Everyone feels a bit nervous before a big game. That’s normal. There’s a difference, however, between nerves and anxiety. When apprehension starts interfering with a player’s performance – and worse, their personal life – it’s a problem. Here’s what you as a coach can do to help.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 18 percent of adults experience anxiety. It is, by all accounts, the most common mental illness in the country, affecting around 40 million adults a year. Yet even with anxiety’s prevalence, only around 36 percent of people ever receive treatment.
What does any of this have to do with coaching, though? Quite a bit. As a coach, you are responsible for far more than simply training your players and brainstorming strategies.
It’s also your job to act as a mentor. To help ensure their physical and emotional well-being. Part of that involves learning to recognize the signs that a player is unwell, and understanding what you can do about it.
As a coach, here’s what you can do to help your players overcome anxiety.
Recognize the Difference Between Anxiety and Nerves
Most people tend to get a bit nervous before a big game. It’s a very natural, very human response to stress. But there’s a difference between nervousness and anxiety, and it lies largely in the player’s frame of mind.
A player who is nervous might be a bit distracted or fidgety, but can usually overcome those nerves and give their all when it comes time to actually play. Someone who’s gone into full-blown anxiety generally displays a range of symptoms. This could include any or all of the following.
- An inability to sit still
- Fearful mannerisms or behavior (trembling, rapid eye movement, etc.)
- Mild to severe muscle tension
- Rapid breathing and/or heartbeat
- Heavy perspiration
- Partial or complete loss of focus
- Unwillingness to play
As you’ve no doubt surmised, anxiety differs from nerves in that it directly interferes with someone’s ability to play. It also manifests differently depending on the player. With that in mind, the best advice I can give you here is to get to know each of your players. That way, you’ll be able to identify unusual behavior and recognize that someone may be having an anxiety attack.
And from there, you can make an effort to help.
At its core, anxiety is generally tied to negative and intrusive thoughts. To rumination, obsession, and fear. This means that it can, at least to some extent, be mitigated through mindfulness and positive self-talk.
As a coach, you’re in a unique position. Provided you’re patient with them and understand that anxiety can be difficult to overcome, you can help your players practice both better self-talk and greater mindfulness. To that end, there are a few lessons I’d suggest drilling home:
- Focus on the now. Nothing exists outside of the court, outside of the current game and your present role.
- Acknowledge your anxiety. Don’t try to avoid the thoughts. Instead, let them enter your mind and pass.
- Be aware of your surroundings. The sounds of the crowd. The movement of your body while in play. Their heartbeat and their breathing.
- Practice positive self-talk. If you begin obsessing over the idea that you might fail, repeat a mantra to convince yourself of the opposite. Tell yourself, over and over, that you will excel, you will give it your all, and you will be okay even if you fail.
- Breathe. Take a long breath in, hold for a few seconds, and take a long breath out. Focus on the act of breathing, and let everything else melt away.
Last but certainly not least, remember that you are not a trained psychologist. Ultimately, even if the advice you give your players is helpful to them, speaking to a mental health professional will help them even more. If a player’s anxiety appears severe enough that your lessons do not appear to help, gently suggest that they might do well to speak to someone who’s trained in such matters.
Do not judge, and do not structure the suggestion in a way that makes them feel alienated or as though something is wrong with them.
As a coach, you’re more than just a trainer. You are a mentor, a friend, and a caretaker. It’s your job to push your players to their limits and to help them be better than they thought possible. But it’s also your job to ensure that if one of your players is unwell, they take the necessary steps to recover.
About the Author: Louis Louw is the owner of Elite Sport Socks. He is passionate about business, technology, and rock climbing. Elite Sports Socks sells personalized socks for sports teams and school fundraisers.