We’ve all heard of “stage fright.” That happens when performers step onto the stage and panic washes over them, making them freeze. This panic, while common in singers and actors, isn’t specific to them. Athletes often feel it when it’s time to compete. It’s also called “performance anxiety.” We spoke with sports psychologist Dr. Sari Shepphird about some causes, symptoms and techniques for overcoming this common ailment.
Performance anxiety’s symptoms include nausea, dry mouth, racing pulse, rapid breathing, and trembling hands. Shepphird says this anxiety is often confused with low confidence, but that’s not always the case.
“An athlete with performance anxiety knows they’re talented, and can perform during practice, but struggles during competition when it really counts,” she said. If you feel any of these symptoms when you start drawing your bow during competition, you might be feeling performance anxiety.
This anxiety can be triggered by fear of failure and high expectations. That’s why this anxiety surfaces during competition more than practice. Higher stakes risk greater losses. Athletes often develop performance anxiety because they don’t train mentally the same way they do physically. Mental preparedness for competition is at least as important as physical skills. In archery, your mental state is a large percentage of your skill set. How you feel mentally affects how you’ll perform.
“50 to 90 percent of athletes say mental skill is important, but a much smaller percentage of athletes actually practice those skills,” Shepphird said.
Think about that for a moment. 80 percent of archery performance depends on mental skills, but you only devote about 20 percent of your training sessions to mind preparations. Your training is not proportionate to your needs.
Ways to Help
Although performance anxiety has no magical cure, archers can try several ways to alleviate it. Start by replicating your competition conditions as closely as possible while practicing. By performing in environments where you’ll later compete, you’ll find it easier to mentally prepare for what’s to come. Shepphird suggests practicing mental imagery, which means imagining yourself at the archery venue as vividly as possible.
Shepphird also encourages repetition. If you create routines during practice, such as taking a deep breath every time you grab your arrow, or stepping forward with the same foot each time you toe the line, these routines can anchor and calm you during competition. By associating these moves with a sense of calm, your mind helps you relax in competition.
Shepphird also suggests using this shot sequence: “Pick a point on the target, take a deep breath, still your muscles, and focus on your key word or kinesthetic sensation, and release the bowstring.”
Negative thoughts play a heavy part in performance anxiety. If you think “you’re going to mess up” while at the line, try countering that thought with positivity. It takes trial and error, but try different phrases to find what works for you. Don’t, however, tell yourself not to worry or not be nervous. By focusing on what you don’t want to do, you can cause yourself to do just that. Instead, repeat active phrases like “You can do it.”
Shepphird said most athletes worry about things they can’t control while competing. That includes weather, their scheduled shooting time, and what the archer next to them is doing. She suggests listing the things you worry about in two categories: things you can control and things you can’t. You’ll be amazed how many things fall into the “beyond your control” category. Then, hone in on what you can control.
Once you eliminate outside factors, focus on your techniques and physical ability. “You can’t control the wind, but you can control your body,” Shepphird said.
Keeping your mind on the present is great for your mental state. There’s no sense in dwelling on the past or trying to predict the future. All you can control is the present. Grounding yourself there is a key to success.
Shepphird also suggests tracking how relaxed you feel during competitions to monitor your progress. Write how relaxed you felt in your phone or on paper, or how happy you were with your performance on a 1-10 scale. Make your notes soon after competing. People tend to misremember those feelings – good and bad – once they’re removed from the situation. Paper trails help keep you realistic about your mental stability as you improve with each competition.
If you suffer from performance anxiety, realizing that fact is the first step to correcting it. By exercising your mind and finding healthy ways to combat the anxiety, you’ll perform continually better at future shoots.
To learn more, listen to Dr. Shepphird’s podcast on Ologies.