Coaches managing their athlete’s Pre-competition Stress

  by Dr.Stephen Walker, PhD, CC-AASP, USOC Registry of Sport Psychology

From the Field:

Dear Doc: “I’ve got an athlete who is a mess the week before competition.  They are a dynamo and train amazingly well but fold under the pressure. How do you develop the mindset of “Invulnerability” with an athlete?”

Dear Coach,

Thanks for this question – not only is it appropriate but it touches on something every competitor in every sport must deal with.  We’ve addressed some specific topics related to this before and a list of references will be available at the end of this response, but somehow the way you worded this requires specific attention.

1) Invulnerability is a concept reserved for those who have ‘no’ connection with reality. Literally, there may be those that are experiencing either a cognitive distortion or worse, are delusional in their thinking process. To consider that someone NOT FEEL “jitters” keyed up, or anxious before testing themselves in competition or combat is unrealistic in my experience.
2) That being said, the concept of courage takes precedence.  COURAGE can not be demonstrated or even experienced without a sense of vulnerability – even fear.  Courage is actually defined as “taking action in the presence of fear.”
3) Your objective would be better focused on “How can we maximize our athletes ability to perform their best – take effective action – even in the presence of fear.

In sport psychology, “fear – anxiety – anticipation – feeling antsy – butterflies in the stomach, etc.” are commonly experienced at EVERY LEVEL in sport.  It may not be fear of the opponent or a competitor, but rather a fear the athlete won’t perform well, or won’t achieve their goals, or won’t be able to effectively handle uncertainty, a distraction, or unforeseen circumstance that interferes with their ability to do what they’ve been training for.

The principles of sport psychology that have worked best in my experience, acknowledge this as one of the conditions one has to overcome to perform their best.  In other words, it is a given – that one can pay a lot of attention to – or very little attention to.  How much attention it requires depends on the athlete and how quickly they can put their focus on the elements that matter most in their performance.  Like the story of the two wolves battling inside each of us everyday – which one wins?  As the story goes – the wise man replies, “The one we feed.”

My work with athletes (ranging from Olympians/professional athletes to HS wannabes) involves moving beyond this assumption to:

a. learning how to acquire, develop and maintain a positive focus – to be willing to try out new things, to make mistakes, and that the focus is channeled to the “lessons” we learn from the mistakes we make.

b. the mental conditioning skills I teach are focused on “learning to control one’s arousal level as they come to terms with stress” and the need to “perform under pressure.”

c. mentally condition one’s self to keep the focus exclusively on those factors we control.

d. to manage strong emotions like mad, sad, scared, confused, and glad. (Glad? Consider Lindsey Jacobelis lost Olympic Gold as she fell in the final run of the Turin Olympics Boarder Cross….hot-dogging while grabbing her snowboard on the last jump…subsequently falling & losing the medal.)

e. the focus is always in the “NOW MOMENT”

f.  the focus is always on the “TASK AT HAND”

g. the focus is always maintained throughout for the “DURATION” of the challenge.

These things contribute to what Tom Wolff wrote about in his New York Times’ best-seller THE RIGHT STUFF (his book on the metal of test pilots at the beginning of supersonic jet capabilities.) Check out these resources for more specific information on how coaches and athletes can best prepare for the intense emotions experienced before competition:

Breathing As a Tool in Nervous System Control

Calm Your Jitters Before Your Next Race

Imagery and Visualization in Pre-Competition Preparation

Stress and Competition

Dr. Kristen Dieffenbach – From the Field

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