What you should NOT do to be mentally prepared for competition

It is almost universal for athletes to feel some sort of anxiety before a competition. Is this a good, or a bad thing?

Well, you have got to decide. If you decide that it is good, you will probably welcome the “butterflies” as a sign that you are ready for competition since some anxiety is necessary for us to perform at our best (positive game jitters). Besides, one of the main reasons why athletes compete is due to the tingling excitement and anticipation that a competition brings!

Anxiety or Excitement?

When athletes decide that pre-game jitters are a bad thing, they will start to over- think, compare themselves with other athletes, get overly concerned about results and even start worrying about how others may think if they do not perform well. When this happens, pre-game jitters will snowball into performance anxiety – a sinking feeling in your stomach (some even feel like throwing up), which is sure to deter you from performing at your best.

Of course, dealing with performance anxiety is not as straightforward as simply “deciding” to feel excited rather than anxious. However, it is easier for you to perceive pre-game jitters something positive and to generate the optimal level of mental activation if you could avoid these pre-game mistakes.



Having Strict Expectations about Your Performance

“I must score in every game!”, “I have to win this race”! In spite of what has been taught of positive expectations, maintaining high, strict performance expectations can actually restrict your success.

Using the first two statements as examples, a soccer player who has yet to score a goal will begin to question his ability and get increasingly anxious as the match progresses. A distance runner may get overwhelmed by adrenalin, resulting in loss of cadence, strength, and confidence when he starts getting overtaken by other runners.

In short, having strict expectations puts yourself up for a win or lose proposition, you either make it or you don’t. Consequently, if you are unable to achieve your preset expectations, you will question your ability that day – be it during or after a performance. Hence, expectations set you up for failure before you even begin, and in most cases, the expectations translate to pressure and in turn cause pregame anxiety.

“Know the difference between happiness and goals…”

~ Coach Hansen

So what should you do when you find yourself dwelling on such expectations? Aim to replace expectations with manageable objectives (also known as process goals) instead. For example, the soccer player can focus on checking into passing lanes and making decisive runs into the box. Meanwhile, the marathon runner could refocus on maintaining his breathing pattern to be in sync with the pace that he has trained at.



Leaving Self-Confidence to Chance

Self-confidence is paramount to performing at your best. If you have belief in your ability, you are less likely to become anxious before big games or
high-pressure situations.

Many athletes leave their confidence to chance. They get confident only when they have made a couple of great plays at the start of the game. Subsequently, their performance suffers when they make mistakes or lose the first couple of points. They begin to react with self-doubt and are less likely to remain composed and recover from mistakes. This is known as reactive confidence.

You want a proactive approach to confidence and not a reactive approach.

“I’ve always thought that confidence was some- thing you either have or don’t. One thing I’ve learned from Coach Hansen is that confidence is something you can grow, but it doesn’t increase overnight. It takes weeks, even months, to build confidence and it takes a whole damn lot of practice.”

Aisyah Saiyidah
Olympian and SEA Games Gold Medalist (Rowing)


Proactive confidence means creating a stable level of belief in your skills that is not easily shaken and that is based on your years of practice and play. I teach athletes to do this by getting them to remind themselves of their past accomplishments and reasons why they deserve to play with confidence. You should write down past accomplishments, small successes or awards, and abilities you possess. Your confidence should be stable and based on your lifetime of training. It should not change due to one mistake in a game. Try to recall the reasons you have to be confident in games and practice and bring them into competition.



Carrying Life’s Worries into Sports

Some athletes have problems putting aside life events or daily life troubles when they enter a competition. Whether the issue is a term test or an argument with a friend or family member, one goal of mental preparation is your ability to separate your life from sports.

The pregame warm up is the time to start focusing on the sport. Think of the routine as the shift from class, work or usual activities to competing in sports. Some athletes are disoriented by life issues when they compete, and this disturbs their concentration and gameplay. Use the pregame routine to put aside daily distractions, such as deadlines and chores, to become fully focus on the competition.

Besides the pregame warm up, another method that I use with my athletes is to write down these problems on a piece of paper and keep it away. They will then remind themselves mentally that they are now entering the role of an athlete, and will deal with the problems after the game instead.



Over-Thinking your Game before Competition

Perfectionists in individual sports, such as golf and tennis, spend too much time in a training mindset just before a competition. Let’s use the analogy of cramming for a coming examination. Your best bet is to study every day instead of burning the mid- night oil on the night before. In sports, you never want to cram during the final week before the competition.

Your goal is to feel ready when you compete – both physically and mentally. Yet, you do not want to panic just days before and begin to rethink your techniques to make sure you perform well. To avoid overthinking, do not practice your techniques during warm-up. Remind yourself that your practice is complete and it is now time to express yourself and have fun!



Psyching yourself Out before the Competition

Do you compare yourself to your opponents before a competition, or worry about performing poorly because it may affect what others think about you? These are two guaranteed ways to psych yourself out before a competition.

Confidence usually takes a dip when you make comparisons to other athletes who you think are better than you. If you feel intimidated by the competition, take some time during warm-ups to take slow breaths and think about your strengths and talents. You have more important things to do during warm up than gawking at the competition.

Some athletes have the need to be admired, accepted or respected by other people. These athletes are more likely to become tensed and hesitant during competition. Remind yourself that you are ultimately competing for yourself and stop trying to ‘mind-read’ what others are going to think about you.

If you have the tendency to psyche yourself out, refocus your mind on manageable goals (process goals) instead. Also, focus on your own strengths and talent by visualizing a time that you played your best. Think about the game plan or anything that will help you prepare for the game.



Worrying about the Result or Outcomes

Do you worry too much about winning or losing the game or, to be more specific, the consequence of it? This is a common trigger for stress or anxiety. For example, a golfer might worry about shooting a high score, but the real pressure might be the fear of embarrassment or letting someone down. Worrying about the consequences of shooting a poor score in the most stressful part. You might be most worried about your perceive others might say or think about you should you not play well. If you focus only on avoiding mistakes and failure, you’ll underperform and not reach your potential. You will also feel more doubt, which sabotages your confidence.

“ Every strike brings me closer to the next home run. ”

~ Babe Ruth, Baseball Great

When you catch yourself fretting over the outcome of the game, refocus your mind on manageable goals (process goals) instead. Also, focus on your own strengths and talent by visualizing a time that you played your best. Think about the game plan or anything that will help you prepare for the game.



Poor tactical planning or lack of a game plan

You should never participate in a competition without a game plan or strategy. In team sports, most coaches give you the game plan. However, individual athletes must come up with their own game plans and strategies. You want to have a game plan that guides you to play to your strengths and your opponent’s weaknesses.

“ Success is where preparation and opportunity meet.”

~ Bobby Unser, Automobile Racing Legend

Your pregame preparation should also take into account the unanticipated events that could happen during competition. Examples include unexpected equipment faults and even intimidation tactics by your competition. By preparing yourself for the unexpected, you are more likely able to maintain your confidence and composure when faced with uncertain challenges.


Article brought to you by Mental Edge Singapore

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