Getting Tight in the Big Moments

Getting overwhelmed by the moment during performance has happened to nearly every athlete at some point. Many coaches often preach, “You have to be in it to understand the pressure.” However, some athletes and performing artists never learn how to cope after being in the spot light, and instead seem to get crushed by the big moment.

This situation may sound very familiar. The talent is obvious, and many who watch practice and low key games note how impressed they are with what they see. But as the pressure increases, there are clear signs that things are not going well mentally. The athlete may start to fidget or present other awkward behaviors that can only be described as being nervous. The athlete may also become highly agitated with anyone close by, or who try to talk to him about calming down. Or perhaps in an honest moment, the athlete will open up and talk about specific worries about bad outcomes. At this point, many people are willing to claim “its mental”. But what is really happening?

For one, many athletes become consumed with results. Whether there is pressure from coaches (or parents), or the athlete simply wants certain outcomes (i.e. stats), he can become trapped from the pressure. In a way, he is thinking too far into the future, without being present with what is happening. To an outsider, this may even start to look like the athlete “just doesn’t have it”, seeming to be tardy to respond. The answer to this issue has almost become a catch phrase in itself, but in reality “just staying in the moment” is the key. Without getting too caught up in the mechanics, an athlete benefits from trusting the process (including being confident in his skills) and responding to simple cues, while allowing the results to take care of themselves.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, some athletes get too hyped. This leads to increased levels of physical arousal (butterflies, sweating, shaking hands, tingly legs, etc.). These sensations then become a distraction to what is happening around him, and may even become evidence that he is too nervous. In this case, the athlete is so overcome with anxiety at the start of performance, he can’t get engaged. Some may try to fight the nerves, others may find ways out of competing. Either way, the anxiety keeps an athlete from performing. The best strategy is to simply accept what is happening. This may sound counter-intuitive to some, but once the sympathetic nervous system clicks on, it can be very tough to bring it down effectively. Instead, admitting you are nervous takes the edge off and allows an athlete to then refocus on the situation at hand instead of being uncomfortable.

Still other athletes have tied their self-evaluation to the evaluation they receive from others after the play is over. Many times, in this situation, the athlete may not even rely on actual feedback, but instead may assume what others are thinking (typically negative). It is important to note the brain doesn’t care if the negativity is real or imagined, it simply reacts to what seems to be a threat. And in this case, the threat is to the ego (sense of self). This leads to defensive reactions that are either aggressive or submissive, and as before, these are not conducive to performing well. Turning this around can be helped with two strategies. One, as noted above, being confident in your strengths (skills) and matching them to what is required in the moment is critical. Second, keep the focus on the “controllables”. You don’t get to control what others think, nor what the outcome is. What you do get to control is your effort and focus. One of my favorite reminders to give athletes in this scenario is, “Let the results take care of themselves.”

As I noted at the start of this entry, we all get nervous at some point. But if you, or an athlete you know, isn’t able to get past the anxiety, it may be worth the time to talk with sport psychology professional about the mental side of performance. So why wait? Make the call, bring in an expert.

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