How Anxiety Can Aid Performance

As coaches, we often discuss the importance of our players' mental toughness and ability to stay calm under pressure.

However, have you thought about whether they suffer from nerves ahead of a big game? From the grassroots level to the elite end of the game, like the UEFA Champions League knockout stages or the World Cup, players will inevitably experience competitive anxiety ahead of a big game or a key moment.

Contrary to our usual perception, these feelings of competitive anxiety might not always be detrimental. What if they could actually be a positive catalyst for your players' performance? 

Understanding how to harness feelings of competitive anxiety can make all the difference in helping the team succeed. 

Now, let's delve into the strategies that can empower your players to channel their anxieties into a positive force on the field.

Understanding Optimal Anxiety

Researchers such as Mahoney and Avener (1977) and Jones (1995) have demonstrated that anxiety is not always a negative thing. 

They argue that there is an optimal level of anxiety where athletes perform their best.

Think of it like this: 

  • Too little anxiety and players might lack focus and motivation
  • Too much anxiety, and they might feel overwhelmed, leading to impaired decision-making and overall decreased performance.

However, just the right amount of anxiety (i.e. optimal level) can increase their alertness, reaction times, and overall performance.

Encouraging Positive Perception

One key factor in leveraging anxiety is how players perceive it.

Jones (1995), introduced the idea of the challenge response, where athletes interpret their anxiety as a sign that they're ready for action.

As a coach, you can help players see anxiety as a positive force rather than something to be feared.

Remind them that those butterflies in their stomachs are a sign that their bodies are getting ready for the challenge ahead.

Practical Strategies for Coaches: How To Put These Ideas Into Action

Try some of these strategies before the next game if players feel nervous.

Pre-match Visualisation: Encourage players to visualise themselves succeeding in the match despite feeling nervous. Help them focus on the excitement and anticipation rather than letting anxiety take over.

Controlled Breathing: Teach players simple breathing exercises to calm their nerves before and during the match. Deep, slow breaths can help regulate their heart rate and keep them feeling grounded.

Positive Self-Talk: Remind players to use positive affirmations to boost their confidence. Encourage phrases like "I've trained hard for this moment" or "I thrive under pressure" to help them reframe their anxiety as excitement.

Emphasise Preparation: Ensure that the team is physically and mentally well-prepared for the match. Knowing they have put in the work in training can help alleviate anxiety and boost confidence on the field.

Supportive Environment: Create a supportive team culture where players feel comfortable expressing their anxiety without judgement. Emphasise that it is expected to feel nervous before big matches and that they are not alone in their struggles.

Understanding how you can help your players to harness feelings of anxiety can be a game-changer.

Embrace the concept of optimal competitive anxiety and encourage a positive perception of anxiety so you can help players perform at their best when it matters most. 

So, next time your team faces a crucial match or even a moment in the game like a dreaded penalty shootout, remind them that some anxiety can help them achieve their goal.

How Anxiety Can Aid Performance
Understanding how to harness feelings of anxiety can make all the difference in helping your team succeed.
Watch the replay of our webinar to support grassroots youth coaches around the transition to 7v7 football.
Elliott Ward, head coach with Colchester United's U18s, tells us about his Coaching Role Models in the MiMentor Coaches Coffee Club.
Ipswich Town U18s coach Callum Tongue highlights the consistent approach of first team manager Kieran McKenna and other successful teams.
What Is A CDM?
During Euro 2020 we will be hosting a number of live webinars to look at the technical and tactical approaches that teams adopt during the tournament, in collaboration with our partners Keyframe Sports.
Download the Free Professional Development Planning Tool, from our Coach Mentor Diploma.
Ross Embleton, Colchester United's Head of Recruitment, talked about the subject of Coach Qualities, as well as giving us an insight into his career path in the game.
How can we help players within our team develop composure and effective decision-making for fast, pressurised attacking situations?
In this edition of the MiMentor Coaches Coffee Club, James catches up with Jack Cassidy, Cambridge United Football Club's Senior PDP Coach and Pathways Manager.