Priory cognitive behavioural therapist, Lauren Povey, outlines techniques that athletes can use to stop anxiety affecting their performance.

Anxiety can have a dramatic impact on performance. The psychological state, which is often caused by stress and worry, is commonly experienced by athletes at all levels.

Lauren Povey, cognitive behavioural therapist who supports people with anxiety at the Priory Hospital in Chelmsford, has outlined techniques people can introduce into their training to reduce the impact that nerves have on how they perform.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a proven treatment that helps people to recognise unhelpful thought patterns and how they are choosing to respond to them. It allows people to become aware of their negative thoughts so that they can adapt and change the dysfunctional behaviours that then follow.

Lauren said: “While you may think that your performance is just driven by external factors like your opponents, the weather or an injury, it is also influenced by what you think you can and can’t do as a result of these external factors.

“While we can’t stop our thoughts, we can change how we choose to respond to them.”

Keep a thought log to monitor your nerves

In the run up to and after competitions, take time in the evening to write down moments when you became anxious and reflect on what you thought, how you felt and how you went on to behave.

  1. Write down what caused you to become anxious – was it warming up before your performance? Was it seeing your main competition?
  2. What did you think at the time? Did you automatically gravitate towards thoughts that you were going to perform badly or that you were going to make a mistake?
  3. Write down what would happen if you continue to think this way – will your anxiety cause you to be distracted in moments when you should be focused? Will it lead you to constantly doubt yourself?
  4. Challenge the initial thoughts you had at the time – you know you’ve put in the practice and achieved this many times before
  5. Look at a healthier way of thinking about the situation – you may want to think “I’m going to try my hardest to do the best I can”
  6. Write down an affirmation such as “I’m great at this” or “I deserve this”
  7. Put an action plan in place – make a conscience effort not to dwell on your negative thoughts the next time they arise. When you feel them welling up, focus on your experience, skill and the previous achievements you have made instead.

Once well-versed in this technique, you will be able to pause and redirect yourself away from negative thoughts the moment they arise so that they don’t distract you from your main focus.

Visualise and imagine your success

In the lead-up to your performance, regularly rehearse the achievement you want in your head. This will act as a non-verbal instruction, training your body to act confidently in moments when you otherwise would have been nervous.

Just like any skill you use in your sport, it needs to be practised to be perfected.

  • Find a private, calm space and make yourself comfortable
  • Take a few slow and deep breaths to calm yourself
  • Close your eyes
  • Set the scene – make it feel like you are actually there. What venue are you practising in or competing at? What’s the colour of your opponent’s uniform? What can you hear?
  • If you are worried about a skill or strategy you have been struggling with, imagine yourself doing it perfectly and confidently
  • Do you get distracted by negative thoughts during a performance? Try to imagine yourself poised, relaxed and focused, performing exactly the way you want to under conditions you’d normally find nerve-wrecking.
  • Remain in the moment for 5 to 10 minutes or until you feel relaxed
  • Assure yourself that you can return to this place whenever you want or need to relax

Positive self-talk throughout the process

Anxiety can cause you to focus on all the mistakes you could possibly make and believe that the worst possible scenario will happen. Swapping this for positive self-talk can prevent these thoughts from intensifying and impacting you before, during and after your performance.

  • Before your performance – before entering into a high-pressure situation, prepare with positive statements like “It’s going to be tough but worth it” or “I’m going to do as well as I possibly can”
  • During your performance – stay positive throughout the experience. Use positive statements like “Concentrate on what is going on, not on how you feel”, “This is just anxiety, I know it will pass” or “I know I’ll be fine”
  • After your performance – remember to give yourself praise after an achievement such as: “I did it, I’m getting better”, “I’m making progress” or “I did that well”

Even when things don’t go quite to plan, you should take the time to review – any small step that you make is progress.

Know when to get help for anxiety

If you feel like your symptoms are becoming more persistent and are having an impact on your day-to-day life, it is important to visit your doctor. They will be able to determine whether you need any further professional treatment.