Managing Pre-competition Anxiety
Updated: Nov 27
Brought to you by: Mental Gear Closet
The work I do professionally often leads to interesting conversation with people I meet outside the office. Meet Derek, a former competitive sub-elite hockey player turned golfer in his later years. Derek posed two great questions that I find valuable to all athletes.
“As a hockey player, even when bare knuckle fighting was much more expected, the anxiety before games never really got to me. But now as a golfer it affects me so much differently … so much MORE. Why?”
Without knowing all the in’s and out’s of Derek’s history, this is what I could offer.
Hockey – versus golf – relies much more on brute strength, powerful gross motor movements and aggression. Therefore, the “activation” (aka anxiety) he felt before and during games would generally help him as an athlete.
When it comes to fine motor skills and sports though (e.g., archery, musical performances) which rely on more technical, precise movements, this same high level of activation and all the symptoms that follow (e.g., jitteriness) are much less helpful. In fact, they can greatly hinder performance especially in sports such as golf.
Therefore, my recommendation for Derek would be to start with:
1) How is your body experiencing or reacting to anxiety leading up to your golf game?
2) Acknowledge with gratitude how this used to be very helpful but then identify how you’d rather feel in order to perform well in this sport.
If working with Derek as a client, I would then help him to use these observations to better identify and practice specific, alternative tools to place him in a more optimal mental state.
“What can I do to mentally center myself, besides breathing techniques?”
Breathing techniques are a go-to strategy when talking about calming and centering due to the research showing how breath work can change an person's physiology. Regardless, Derek was NOT interested which is perfectly ok. Here’s what I proposed instead.
1) 5 Senses
Our 5 senses (hear, see, smell, taste, touch) can only be felt in the current moment. Therefore they're a great way to bring yourself back to the here and now, aka reground. When feelings of anxiety, fear or panic start to arise, calmly but firmly shift your attention to five things you can see right now, as if describing them in detail to someone who is blind. Now, what are five things you can hear? How about five things you can feel, such as the sensation of hot or cold, the socks on your feet, the hair around your face? I call this the 5 x 5 drill.
(Note: Many people struggle to connect with their senses of taste and smell in this exercise which is totally fine. Feel free to either grab specific items to use or skip over these two.)
2) Internal vs. external: Shift your perspective
One other strategy I highlighted to Derek was that when anxious before golf games, his attention is overly tuned into his internal experience. By hyper focusing on and analyzing his thoughts, his mind is missing out on much more useful, pleasurable stimuli such as the beautiful weather, course or jovial banter with friends.
This is especially true for mountaineering sports such as skiing, climbing, mountain biking etc. One of the perks we get for our participation in these sports are the often beautiful, natural landscapes … but only if we pay attention to them.
For others, such as indoor volleyball or basketball, it may be a little less helpful to focus on the external environment as this may include heckling crowds or the unfamiliarity of an opponent’s stadium.
Therefore, what is most important here is to be aware that you have an internal versus external environment and know when + how to shift between them as needed, according to what works best for you.
If interested in learning more or signing up for a session with Alexandra, author of this blog and owner of Mental Gear Closet in Golden, CO click here.