Are you a pressure player or do you choke when the lights shine brightest? Would you like to improve your management of big game anxiety? This blog might offer some information that could initiate an advantageous change in perspective. Many collegiate and high school fall athletes are currently faced with elevated feelings of anxiety as they prepare for playoffs. The degree of internal pressure steadily climbs because of the simple, yet powerful thoughts surrounding “What if we lose?” and “What if our season ends?”This feeling becomes more relevant for seniors who are moments away from their final game.
The pain associated with a playoff or championship loss can be terrible. I still clearly remember the PSAC Championship loss to East Stroudsburg in 1998. This type of loss is usually more painful than a regular season finale loss because the players whose season ends in the regular season have gone through a greater level of mental preparation for the season to end. They have seen the approaching light at the end of the tunnel. However a playoff loss comes with the sting of a season ending prematurely. As I’ve said in the past anxiety is fear and fear comes from the unknown. There is less anxiety accompanying a regular mid-season game because players take comfort in the idea that there are more games to follow. However, in the playoffs, that comforting next game is not guaranteed. All of this contributes to more pressure and more anxiety and ultimately, a greater chance of anxiety based mistakes on the field. So how should players attempt to manage the inevitable surge of playoff anxiety?
As a player, I remember being told by many coaches that I should try to treat a playoff game as if it were “just another game.” The thought behind this concept makes sense. If I can trick myself into thinking this is just another game, I’m likely to be less anxious, and therefore I’ll relaxed, calm, and ultimately I’ll have fewer distracting nervous thoughts; All of which should cause me to play better. The problem with this concept for me personally, is that I could never convince myself that the pressure-filled games were just like any other. I recall taking the sixth penalty shot in a district consolation game for Strath Haven High School. The winner of this game would advance to the state tournament. I recall approaching the shot, a shot if missed, would end our season. I recall it feeling like I was shooting from 18 rather than 12 yards out. I could not trick, fool, or convince myself into thinking it was just another penalty kick. I’ve spoken with many athletes regarding this concept and many agree. They have tried this tactic of convincing, but when they really think about it, they cannot escape that this playoff game is of the utmost importance and it might be their last. The point is anxiety, even when repressed, finds a way to show its ugly face. I remember trying to treat playoff games like any other game, but still feeling jittery, tense, my heart was racing heart, and I kept on imagining a loss.
So what can an athlete do? I suggest that athletes become aware of the anxiety without immediately trying to avoid or repress it. By acknowledging the anxiety, an athlete now can do something about it. A strategy I use in my practice is to hold a piece of blank paper and tell the athlete to solve the problem. I get puzzled looks. I then turn the page over and write 7+5 and tell them to solve it. The purpose of this exercise is to help the player realize that problems are impossible to solve or deal with when they remain unknown. By acknowledging the existence of anxiety, the athlete can now develop strategies to manage it. Cognitive reappraisal is idea of recognizing a situation and a feeling like anxiety, while changing your perception of the anxiety. For example, a soccer player might have thoughts that his team is going to lose and the season is going to end in front of a big crowd. A cognitive reappraisal might include thoughts that his team is going to win and they will advance to the next round and he might focus on the energizing excitement of being in front of a big crowd. The main caution is that cognitive reappraisal might cause the athlete to overthink the stress of the upcoming game and therefore cause more anxiety. The other option is expressive suppression which entails letting an emotion arise, but outwardly suppressing it. The research indicates that strong negative emotions become less powerful when cognitive appraisal is used versus expressive suppression. More simply put, facing your fears decreases the anxiety and negative thinking. The next step is to help the player develop some strategies to calm anxiety, but that’s for another post. Good luck to all those playoff athletes and hopefully this information opens your mind up to another way to deal with the high pressure of playoff sports.