Mindfulness exercises for athletes: Are they effective for performance anxiety?
Fitness and physical traits are fundamental if you want to be an athlete. But what about mental training? Negative thoughts can bring down your performance in one second. Have you ever had lower marks in a sporting event and done much better in daily practice? Performance anxiety can be the reason.
After reading this article, you will know if mindfulness based anxiety reduction strategies are what you need. Are they effective for performance anxiety in sports?
What is performance anxiety in sports?
As the name implies, performance anxiety in sports features nervousness and sometimes over-excitement about one’s performance. It usually happens in sporting events, in the moment of truth. In most cases, you have an audience watching or high expectations of your success.
After training enough, body movements become automatic, and you don’t need to think about them too much. Actually, letting it go and trusting your body is essential to excel in sports. Otherwise, you’ll be focused on every leg muscle to run faster and won’t be able to catch the ball on time.
That is how performance anxiety can ruin your moment. A study listed this problem in a group of five challenges athletes face in competitive events. They are negative thoughts, fatigue, boredom, pain, and performance anxiety (1).
Luckily, mindfulness-based interventions can reduce the burden of at least two of these obstacles.
Mindfulness based anxiety reduction strategies are helpful in sports psychology. We can use different approaches. For example:
- Remember that it is normal to feel like this: Mindfulness techniques help you accept what’s happening. That’s the first step to reducing your negative self-talk. Fighting the feeling or judging yourself as a coward does not help. When you see yourself rejecting what you feel, take a moment and change your mindset.
- Visualization exercises: Before the sporting event, you can practice a visualization meditation. After focusing on your breathing and calming your mind, visualize yourself in the field. You’re doing fine and having a good result (2).
- Catch your mind when it’s not living the present moment: Mindfulness interventions will help identify when your mind starts wandering around. When it does, bring it back to the present. In sports, it will be useful if you focus on playing, running, or performing the task at hand. Stay in the present instead of thinking too much about the outcome (3).
As noted, the body is not the only one that needs exercise and training. If you’re going through performance anxiety, you also need to work on your mind. Don’t expect immediate results. It may take a few sessions before you can see a difference. You can be sure that it works, as shown in scientific studies.
Are they really effective? What the evidence says
Mindfulness based anxiety reduction strategies are effective, according to studies:
- It does reduce self-talk and pessimism: A study performed on cyclists was published in Applied Psychology: Health and Wellbeing. A total of 47 cyclists were assigned to a mindfulness intervention or control study. Athletes in the intervention group reduced negative self-talk and pessimism while improving flow on the bike after exercising mindfulness for eight weeks (4).
- It may increase physical performance: There is a recent systematic review on this topic. This type of study gathers all of the scientific evidence published so far, analyzes the data, and provides insight and helpful conclusions. The authors of this article mentioned that mindfulness interventions benefit sports performance. They increase performance, flow and improve objective measures in the field (5).
Everyone is different. You could experience deep fear and anxious thoughts before a match. Maybe you use stress on your behalf, which actually helps you achieve greater goals. But if you feel that performance anxiety is bringing you down, there are alternatives out there. You can use plenty of mindfulness based anxiety reduction strategies to get back on track and increase physical performance.
- Corbally, L., Wilkinson, M., & Fothergill, M. A. (2020). Effects of mindfulness practice on performance and factors related to performance in long-distance running: A systematic review. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, 14(4), 376-398.
- Röthlin, P., Birrer, D., & Horvath, S. (2016). Psychological skills training and a mindfulness-based intervention to enhance functional athletic performance: design of a randomized controlled trial using ambulatory assessment. BMC psychology, 4(1), 1-11.
- Mistretta, E. G., Glass, C. R., Spears, C. A., Perskaudas, R., Kaufman, K. A., & Hoyer, D. (2017). Collegiate athletes’ expectations and experiences with mindful sport performance enhancement. Journal of clinical sport psychology, 11(3), 201-221.
- Scott-Hamilton, J., Schutte, N. S., & Brown, R. F. (2016). Effects of a mindfulness intervention on sports anxiety, pessimism, and flow in competitive cyclists. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, 8(1), 85-103.
- Sappington, R., & Longshore, K. (2015). Systematically reviewing the efficacy of mindfulness-based interventions for enhanced athletic performance. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, 9(3), 232-262.