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Anxiety

Dealing with Anxiety in Athletes

4 methods to improve athletic success.

Key points

  • Ninety percent of athletic performance is the result of mental processes.
  • Anxiety can interfere with athletic achievement, or even cause athletes to quit their sports.
  • Hypnosis techniques can help athletes cope better with anxiety and improve athletic performance.

Some athletes develop anxiety about their ability to succeed in their athletic endeavors. Such anxiety can cause them to develop physical symptoms including hyperventilation, shortness of breath, a racing heart, shakiness, stomachaches, nausea, retching, and vomiting. Often, the anxiety or its associated physical symptoms interferes with athletic performance. In severe cases, patients may refuse to compete or even quit their sport because of difficulty dealing with their anxiety.

Zac Ong/Unsplash
Source: Zac Ong/Unsplash

Sources of anxiety related to sports include worries that an athletic maneuver has not been mastered sufficiently, self-imposed pressure to excel, stress caused by aggressive coaching from a coach or family member, or worries about letting down teammates.

Treatment for anxiety related to athletic performance can be directed at teaching the athletes how to:

  • Deal better with anxiety, which can prevent the development of associated physical symptoms or increased psychological distress.
  • Improve their athletic performance, including through engagement in sufficient practice and use of hypnosis techniques. This helps them feel more confident, and thus reduces their anxiety.

I explain to my patients that 90 percent of athletic performance is mental. I point out that the best players in various sports are not the fastest, strongest, or tallest, but that the reason they excel is because of their mental prowess. Further, I point out that most great athletes use imagery to improve their performance, including Michael Jordan (basketball), Wayne Gretzky (hockey), Eric Heiden (Olympic speed skater), Tiger Woods (golf), and likely even Babe Ruth (baseball).

Relaxation

To deal better with anxiety and improve athletic performance, a good place to start is to learn how to relax effectively. This can be done through the use of:

  • Slow, deep breathing using the diaphragm, which leads to abdominal expansion during inhalation.
  • Hypnotic imagery, by imagining what might be perceived with each of the senses in a relaxing place.
  • Focusing on body relaxation, one muscle group at a time. Sometimes, it helps to tense muscle groups before relaxing them.
  • Positive self-talk, including the use of words such as "calm," "relax," "breathe," and "easy."
  • Listening to music, which can be calming or engaging, depending on an athlete's preference.
  • Smiling, which can trigger the body's relaxation response based on life-long associations of smiling with pleasant situations.

Maintaining a consistent pre-competition ritual can help athletes remain calm. Athletes also can learn how to trigger a relaxation response rapidly during an athletic event using a single deep breath, a word, a smile, or even making a hand gesture that prompts hypnotic relaxation.

Relaxation helps resolve or prevent the development of stress-related physical or psychological symptoms. Mechanisms for this effect may involve:

  • Teaching the athlete how to remain calm rather than developing a negative physical or psychological reaction when faced with a stressful event.
  • Breaking the cycle of stress causing the development of physical or psychological symptoms, which lead to increased stress.

Relaxation also allows the athlete to compete more effortlessly and confidently, which improves their performance. A relaxed athlete is less likely to dwell on previous mistakes, less likely to be self-conscious while playing, and more likely to move fluidly. Such a relaxed state is often associated with playing in the “zone,” which athletes describe as feeling fully immersed in their games, while having great energy, effortless focus, and a mindset that they are performing to the best of their ability.

Reframing

I teach my patients that while they cannot control many external events, they can control how they react in stressful situations. In addition to using relaxation for this purpose, athletes can learn to reframe their thinking in a way that helps reduce their perceived stress.

Rather than thinking of winning a competition as the only positive outcome, athletes can learn to focus on improving their personal performance during each practice and competitive event.

Some athletes become anxious because they are worried their anxiety will affect their performance adversely. It is worth recognizing that embracing low-level anxiety can be helpful for athletes as it prompts them to train diligently and to remain vigilant during competitions. Further, athletes should remember that pre-competition jitters are normal and will improve once a competitive event starts.

Athletes often become stressed because of negative feedback given by authority figures. In these circumstances, they can be taught to counter the hurtful feedback by rephrasing it to themselves in a positive manner. For example, “You played very poorly,” can be rephrased as “I will learn from this experience and improve my play.”

I remind athletes that everyone has good days and bad days. Thus, while their performance may sometimes hurt their teams, the key to long-term success is how they react on those occasions. The greatest athletes focus on continually improving their games and do not dwell on thoughts that impede their success such as, “I cannot improve my play,” or “The other players will be mad at me.”

Braden Egli/Unsplash
Source: Braden Egli/Unsplash

Mental Rehearsal

Another method to improve athletic performance is to visualize the desired outcome before and even during a competition. For example, a baseball player can imagine hitting the ball well. Babe Ruth did that when he pointed to the stands before hitting a home run to that very location. A golfer can imagine the desirable trajectory of the struck ball. Wayne Gretzky explained that he was excellent in hockey because he would skate to where he would imagine the puck would go once it was struck by another player.

Mental rehearsal is key for outstanding athletic performance. The Soviet Olympic gymnastics teams used to spend months applying mental image training (which could also be termed "hypnosis") before stepping on the gymnastics floor. Therefore, I suggest to athletes that they rehearse their sport in their minds daily.

What Would My Coach Say?

As part of mental rehearsal, athletes can imagine talking with an inner coach who can give them feedback regarding their imagined performance and how they might improve. The coach can be their real-life coach or even a famous professional coach. Time and again, my patients have reported that their imagined coaches have provided insights of which they had not been consciously aware. As described in my book, Changing Children's Lives with Hypnosis: A Journey to the Center, these insights originate from their subconscious, and then are brought into awareness through this hypnotic method (Anbar, 2021).

Many of my patients have reported that their athletic success has improved significantly because of their use of hypnosis to address their anxiety and enhance their mental skills. Among my patients, some of them have used hypnosis to reach state level or national U.S. high school baseball, basketball, golf, gymnastics, and lacrosse competitions. A few even reached the world Irish Dance competitions.

Takeaway

Outstanding athletic performance depends on enhanced mental abilities. Hypnosis can be a very effective and efficient tool to help achieve this goal.

Copyright Ran D. Anbar

References

Anbar, Ran D. 2021. “Changing Children’s Lives with Hypnosis: A Journey to the Center.” Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

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