How Athletes Can Perform Their Best When it REALLY Counts

By Dr. Jim Taylor

For many sports, it’s that time of the competitive season when results REALLY start to matter. For many athletes and teams, from high school to pros, the REALLY important competitions of the year—States, Regionals Nationals, Worlds—are coming up and it’s REALLY important that they perform their best.

Yet, this is also the time of year when many athletes aren’t performing well at all. In fact, in the last few weeks, I’ve been getting emails and calls from parents and coaches who are desperate for help in getting their athletes back on track. Here’s the consistent message I’m getting: “My kid is performing REALLY fast in practice, but, in competitions, he/she is a totally different athlete. He/she seems scared during competitions. While performing, he/she is REALLY cautious.  And, after the competition, he/she kicks him/herself for performing REALLY tentatively.”

So, what happens to athletes as the big competitions approach that causes them to go from “all out” to “play it safe” in such a short time? And what can you do about it so you can set yourself up for success in the REALLY important competitions that are fast approaching?

Why the Change?

Results matter. Let’s be realistic: results matter! You don’t get ahead in your sport because you’re a nice kid or because you try hard (though effort helps). Rather, you move up the competitive ladder because you get the results in the form of wins, placings, , and qualifying for the bigger tournaments or series.

The problem is that when you focus on results, you are actually less likely to get those results for two reasons. First, if you are focusing on results, you’re not focusing on the process, namely, what you need to do to perform your best to get those results. Plus, this result focus can cause you to get really nervous before competitions which makes it nearly impossible for you to perform your best.

“Too” zone. With this emphasis on results, you enter the “too” zone in which you care too much about results and your results become too important to you. In other words, failure to get the results you want is perceived as a direct threat to your self-esteem and goals.

Expectations and pressure. You create expectations which lead to pressure that cause a threat reaction in which you are nervous and tight before competitions. If you are saying any of the following about your upcoming competitions, you know you have gone to the “dark side:” I must…, I have to…, I need to…, I should…, I better…, I gotta…. Each of these is always followed by an implicit threat: “…or else something bad will happen.”

Overthink. In response to this downward spiral, you start to overthink, try too hard, and attempt to control every aspect of your performances. These reactions only cause you to dig yourself into a deeper mental and emotional hole.

This quadruple whammy pretty much ensures that you will perform scared, tight, and cautiously. The paradox here is that this shift almost guarantees that you don’t get the results you want.

Next: How to Reverse the Spiral

Dr. Jim Taylor holds a Ph.D. in Psychology, is an adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco, and blogs on politics, education, technology, popular culture, and sports for huffingtonpost.compsychologytoday.comseattlepi.com, and on his own blog at drjimtaylor.com.

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