How to Coach Your Team Through Anxiety on Opening Day

It is the time of year for season openers. Some have already begun. For a lot of athletes, the first game of the season is accompanied by excitement and anxiety. While a little excitement will keep them on their toes, too much anxiety can be a disaster. Below, I’ll share two tools with which you can equip your team to be at their best on opening day. 

The Stresses of a Season Opener

When I was a college athlete, season openers were full of emotions for myself and my teammates. We had punished our bodies and our honed our strategies. We had put in hours of practice. Now it was time to see how we fared against a real opponent. This one counts.

Each athlete may lock in on different stressors. Here are a few common stressors I’ve observed:

  • Center Stage – “Everyone will be watching.”
  • Doubts – “I’m not prepared enough.”
  • Uncertainty – “Will I get to play?” “The other team might be more prepared.”
  • Consequences – “If I mess up on opening night, my teammates will lose faith in me.”
  • Fear – “I’m in over my head.”

These stressors can be even more evident in players who have moved up a level since last season (i.e., JV to varsity, high school to college).

What happens when players overdose on excitement and intensity? Stress.

According to the basic Inverted-U hypothesis of activation, too much physiological stress can be detrimental to performance.

Some activation (the kind that energizes you to put forth effort and focus) is good. Based on the graph below, activation improves performance, but only to a point. Once an athlete crosses the peak of the curve, activation starts to interfere with optimal performance.

Inverted-U Hypothesis

 

Help Athletes Keep Activation In Check

Coaches can help alleviate some of their player’s anxieties and help them regulate their activation by equipping them with two simple techniques.

1. Relaxation

When stress, doubts, and fears drive activation up, a side effect is often unwanted muscle tension. Excess muscle tension can cause a number of performance inhibiting effects such as:

  • slowed reaction time
  • decreased flexibility
  • limited range of motion
  • reduced fluidity of movement

One useful way to combat these effects is to teach players to use a technique called progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) (Jacobson, 1938). It isn’t a quick fix, but with repetition, athletes will be much more aware of when muscles are too tight or too loose and be able to adjust accordingly.

To learn more about how athletes can use PMR and to download my free PMR Guided Relaxation MP3, click here.

2. Reframing Uncontrollable Stressors

Often, over-activation comes when athletes focus on stressors outside their control, like the fact that all their friends are watching the game. These stressors are particularly problematic because, on the surface, it seems like there is nothing the athlete can do about it. Reframing these stressors or focusing attention elsewhere can bring about massive rewards.

Basically, the athlete needs to shift how he or she is thinking about the stressor. Let’s look at a few examples.

  • Doubt – “I’m not prepared enough,” becomes, “I’ve been training hard for 3 solid months, pushing my body and working on my technique with the coaches. I am confident in my preparation.”
  • Uncertainty – “I don’t know if I’ll get much playing time or not,” becomes, “I have worked hard and am ready to help the team whether I play a lot or a little.”
  • Consequences – “I might make a mistake,” becomes, “I definitely could make a mistake, but I won’t let it get me down and I’ll learn from that experience.”
  • Fear – “I’m in over my head,” becomes, “I may be in over my head, but unless I really challenge myself I’ll never reach my potential.”

Equip Your Team to Come Through On Opening Day

When athletes perceive that they are heading into a high pressure situation, activation rises. That may be opening the season, playing a rival or heading into the post-season. With a little preparation in how to relax or reframe the situation, you can set your team up to come through in the clutch and put all of their hard work on display.

Question: What is most stressful about the first game of the season for your players? I’d love to hear your insights in the comments section!

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