Are you someone that gets nervous before games? Are you someone who analyzes every different situation, and most of the time it's thinking about how a situation can go wrong during a game? Don't worry. You're not alone. I used to be this way as well. Before every football game I would throw up. During warm ups I couldn't even put my mouth piece in my mouth because it would trigger my gag reflex. Talk about anxiety huh? Was I extremely prepared? Yes, I most definitely was. What about physically prepared? Absolutely. Then you might ask me "where was all of this nervousness and anxiety stemming from?" Well, it was from a lot of places and most of it was my own fault. We will talk about all of the different reasons for having anxiety before/during competition and how you can combat it in today's blog post!
Perception of Self
The first thing that we need to talk about when it comes to anxiety during athletic competition is an understanding of knowing one's self. Athletes don't like to do a deep dive into themselves because a lot of the motivation that drives them forward can also cripple their mentality. For example, we have all had coaches who like to yell and degrade. They see motivation as telling you how bad that throw was or that you couldn't play for the opposing team's scout team. To many of us, this becomes motivation because we want to prove this moron wrong down the road, but this negative feedback that we are receiving most often times doesn't go unnoticed. It becomes banked as a memory which can affect the body and mind in several ways as time goes on. The majority of people that are reading this are the type A perfectionists. I fall into this category. So as we get better at a skill, our performance goes up. As our performance goes up, so does the expectation to get to the next level. This happens over a period of years while we keep that coach's comments in the back of our minds. Well at some point you reach a point of diminishing returns because the expectation that you have for yourself doesn't satisfy you anymore. The harder we work, the more we push and the more we stress. This builds anxiety and puts way too much demand on the nervous system. It starts to become a downhill spiral from there.
Why We Practice
Have you ever listened to some of the highest performing athletes of all time talk about why they were able to do the things they did in competition? Walter Payton did some amazing things on the football field. A reporter once asked him how he was able to do the things he did on the football field. He famously said, "well, it just happens naturally. I just react." To many this didn't make sense. But for his teammates and all the people that were around him, this made perfect sense. Walter was such a relentless worker that he put his body in an environment to practice all the skills needed to be successful on the field before he actually stepped on to the field. This allowed his body to just react unconsciously when he got out there. The point here is that practice doesn't make perfect, practice makes permanent! Walter could have gone out on the field and just gone through the motions or not trained to his full potential he would've gotten maybe a little benefit, but not a lot. In my mind, this is the biggest difference between the athletes that are mediocre and the ones that are great. This relentless pursuit to accomplish and perfect a skill on a day in and day out basis makes these people great when it comes time to perform. Their preparation not only builds the skills needed, but it instills confidence in the athlete that they will physically be ready to go compete at a very high level when the time comes.
This is an especially important concept for quarterbacks. Quarterbacks have to perform a lot of different physical tasks on the football field in comparison to a lot of other positions. The delicacy of handing the ball off to the running back, to taking a 5 step drop and stepping up in the pocket, to rolling out and delivering a strike to a wide receiver, all of these skills require lots of time to get good at. That's why not many people want to play the QB position, or many try to initially and give up on it. It's just too hard. The ones that want to be great will spend endless hours working on all of these physical skills. We know that we need these physical skills to become automatic because what happens next? Well, now we have to layer all of the decision making responsibilities on top of the physical skill set that the QB has. This is how quarterbacks need to think about practice. You rep the physical skills needed so much that it becomes an unconscious habit. Now you can react and play on the field. Remembering when to motion a player, what the blocking scheme is, and how the defense looks before the snap is enough. You can't think about placing the foot the right way when delivering a throw and making a handoff. It just has to happen automatically. Practice makes permanent.
Why Do You Play?
Another key source of anxiety is a misunderstanding of why you play the game. Can you think back to a time when you were in the backyard playing with a group of friends at a young age and everything was just fun? The smell of the fresh cut grass, sweat dripping off of your forehead and breathing hard after scoring a touchdown. I remember a lot of these times with my brothers Dusty and Gunner. Did you ever get nervous during these types of experiences? Of course not. Well, why during organized competition then? Over time, a player's mind can fool them into a game meaning a lot more than it actually does. Perception of what other people think of you and the player that you are, the need to win and perform well, and trying to play well to please other people are all causes of anxiety. The term "paralysis by analysis" couldn't be more true when all of these things compound to form anxiety when playing in games. A fear of failure will consume the mind of an athlete which will cripple his/her ability to perform like they have prepared to do. In a lot of cases, it's not a lack of preparation that hurts these athletes, it's the athlete being in their own head too much.
Negative Self Talk
The graphic above does a good job of displaying how negative thoughts can not only put doubt in the capability of the athlete to perform the movement, but it can also change the state of the body for the athlete to set himself up for failure. Anxiety will increase tone in the sympathetic nervous system will cause a cascade of events to happen. When an athlete starts to believe that they are going to make a mistake, then they probably will. In the quarterback world, this is a QB throwing an interception and then playing very timid after that. The negative self talk that the QB is giving himself after the mistake is affecting the rest of the game. This is why type A perfectionists can struggle with this so much. One mistake defines bad play in their mind at that point and it can be too much to overcome. Did you ever think this way in the backyard? No way! It didn't matter because you knew you were going to get the ball back. The only difference is that when you start putting other people's opinions into the mix, as well as your loved one's opinions, it matters a lot more. The funny thing is that many of the worry that comes with "bad play" are thoughts that those people aren't even thinking. These are all false thoughts that athletes put in their own minds. Don't be your own worst enemy!
Ways to Combat Anxiety
- Talk to Someone- A big reason for my anxiety was I was so worried about playing to please other people that I was putting way too much pressure on myself to go out and perform. Even though I prepared, in games that I had something go wrong early, it was hard to come back from that because of negative self talk. Once I talked to that group of people about my problem, they stated that they didn't care how I played on the field. Once I heard this, it felt like a weight being lifted off of my shoulders. Don't be afraid to talk to those people specifically or even just talking to a friend about what you are experiencing. Even though football is a macho sport, it's ESSENTIAL to talk about feelings and emotions or you will become a ticking time bomb.
- Learn Internal Focus- I love the idea of finding a place in your mind that you go to whenever you're feeling some of that anxiety coming on. Many times, this is a routine that is performed during an intense situation or a thought process you go to to take your mind to a calming place. A good example is when a coach calls timeout before a kicker is about to kick a game winning field goal. Talk about a lot of pressure huh? Many kickers are taught to go through a kicking routine on the field or sideline before they kick. The essentially go through the motion and kick the air until play resumes. This is their mental processing mechanism while they practice the skill they are about to perform. Now you know why they do that!
- Deep Breathe- The opposite of the sympathetic nervous system is the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system is the calming system of the body. By deep breathing, activation of the diaphragm up regulates the vagus nerve which turns on the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the only true mind-body connection that we have. By controlling the way we breathe, we can actually decrease our anxiety in a physiologic manner. This is why meditation works so well. It combines the mental practice of mindfulness with deep breathing. It's a very powerful combination. Check out the video below on how to perform a specific breathing pattern that works very well to decrease anxiety.
So now that some of the triggers of anxiety have been brought to the surface, go apply these ways of thought and exercises to get results. Quarterbacks are only as good as the internal processing that they have going on at all times. This is true from a day to day basis, as well as in games. There's so much that goes into playing this position that it would be a shame that anxiety is the main reason that is holding you back. For some, this is the case. Don't let that happen. If you have questions on this, I would love to help!
-Drew Kiel PT, DPT, CSCS