Everyone experiences the fear that stems from physical threats. This is the fear of heights, the fear of snakes, and the fear of hurting yourself physically in any way. This is normal and healthy to a certain extent. These fears are ingrained into our biology to help keep us alive. When faced with these physical threats, our bodies automatically go into fight, flight, or freeze mode to help us avoid danger and survive.
However, as we all know, these physical reactions don’t help us when it comes to performing in games. The pressure/fear we feel in games can cause us to tense up, play too emotionally, and choke. But why do we feel this fear in games anyways? When we’re performing in a game, we’re not in a life or death situation. We’re not going to die if we make mistakes or lose the game. So why do we tense up the way we do when faced with real physical threats? It is because the fear we feel in games mainly stems from emotional and social threats. The outcome of games and how we perform matter to us. We want to reach our goals. We want respect and love from others. We get nervous in games because we’re uncertain whether or not we’ll reach our goals. We’re worried that if we fail, we will not only disappoint ourselves, but also embarrass ourselves in front of others. Deep down, we’re scared of being judged. But the question still remains, why do we physically react as if our lives are at stake? It is because our emotional/social fears are linked to physical threats. Unconsciously, our brains think that social rejection will lead to being cast off and left to die alone. Also, in pressure situations, we’re unconsciously reminded of past experiences where we’ve failed and suffered the emotional and social consequences. Our bodies respond by entering fight/flight/freeze mode. It thinks this will help us, but it doesn’t. It just makes things worse.
So what is the solution to this. Honestly, there isn’t a perfect solution to this. This is just the way our bodies react to pressure. It’s natural for everyone. However, this doesn’t mean there aren’t things you can do to minimize the harmful effects of pressure and make your body react in better ways. One mental technique that I believe helps is consciously becoming aware of the distinction between physical threats and emotional/social threats. If you know that your athletic competition isn’t life or death, then you can help ease your body’s natural response to pressure. By telling yourself that you’re not going suffer in any meaningful way if you lose or perform poorly, you downplay the importance of the game, which then reduces pressure.
You can’t entirely convince your unconscious mind that there’s no threat, but you can ease it and calm yourself down in this way. You can ease the tension even more by convincing yourself that even if the worse case scenario happens (if you fail, embarrass yourself, get cut from the team, lose your income, and never get the chance again to reach your goals) that things will still be OK. Know that you’ll still be alive. You’ll still have options to pursue in life, and most importantly, you’ll still be loved by God. Suffering emotionally, socially, and financially may suck, but it’s still not the end of the world. By deeply understanding this, you can take pressure off of yourself and play more as if there’s nothing to lose. By bringing down the pressure to a more manageable level, you can then better face the pressure and thrive despite of it!
There is another dichotomy of fear worth learning about. This is the distinction between rational and irrational fear. There’s certain fear that is rational and makes sense. For example, it can be smart to be scared of heights. This fear will keep you from getting too close to the edge and falling off. However, there are certain fears that are irrational. It doesn’t make sense to fear certain things, or to fear them too much. For example, it is irrational to have a phobia of elevators. Yes, there are risks involved in entering an elevator, but these risks don’t warrant much fear. 99% of the time, you can be quite confident that you’ll be safe on an elevator. It wouldn’t be smart to avoid all elevators just to prevent the tiny chance of something bad happening.
So when it comes to the pressure you feel in games, it can help to ask yourself if your fear is rational or irrational. If you think about it and determine that your fear is irrational and that there’s no real reason to be afraid, then this can help ease tension and help you get started getting over your fear in other ways. For example, a soccer play may be feeling very nervous before a game. If he reflects on why he’s nervous, he may discover that his nervousness is coming from the fear of embarrassing himself in front of a pretty girl who is watching from the stands. After more reflection, he may realize that this is an irrational fear. He could say to himself, “Even if I embarrass myself in front of her, does it even matter? I have no intention of talking to this girl anyways. She’s a complete stranger. After this game, I’ll probably never see her again, so who cares if she judges. Besides, she probably won’t even judge me. She’ll probably forget about me as soon as the game is over. I need to stop worrying about her and focus more on the game.” This reasoning would help the player get over his irrational fear and reduce pressure.
Learn to identify irrational fears. Once you identify an irrational fear, you can then work towards getting over it to help you perform better.
However, there are rational fears that you can have in games. Having a certain level of rational fear can help you stay on your toes and play smart. For instance, it is smart for a football team to kneel on the last plays of the game to wind the clock down and prevent a turnover. The fear of turning the ball over motivates the team to making the smart decision, which is kneeling instead of running a normal play.
These ways of examining your fears and reappraising their meaning to help manage your emotions are a form of cognitive behavioral therapy. This is just one way to help deal with pressure in games. There are plenty of more strategies you can use, which you can read about here.