Anxiety is a natural part of sports. However, anxiety before a big game or race can become detrimental in the form of pregame jitters, knots in the stomach, shaking hands, muscle tension, and even vomiting. What can be done to prevent anxiety from hurting performance and ruining a sport experience? The research shows exposure is a very effective way to treat general, non-sport anxiety. For example, someone with a debilitating fear of spiders might benefit from gradual exposure, in which they sequentially and over time imagine a spider, look at photos of spiders, watch a documentary on the life-cycle of tarantulas, go to the pet store to look at spiders, and ultimately hold a spider. Gradual exposure allows the person become more comfortable with fear and anxiety.
I am running in the Broad Street 10 miler this Sunday for the seventh time. Pregame nerves typically were not an issue for me as a competitive soccer player. However, I discovered that anxiety crept in during the Broad Street. Specifically I would feel anxious when I was riding the subway from the stadiums to the start line, while I was waiting at the start line, and throughout the first mile of the race. This anxiety caused me to push myself too hard in the beginning of the race, and therefore I would fade toward the end. Knowing that gradual exposure can treat anxiety, I tried a self-experiment. When training in the months leading up to the race, I would imagine or visualize myself in the subway, at the starting line, and beginning the race. While imagining these experiences, my anxiety would increase. However, over time, the anxiety diminished as I visualized race day events. Now when I run this race I am less anxious, I do not unnecessarily push myself too much in the first mile, and I enjoy the race more. (In the future I will write specifically about the benefits and correct way for athletes to visualize.)
I have recently questioned a long standing mindset associated with pregame anxiety. Athletes, myself included, are often taught to treat big games as an everyday game as to avoid the debilitating effects of anxiety. Now I’m torn because I partially agree with this notion. If you treat a championship like a normal game, your anxiety is likely to be less. However I’ve seen players attempt to do this, thus suppressing anxiety, which eventually comes out in some fashion. I wonder if it is helpful to identify pregame anxiety to become more comfortable with it. Please feel free to comment if you have any thoughts on this concept.