Calming down before a match

Fitness competitions can be a lot like taking the SATs or giving a big speech when it comes to performance anxiety. According to a study presented last week at the British Psychological Society’s annual conference, over-thinking or obsessing about them beforehand can cause you to “choke.”

18 young, healthy adults were examined twice by sports scientists from Coventry and Staffordshire universities in the United Kingdom, once in a no-pressure “practice” environment and once in a high-stakes “competition.” And, as expected, they discovered that the patients’ performance was substantially worse than they had expected.

“Our findings show that increased cognitive anxiety caused by a competitive situation does decrease performance capacities in physically active people—and the same is likely to apply even to skilled athletes,” says Michael Duncan, PhD, lead author. And the event doesn’t have to be complicated to pull off: Athletes have choked in everything from running events to golf tournaments, according to researchers.

So, what are your options? These suggestions may assist you in maintaining a happy (and performance-enhancing) mindset prior to and during your event.

To win, play down the strain

“Athletes and coaches should approach a big match the same way they always do, and not depart from the norm,” Duncan advises. “Reduce your emphasis on probable outcomes and instead concentrate on what you can control and change.”

Distract yourself from the situation

Over-analyzing is a common cause of performance problems, according to Sian Beilock, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of Chicago and author of Choke. Finding a technique to occupy your mind with anything else before the starting pistol goes off, such as counting backwards or singing a song, or even playing a short online game in a fast payout casino might help athletes avoid getting caught up in the “what ifs.”

Practice in a competitive environment

“There is some evidence that this form of anxiety is linked to prior experiences,” Duncan says. “As a result, gaining more experience in high-stakes circumstances may help inoculate the athlete in the future if they find themselves in a similar situation.” You won’t be able to compete every weekend? Make your practices feel more realistic by “rehearsing” as much of the event as possible—wear your intended outfit, eat the same meals, stick to the same schedule, and perhaps even put a friendly wager with a teammate or friend on your performance.

Failures in the past can be used to your advantage

If you’ve made mistakes in the past, don’t hold grudges against yourself, advises Beilock. Instead, utilize them to concentrate on what you’ll do differently this time. Olympic swimmers’ brains were more ready for action and enhanced competition when they used this type of optimistic, constructive mentality to study films of their past meets, according to studies.

The bottom line, according to Duncan, is how you interpret those pre-competition nerves. “They can be viewed as a threat or a challenge. If you approach it as a challenge, you will be more inclined to embrace the sensation and perform better.”