In spite of all our assumptions about what it takes to become a capable athlete – strength, agility, speed, balance, technical skills, cooperative behavior – one of the MOST IMPORTANT skills you can master is that of staying calm and composed under pressure. Staying loose pre-performance is the secret to a championship effort.
You really need to know HOW to stay calm and loose in order for all those other athletic skills to work properly and for your performance to flow smoothly, rather than tight and rigid.
If you are too nervous during practice, and especially during high stakes competition, then your body will become tense, your mind will be distracted, and you won’t be able to execute to the best of your ability. And while it’s important to remember that mental toughness strategies are what I consider a “long game” effort, meaning they must be practiced CONSISTENTLY OVER TIME in order to really be effective, today I’m going to share with you some PRE-GAME coping techniques that can be applied directly in the moment when you’re about to compete and are feeling “under the gun” so that you can stay calm and in control.
1. Change negative self-talk.
What you say to yourself pre-game will directly affect how nervous you become. If you are talking trash to yourself before a game, or after you a mistake, you will only stress yourself out. Instead, make a conscious effort to interrupt the flow of negative chatter by replacing it with a more positive or even neutral inner dialogue. You have to act as your own “best fan!” Speak to yourself in a supportive and encouraging way, or better yet, stop speaking to yourself completely and focus on what your body is doing and what’s going on in the moment.
2. Focus on what you want to happen, not on what you’re afraid will happen.
Keep your game focus on exactly how you want to play and what you want to do. If you focus on what you are afraid might happen you will not only distract yourself, but you’ll also stress yourself out even more. Instead, focus on the feel of proper execution, making a great pass, sticking a landing or feeling yourself putting a good swing on the ball.
3. Concentrate on playing the game, not on winning.
If you want to play your very best and win, you must be sure that you DO NOT concentrate on winning. Your focus should be on the PROCESS, not the OUTCOME. The process is what’s going on at any given moment. If you concentrate on the second by second, minute by minute process of the game, you will actually maximize your chances of winning!
4. Control the controllable.
Be sure that you keep your focus on what you CAN actually control. Things like the weather, questionable officiating, and the attitude of your opponents are “UNCONTROLLABLE,” meaning that you can’t really do anything about them and thinking about it will only distract you and hurt your performance. But your focus, your body, your willingness to listen to your coach, those are the things you can control, so put your mental energy there instead.
5. Let your mistakes go quickly.
Dwelling on mistakes doesn’t do you any good when you’re still IN the performance. When you make a mistake, let it go quickly and get yourself mentally back in the game as if it didn’t happen. When the performance is over you can assess what happened and think about how to improve in the future, but you’ve got to put that mistake out of your mind immediately when you’re in the action because you probably still have a pretty good chance of bouncing back and coming out on top if you maintain your energy and concentration.
6. Tighten and release.
If you can feel tension in your arms, legs, or back before the game, a quick way to let this tension go is to deliberately tighten those tense muscles even more and then release. Hold the tension for 10-15 seconds, then let it go. Repeating this 2-3 times with any tight muscles will usually help you feel more relaxed and at ease within just a couple minutes.
If you are mentally uptight before a game, physically stretch! Stretching will help you release a great deal of tension from your body while also helping to refocus your mind away from negative or unhelpful thoughts. Stretching will help you regain control both physically and mentally. KEY: It is critical that when you do stretch physically, all of your focus should be on the feel of that stretch, entirely on what you are doing.
8. Have fun.
If you want to perform at your best then remember to have FUN FIRST! Don’t wait until you have a good performance before you allow yourself to have fun. You will ALWAYS play your best when you’re having fun because you’re genuinely engaged in the action and enjoying the process itself. If you make the performance too serious, your muscles will tighten and your performance will suffer. Peak performance lies right in the middle of where fun and serious come together so aim to have a good balance of both.
Print these out and hang them on your wall so you internalize each and every tactic, that’ll help you know exactly what to do when tensions run high in the heat of the moment.