box breathing is a simple, yet effective, technique. 

For this technique, it’s helpful to think of a square as you breathe. You can even draw one with your hand when you’re first starting out. 

  • Inhale: Breathe in slowly through your nose while counting to four.
  • Hold for four seconds as you allow the air to fill your lungs. 
  • Exhale: Slowly let the air out to a count of four. 
  • Hold the exhale to another count of four. 

Concentrate on your stomach and notice how it moves when you inhale & exhale. Ideally, you’ll do this exercise for at least four minutes at a time. It may take some practice for this to feel relaxing. Like any new skill, it takes practice.

PMR: Progressive Muscle Relaxation is a technique used to systematically reduce tension throughout the body. It’s great because it helps you relax, relieves stress, anxiety, and pain. You’ll often notice tension that you may have underestimated.

Starting with your feet, you’ll work your way up your body, tightening and releasing each muscle group. It’s helpful to find a video to walk you through this. It’s tough to read a PMR script while you have your eyes closed and are focusing on relaxation. 🙂

Add in a little meditation (we love the Headspace App) and you’re going to have a solid foundation for overcoming performance anxiety.

You can start implementing these skills right away. If you know you’d do well with some guidance and support along the way, read more about our mental performance coaches and schedule your free mini session!

A Word about Choking Under Pressure

I don’t like to talk about “choking” in sports. It evokes a visceral response in me. It’s that sick feeling that comes with really messing up or being super upset. That’s how I feel when talking about choking. So for me, like a pitcher with a no-hitter going…I’d rather not talk about it.

I have this fear of speaking it into existence.

Athletes. We’re strange like that.

With that said, people want to talk about choking, so here goes…

“Choking” is an overly (and often incorrectly) used word regarding sports. Missing a field goal isn’t choking. Striking out once isn’t choking. Choking is not one event. Choking is a process. 

Yes, that will be on the test. Choking is a process. 

Choking is a Process

It’s a process where our attention gets super narrow and turns completely internal. It’s a process that ends with the inability to refocus. 

It’s a downward spiral. Negative self-talk, anxiety, muscle tension all with a spotlight.

When we’re in this place, we lose sight of what’s going on around us. Tunnel vision in a bad way. We lose the ability to size up the situation around us. When your coaches yell “focus” you probably don’t even hear them. Your face gets super hot. You suddenly become uncoordinated. Skills that seemed fundamental are difficult. 

Choking doesn’t end well. If it did, it wouldn’t be called choking. Can you recover? Yes, totally. But not until the next competition, performance, or event. 

How do I fix it? At Sterling Sport Mindset, we make and implement a plan together. We’d look at a combo of confidence, concentration, & composure. We would get curious and see what’s happening in your specific situation. 

  • What were your thoughts? 
  • What new thoughts would you want to think? 
  • Where was your focus just before it went internal? 
  • Was your focus mostly on thoughts or on physical symptoms? 
  • Which performance zone were you in? 
  • What intensity management strategies did you try?

Once we explore this, we’ll implement the new game plan with the goal of never having to say ch*king again!

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