Anxiety is part and parcel of performing in sport for a majority of athletes and being able to manage your anxiety can really help you produce a better performance. Under pressure, some athletes can produce a ‘clutch’ performance where they actually perform better, however for others they can be overcome with nerves or anxiety. Having had first-hand experience of anxiety while competing and working with other athletes to help them manage their own anxiety, this short article aims to offer some tips to help you manage your own anxiety.
Anxiety is a state comprising of both physical and psychological symptoms due to feeling apprehensive in relation to a perceived threat. Anxiety may differ from situation to situation and each individual may experience things slightly differently. For example, one tennis player I worked with couldn’t get themselves onto the court without feeling like passing out, while a swimmer I worked with would be physically sick just before competing. Typically anxiety is split into trait anxiety which is linked to a person’s personality or state anxiety which is a temporary feeling of anxiety experienced in specific situations.
It is natural when experiencing anxiety to want to get rid of the feelings because they are unpleasant, therefore people can seek solutions to avoid feeling like that. If the anxiety becomes extreme an athlete may even get to the point where the only way to not feel like that is to stop competing or even quit the sport. This is a solution, however the athlete would be moving away from what’s most important to them (their sport). Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) can help an athlete manage their anxiety and teach them ways to keep the feeling, sensations and thoughts at a controlled level while living their true values. The actual solution to their anxiety is to give up their current solution. For example, an athlete may start to avoid training or competing in order to avoid anxiety. A more positive solution would be to accept anxiety, embrace it and learn ways of living with it.
ACT is based around a hexa-flex framework which helps to create more ‘psychological flexibility’ for the athlete. The six elements are acceptance, cognitive diffusion, self as context, committed action, values and contact with the present moment. If an athlete experiences anxious thoughts while competing, they can learn to ‘defuse’ from these which helps to reduce the impact. This means that rather than ‘hooking’ onto an anxious thought, you actually allow the thoughts in your mind to come and go like clouds come and go in the sky, freeing up your mental space. Some athletes find that this is a better way of dealing with anxious thoughts rather than spending time analysing them. This observing of your thoughts helps create some distance and enables psychological flexibility, so that you don’t feel the same anxiety as you would normally (cognitive defusion).
Another tool in ACT is known as the over enthusiastic assistant (create a name for yours e.g. David Brent), where your assistant is constantly passing you ‘memos’ all day (memos are thoughts). Your assistant may send you a memo saying ‘What if you perform badly today and everyone’s watching’ or ‘you are not as good as your opponent’. ACT suggests that you say thank you to your brain for sending you this because the brains main job is to keep you alive! However, you accept the ‘thought’ memo and place it to one side. Occasionally, the over enthusiastic assistant may send a good memo and say something positive. This freedom to choose which memos to pay attention to also helps to create psychological flexibility.
Mindfulness is another aspect of ACT, which is highly beneficial to help athletes stay in the present moment more, without thinking about the past or the future. One APP called Head Space is a good place to start because it is guided mindfulness and teaches you the basics.
The above offer some tools I have used in ACT for sport, which have produced some excellent results in a short space of time. The great thing about ACT is that it moves you towards living your core values, while accepting your thoughts, feelings and sensations. If you would like to use ACT in your sport feel free to contact me.
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About Stephen Renwick
Stephen is a former sports professional who now works in sport and exercise psychology. After studying for his MSc Applied Sport and Exercise Psychology, BSc (Hons) Psychology and training in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Stephen now uses his psychological skills and knowledge to help others reach their full potential. Stephen has written four books and has coached many highly successful individuals, business and sports professionals to improve their performance. Stephen is currently working within boxing, football, tennis, cycling and darts.