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Sports Psychologist

Head Games: Overcoming Performance Anxiety

Head Games: Overcoming Performance Anxiety

Minutes before taking the floor, an athlete crumbles: her heart rate spikes and her breath comes in quick, shallow gulps. While backstage is chaotic, her panic is centered on something else: what will happen next, performing in front of the crowd. As her coach, you’re not sure what to do before she walks onstage—calm her, convince her it’s just like practice or remind her to have fun. Sound familiar?

The hard fact is that helping young athletes overcome performance anxiety or move beyond mental blocks may be two of the most difficult tasks coaches face. The good news: both can be overcome. However, there are no quick fixes, notes sports psychologist Dr. Caroline Silby, Ph.D.

Anxiety can arise from any number of sources, whether it is a negative outlook about success, concern about injury or a fear of failing. The feeling is most potent when increased expectations collide with decreased confidence, explains Dr. Silby: “Another way to think about it: an athlete’s physical capability is ahead of her confidence.”

Aly Mantell, director of San Luis Obispo, CA-based Central Coast Elite Cheer, agrees with Dr. Silby, but takes it a step further. She’s encountered numerous athletes that were “afraid to move up,” even though they were more than capable. For one child, Mantell found that the solution was to have her attend one extra tumbling class each week. The difference: the athlete was more dedicated. Not only must athletes be capable, “they must want to get that new skill,” advises Mantell. “If they are committed, we can get creative and help them.”

Here are four ways you can help your athletes move past performance anxiety:

See it to believe it via visualization. Mantell accomplishes this by giving her athletes homework. “I ask them to visualize skill progressions at home, away from the gym,” she says, “and write down what they see, like where the arms are during a back handspring.” Mantell then reviews the written record of the image and redirects stressed kids to realize what they are good at and what they need to work on.

Karen Lundgren, a professional adventure racer and youth coach, also believes that visualization is highly effective—when done correctly. As a child athlete, Lundgren found visualization helpful, but not at first. “When I watched myself [during visualization], I made the same mistakes,” she says. “I had to teach myself to picture doing it [the skill] right.” Lundgren thinks this is an error coaches often make: asking a child to visualize without teaching them how to do it properly. She urges coaches to consider the consequences of flawed visualization, sharing that it can often “support self-sabotage.”

Lundgren also puts emphasis on how kids visualize, whether they see themselves as if they were “on television” or “through their own eyes.” While Lundgren concedes neither is wrong or right, she will ask athletes to switch it around. “As they become more aware of the differences, watching versus doing, they gain a better understanding of the power of visualization,” explains Lundgren.

While visualization is easier for older kids, it is often challenging for younger children. “It’s about sitting still,” Lundgren says. “That’s difficult; it’s new to them and you need to talk them through it.” But introducing the concept of “what is going on inside my head” is valuable at an early age. “It helps young athletes grow,” she adds, “because the mental aspect [of performance] is one of the hardest things to notice.”

Put a lock-step system in place to deal with apprehension. Dr. Silby advocates creating a “contract” of sorts with athletes. Her theory is that having an agreed-upon method for execution will prevent the escalation of emotions—both by athlete and coach.

For example, the arrangement could allow an athlete three attempts to do a skill. If an athlete does not perform a skill successfully, he or she must stop and perform an agreed upon action or set of actions (such as attempting another skill or performing any number of measures that serve to clear the head, such as tensing and releasing).

“Allowing an athlete to work through fear in a systematic way begins to produce momentum to move the athlete closer to making up her mind to work through the situation that is making her anxious,” says Dr. Silby. Athletes can concentrate on what they are willing to do as opposed to drawing attention to what they are not willing to do. “The pattern of ‘not going’ is interrupted with a moment to refocus,” she adds.

Mastery over anxiety is achieved by acknowledging mental strengths. “We all possess mental strengths,” Dr. Silby says, “but children very often are completely unaware of these strengths or how they contribute to performance success.” Dr. Silby explains that identifying these assets is essential, as it helps athletes recognize how they control their own performance levels and teaches them to make use of their strong points.

To do this, Dr. Silby recommends what she calls “accomplishment exercises.” For one week after each practice, coaches ask athletes to write down three accomplishments and one action that contributed to that success. This provides an athlete with evidence there is a connection between actions and outcomes, notes Dr. Silby. It also gives adults an opportunity to mention what they noticed. “I saw you take a deep breath and refocus before completing that skill,” Dr. Silby offers as illustration.

Coaches must remain engaged. Dr. Silby calls this “being in it,” saying that coaches can often get frustrated by athletes’ mental blocks and withdraw from the process.

However, engagement doesn’t necessarily mean talking about the issues, she cautions; rather, dialogue should be kept to a minimum. Instead, staying “in it” means helping an athlete “navigate the emotions he or she is experiencing in that moment.” This could be as simple as moving them past frustration to calm down or encouraging the use of breathing exercises to relax. The effect: athletes again make that connection between their own actions and execution of positive results.

No matter your preferred method, arming kids early on with the power to overcome anxiety is as important as proper technique and, as Lundgren shares, “teaching them to enjoy all the steps to get there is invaluable.”


Expert Q&A: Dr. Caroline Silby, Sports Psychologist

Question: How can I help my athletes overcome mental blocks in tumbling and stunting?

Dr. Caroline Silby, Ph.D.

Answer from sports psychologist Dr. Caroline Silby: Unfortunately, there are no quick fixes to solving mental blocks (resulting in not going for a skill). Yet there are some strategies that can accelerate the timeframe in which athletes move past the block and acquire some advanced coping skills in the process:

Keep it Rational It’s important to keep this whole process non-emotional. When an athlete cries and gets upset, offset this with your own positive body language (i.e. relaxed posture), tone of voice (i.e. normal tone) and encouraging non-verbals (i.e. head nod). Be firm and clear about actions he or she can take to meet expectations, but check the emotions at the door.

Create a Systematic Approach - Coaches put themselves in charge in the gym by what they do versus what they say. When we talk too much to children, they are just waiting to see what we will actually do rather than say. Having a systematic approach to navigating mental blocks can provide a structure for all [involved]. Then, when these challenges occur, you both can move into execution mode, saving a lot of discussion and emotion.

Get Them Doing – Instead of directing attention to the unwanted behavior (i.e. not going on skill), identify actions the athlete can execute. Provide opportunities for him or her to build momentum by doing, even if it’s not the skill you want to see completed. You can build a ladder of exercises, drills, etc. that serve as a build-up to completion of the actual skill. When the athlete won’t go, have him or her choose a lower rung on the ladder and execute.

View as an Opportunity – Mental blocks are an opportunity for athletes to navigate fear and learn emotional control. Help them identify positive connections between their own actions and positive results or progression. The coach is responsible for providing athletes with a system and athletes are responsible to the coach for executing that system. When mental blocks occur, both of those areas tend to break down. Being present and “in it” with athletes creates a balanced sharing of responsibility.

Take the Pressure Off – You can accomplish this by minimizing the amount of time you allow athletes to work on the skill. This can help athletes tap into their own desires for doing the skill rather than relying on you to motivate or scare them into doing it.

State Intentions – Have the athlete state one action she commits to executing that puts her in control of the skill (i.e. breathing, shoulders down, etc.). Prior to the skill attempt, have her state out loud the intention. For example, “I point my toes” or “I breathe on the swing.”

Encourage Use Of Imagery – Mental blocks create negative feelings and reactions linked to the skill. Have the athlete create a fantasy story around successful execution of the skill including where she could be, sounds she hears, aromas she smells, textures she touches, etc. When she attempts the skill, she steps into the story providing an opportunity for her to experience new feelings and reactions surrounding the skill.

Keep Questions/Discussion to a Minimum – Trying to engage athletes in discussion about why they will not do a skill is typically ineffective. Minimize use of questions as this leads to more thought and discussion preventing momentum from being built.

Interrupt the Pattern – Have the athlete work on the desired skill in sets of three attempts. Regardless of whether athlete goes for the skill, after 3 attempts, interrupt the pattern with positive action (deep breath, another skill, timers, tense and release, body language check, etc.), then start again.

Inform Parents – Communicate system/game plan to parents so that all adults are in charge and supporting the systematic approach. This allows parents the opportunity to support at home what you are doing in the gym. If parents have questions, invite them to speak with you.

Caroline Silby, Ph.D. is an expert on the development of adolescent athletes and has served as adjunct faculty at American University for 12 years. She holds a Doctorate and Master Degree of Sports Psychology from the University of Virginia and authored Games Girls Play: Understanding and Guiding Young Female Athletes (St. Martin’s Press, 2001) and was contributing author to Sports Secrets and Spirit Stuff (American Girl Company, 2006). She has worked with 2 Olympic Gold Medalists, 11 Olympians, 3 World Champions, 12 National Champions, and hundreds of Division I student-athletes, coaches and teams.