Are you feeling nervous, anxious, or stressed about your upcoming game? Do you feel like you're not in the right mindset to play your best? Coaches and athletes pour an incredible amount of time and preparation into their training, but if you cannot play at your best when that big moment arrives, it can lead to frustration and even decreased confidence in your ability to win. If you mental game isn't where you want it to be leading up to game day, you are not alone. Many athletes feel this way before a big game. But the good news is that through some mental preparation you can reduce anxiety and boost your performance!
Understand the reaction of your mind and body
Before we get too far into the world of sports psychology and performance, it is important to have a basic understanding of how your mind and body will react to high-pressure situations.
Example #1: 1+1= ___
If you can read this sentence, you know the answer to that problem. You don't have to think about it, the answer simply comes automatically.
Example #2: If you were stepping off of the sidewalk into the street and a car suddenly laid on its horn, you would most likely jump back instantly out of instinct.
You would not have to think about it. You would not have time to think about it. Your mind would control your body to keep you safe. After this, you would feel the physical effects like a racing heart rate and probably muscle tension, muscle weakness, or trembling knees.
Example #3: Right now, you are not paying attention to what the bottom of your feet feel like, but if you wiggle your toes, your brain will pay attention to that.
Your brain is constantly deciding what it will pay attention to and what it will ignore. If your brain were not able to do this, you would be overwhelmed with sensory overload consistently.
So what? How does this make a significant impact on my pregame feelings? Because once you more completely understand what is going on, you can more effectively take back control.
These three examples point to 3 things you need to know about your brain:
Your brain can do things quickly and automatically without thinking or hesitation
Your brain has the ability to cause physical changes in your body
You do not always consciously decide what to pay attention to and what to ignore
This is not just limited to math problems or honking horns. Your brain is going to think about things automatically...maybe something like, "this is a big game, and I don't want to let my teammates down." Your brain has the ability to cause physical changes in your body...such as a racing heart, tense muscles, sweaty palms, and butterflies in your stomach. You do not always pay attention to the right things...so rather than preparing for how we will play at our best, we can get caught up worrying about worst-case scenarios.
If this is you, the good news is that you do not have to stay stuck here! You can take back control of your mind and body! Your mind and body react pretty much the same in everyday life as they do on game day, so once you can learn how to take back control, you will be able to do so much more consistently-including during your pregame routine.
Also realize that feeling excited or nervous is not a bad thing! Having a bit of extra adrenaline can actually help you play at a higher level. This is how you know that something is important and a big deal. Rather than looking at the situation as, "I am nervous before a big game, what am I going to do?" Instead look at it as, "I am excited for this big game, what a great opportunity to show what I can do!"
Utilize the power of a routine
Our working memory was not designed to handle large to-do lists, and when we try to "remember" to do things, it can sometimes cause us to feel overwhelmed. On the other hand, having a pre-game routine can help relieve anxiety, help us control our nervous feelings, and help us prepare to focus on playing at our best.
If you have never written down your pre-game routine, let me encourage you to do that right now! If you have a running list of things in your mind that you want to do the night before, the morning of, or hours and minutes leading up to competition, it will require a lot of focus and mental energy. On the other hand, if it is written down, your working memory will say, "phew, we took care of that. We have a plan, we will deal with that tomorrow."
Athletes who utilize pre-game routines can focus on things that will help them improve performance rather than all of the little details that will need to be taken care of. This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but your pre-game performance routine might include things like:
Packing clothes (and extras you may need for inclement weather)
Packing equipment you will need (and extras you may need for inclement weather)
Visualization to help you prepare and feel confident
Breathing exercises to help you feel relaxed or get good sleep
Focusing on your strengths and game plan
Pump-up music or calming music depending on what you need when
Negative self-talk reframes to help you have a plan for how you will reframe situations if your self-talk becomes negative
Stretching, rolling, warming up, getting taped, etc.
This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but it is a great place to start!
Music is an incredibly powerful tool that can help you relax the night before (or even a long bus ride to your competition) and also get in the zone or get pumped up when it is time to perform. The wrong type of music can actually be detrimental to your performance, so it is important to be intentional about what you are listening to. There are all sorts of playlists out there, but if you are interested in creating your own customized playlist, we will send it to you completely for free here:
Focus on things that are within your control
The list of things that athletes worry about might include things like the weather, the crowd, their coach's expectations, and their teammates' performance. You have absolutely no control over what coaches, teammates, or other athletes will do or think. Focusing on the wrong things will not help you play better. Come up with your plan, practice your plan, commit to it, and go execute it when game time comes!
While it's nearly impossible to completely ignore these things, obsessing over them will only make you more anxious. If I told you I would give you $500 if you could count backwards by 2's from 100-0 you would certainly be able to do that. Even if you were nervous. If I started yelling at you, you would still be able to do it. If 500 people started yelling, chances are, you would still be able to do it. You wouldn't be able to "completely ignore" everything going on around you, rather you would choose to focus on the task at hand. Similarly, even if you cannot ignore how good the other team may be, what abilities they may or may not have, what the outcome of the game will be, how your teammates will perform in a big moment, etc. you can certainly choose not to dwell on them.
Instead, focus your attention on the things that are within your control—things like your effort, intensity, attitude, and the game plan that you, your coach, and/or your team is going to execute. Focus on strengths and abilities rather than worrying about possible mistakes you could make. Focus on all of the mental preparation you have put in so that you can be confident in yourself, your team, and your coach.
Another helpful way to control your focus the night before a game is to visualize your success. See yourself making the winning shot, sinking the putt, or scoring the touchdown. Imagine how it will feel to accomplish your goal. Focus on the aspects of your performance that you have control over, and be sure your routine is set up to help remind you of these things. This positive visualization will help increase your confidence and give you the mental edge you need to perform at your best.
Focus on things that matter right now
If you did not prepare well enough during your training for this game, does that matter? Yes, that is something you should fix. Does it matter right now? Absolutely not, there is nothing you can do about it. If you are slicing your long irons on the golf course, does that matter? Yes, that is something you should fix. Does it matter right before your first tee shot? Absolutely not. You can't go hit up the range right now. Hall of fame pitcher John Smoltz once said in a post-game interview that he only had his best stuff 2 out of every 10 games. Most of his games he spent trying to do the best he could with what he had. If a hall of fame pitcher didn't have his best stuff all the time, there is a good chance you won't either. That doesn't matter. It's all part of the process of improving and getting better. Focusing on it won't make it better. Give yourself permission to fix it later.
THIS IS NOT TO SAY YOU SHOULD ACCEPT MEDIOCRITY AND JUST BE OK WITH JUST BEING OKAY. This is simply reframing your expectation away from arriving at a DESTINATION where you have maxed out your full potential and instead toward a JOURNEY where you constantly seek to improve. A journey that can be simplified into this:
Develop a plan to improve
When it is time to prepare, do it with everything you've got. When it is time to compete, do it with everything you've got. Just be sure you know which phase you are in and don't get caught up thinking so far ahead or behind that, you are not present in this moment.
Play a positive soundtrack in your mind before the big game
Cross your arms in front of your chest.
Now switch and put the opposite arm on top.
Probably feels strange right? This is because when we do something or think something it creates a neural pathway in our brain. As we create these pathways and then use them over and over they become stronger and easier for us to access. This is why muscle memory works. If an athlete can shoot 10,000 free throws or sink 10,000 putts the exact same way, then it should be easier for them to use that exact same neural pathway in a game or tournament. The exact same thing is true with our thoughts. The more we think things, the stronger those neural pathways become and the more entrenched we become in those thoughts, even if they are wrong!
Our reticular activating system (RAS) is programmed to search for things that it thinks are important. If we are priming that part of our brain to notice negative things, think negative thoughts, and assume the worst in situations, that is exactly what it will look for and pay attention to! It turns out that the old adage, whether you think you can or you can't, you're probably right, is actually incredibly accurate neurologically. Positive self-talk is not some hocus pocus, sit-around, and sing kumbaya feel-good nonsense. Sports psychology and neurobiology can clearly show links between negative statements and negative performance, as well as links between positive thoughts and positive performance.
If the negative voice in the back of your mind starts talking negatively to you, saying things like:
-You're not good enough
-You're going to mess up
-Everyone is watching you
-What if you lose?
YOU DON'T HAVE TO LISTEN TO IT. YOU DO NOT HAVE TO DWELL ON IT. Just like our $500 example from earlier, you can choose to be aware of it without dwelling on it, which will allow you to better focus on the game. Instead you should use positive self-talk to mentally prepare and help you handle nervous energy. Saying statements like:
I have what it takes
Confidence and refocus
Control the controllables
I put in the time, I put in the work
Can't stop, won't stop
will help you drown out that voice of negativity and help boost those positive feelings that will benefit you physically and mentally. Don't listen to voices that tell you that you aren't good enough, even if they come from within.
Create the emotions that you want to experience
If you want to feel confident, then do the things it takes to create confidence. Have a routine, use visualization, focus on what you can control, focus on what matters now, speak confidently to yourself, and walk around confidently. There isn't going to be some confidence fairy who comes along and sprinkles magic confidence dust on you. Put in the time and work that it takes to earn the right to be confident, and then trust your preparation and go compete with everything you've got! If it isn't good enough, then after the game, you can worry about how you will improve your skills through training and practice, but for now, trust yourself and get after it!