No matter what sport, what level, what position, there isn’t an athlete out there that hasn’t dealt with pre-game nerves. Whether it’s the first game of the season, first game on varsity, or the first match-up of a knockout round. Whenever the game is on the line tensions run high and performance can suffer if young athletes aren’t able to make their fear work for them.
This isn’t a new-age concept, Cus D’Amato, one of the greatest boxing trainers of all time preached the two-sided power of fear to all of his fighters. There’s a lot of wisdom to Cus’ words which ring true whether you’re in a boxing ring or a soccer pitch.
So how do athletes make fear work for them? It’s not exactly easy, but once an athlete starts practicing these strategies they’ll only get better at it, and mental toughness is one of the biggest things that separates players at the highest level from the rest of the competition.
1) Visualization and The Law of Attraction
Visualization is one of the most natural ways that athletes prepare their mental state for competition. The problem is that visualization is two-edged sword just like fear itself. Too often young athletes visualize the negative– they miss that crucial pass or shot, they don’t lock-down their man on defense, they mis-step and get beat. There’s no benefit to imagining all the ways the game can go against you– dedicate your mind to visualizing all the ways that it can go exactly the way you want.
One of the best athletes in the world who whole-hardheartedly practices visualization is none other than the “Notorious” Conor McGregor. The UFC mega-star has spoken at length about how often he’s visualized his fights before it was ever time to step into the ring.
Keys to beneficial visualization:
- Real details. Incorporate as much as you can, about how you cleats feel on your feet, being in your jersey, the pitch, the weather, the smells, and sounds into your visualization. This helps to make the subconscious programming that much stronger.
- Multiple points of view. See the game through your eyes, and then see yourself from the perspective of a bystander, or coach. The more times, and angles from which you can picture your greatness, the closer to fruition it is!
- Positivity. As mentioned before, imagine yourself doing it all right. Pushing the pace, beating defenders, making the plays that you need to make, there’s no reason to dwell on the idea of a less than supreme performance.
- Consistency. Start visualizing 5 minutes every day, even if it’s just a practice day. Put the time in to visualizing the best practice you can imagine, and see if your skills, attitudes, and results don’t improve.
Luckily, visualization is just one of the tools junior athletes have for quelling any pre-game jitters. If imagination isn’t much comfort, there’s rational ways to break hold of anxiety or fear.
2) Perspective – The Difference Between Fear and Excitement
What happens to the human body when experiencing fear? Our heart rate increases, our pupils dilate, blood pressure goes up, we may sweat, or even become nauseous.
What happens when we’re excited? The exact same things. What this means is the only real difference between the physical response we know as “fear” and “excitement” is how we react to it. Any time as an athlete you’re starting to feel apprehension or fear creep into your stomach or thoughts, tell yourself: It’s not fear, it’s excitement. I can’t wait to go out there and show what I can do. I’ve been waiting for this, and it’s finally going to be here.
The more that an athlete can tell yourself your fear is really just excitement, and embrace it, the more their fear will work in their favor.
3) Prep. Prep. Prep. And Reflect.
It’s easy for busy student-athletes to be overwhelmed at the thought of a big upcoming competition, or if it seems that any little bump during the week might throw them off their game, there’s always one tried and true piece of advice that can help: Focus on the the things that you can control.
One thing young athletes can control– their game bag and gear. Everyone has their favorite socks, compression shorts, and clothes to wear on game day. Make sure all that gear is ready (even if it means washing it yourself!) the night before at least. We’re big fans of having a game-bag routine so that when the morning of the competition comes we can grab our bag and be on our way without thinking do we have our cleats/kit/socks etc?
Finally, every athlete should take a minute to reflect on all the work done leading up to this point. Running the drills, making fitness, and persevering through the hard hours of practice. You, young athlete, are as deserving of this moment as anyone else, and the only person who can tell you it’s not yours, is you.
You’ve visualized it, you’ve realized it’s excitement, not fear, and you’ve prepped.
Now go take it to that other team!
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