More and more factors such as anxiety, depression, anger, worry, and frustration just to name a few are becoming the norm in not just elite level and professionals sport but even sport at a recreational level. Sports psychologists are in ever increasing demand to deal with these issues with performers often explaining how they want to be “free to perform” or “free to play to my true ability” and very often this means they want to be free from the burden of doubts, fears, and worries surrounding their involvement in sport.
This begs the question as to why this is becoming such a big factor that often determines who goes on to have a long, enjoyable, and successful career and who doesn’t. It is very likely that we may never see or hear about many of the most gifted or skilful athletes in the world simply because they have thrown the towel in on their sport because the pressures and expectations become too much to handle. Often many players try and try for their performances only to get worse and worse until they give up trying so hard, often muttering these words “I give up” out loud to themself during a performance. At this point they experience a sudden relaxation in their muscles, a clarity of thought, and the freedom that they have talked about for so long is present and they are able to perform to their true potential often resulting in a great success. This is because they have given up caring whether they win or lose so are no longer afraid of it. However, rarely does this last with the performer now demanding this level of performance the next time they perform and things quickly deteriorate back in to the old anxious and tentative ways.
So what is it that causes a performer to slip in to this negative state that causes so much grief? Well very often it is something that has been developed over a period of time, normally years, and boils down to the beliefs that the athlete holds towards the sport he or she plays. There are a wide range of factors that play a role in the development of an athlete’s beliefs such as the environment he or she is subjected to, the people the performer is close to such as coaches and parents, peers and team mates, and even the media. Very often performers are sucked in to the illusion that sport is more than just a game, and no longer is it something that is done for fun but instead somewhere along the way the performer takes the sport on as his or her identity. As a result the sport becomes extremely important to the point where it can feel like life of death when entering in to a competitive situation. This is because the result of the competition is perceived as a direct reflection of the performer’s identity so that when a bad performance is had it becomes extremely painful and a big dent to the performers self esteem and ego, but when a good performance is had there is a feeling of elation and great pride. Unfortunately because the pressure is so great entering in to each competitive situation due to the belief that the outcome of the event is so extremely important, the performer tends to struggle and the performance becomes very tentative. This results in below par performances which lead to the negative feelings, very often these negative feelings become associated with playing the sport competitively and the performer simply drops out of the sport.
You only have to attend an average weekend sports meet, be it in football, tennis, athletics or any other sport and it is common to see parents and coaches of youth teams and players treating matches, games, or races as a matter of great importance, and often instead of smiles and enjoyment, we see anxious and stressed faces. So, what can we do to lower the pressure we put on ourselves and others to perform and have a greater sense of freedom, enjoyment, and relaxation to play to our true ability? Well its quite simple but at the same time extremely difficult because it takes lots of practice and persistence before change can be noticed, with any changes normally being experienced after months rather than weeks. The key to this more relaxed state is to practice putting sport in to perspective and being rational about it. There is a wealth of research particularly from the neuroscience world which explain how our brain begins to shift the blood and oxygen supply away from the emotional part of the brain which worries, panics, gets angry and fearful, and instead places it in the part of the brain which deals with being rational, and thinking clearly and logically. Once a more rational and logical approach has been practiced the performer will find that they are far less absorbed in thoughts that surround the consequences of a poor performance and what others think of them and instead sees sport as something that is done for fun and enjoyment and is really not that important. In order to do this the performer must start to question the way they currently view their sport and practice seeing it as just a game rather than anything more than that, this is not to say that the performer has to stop working hard at improving in every way they can but simply just to take a slightly adapted attitude towards their sport. Examples of useful statement to adopt and practice are “I play my sport because I love it and enjoy it regardless of results”, “I am really lucky to be good at this sport so I am just going to enjoy it”, “Winning is nice but it’s not the most important thing”, “my main focus when playing is to have fun, doing well is a bonus”, “I can only try my very best, I can’t do more than my best”, “Sport is just one part of my life, I have many more things I enjoy doing”. These types of statements are very rational and logical and with practice will shift the blood around the brain in to areas that allow the performer to be calm and clear and free from worry and fears, but remember practice is the key.