Ways to Deal with Nervousness: Better Self-Talk

Nervousness in games is partially caused by your self-talk. The things you say to yourself, whether out-loud or in your head, influence your emotions, arousal level, and nervousness.

Pressure is somewhat subjective. Pressure situations in games are only pressure situations if you perceive them to be pressure situations. Your perception of pressure is influenced by your self-talk. If you say/think things such as "This is such an important game. I need to win this game," you will feel nervous because the fear of failure scares you. These thoughts are motivating. They make you care and try hard, but they also increase your nervousness. This is usually what you have to deal with when motivating yourself. You have to learn how to motivate yourself while minimizing the nervousness that comes with it. There are other kinds of self-talk that only hurt your performance. They provide mainly nervousness without any real motivation to go along with it. These include thoughts such as "Oh my goodness. there are so many people here. What if I embarrass myself in-front of them," and "I'm feeling so nervous right now, my legs are shaking, there's no way I can shoot these free throws right now." These are the thoughts that cause choking.

To solve this, you need to improve your self-talk. You need to replace negative and irrational self-talk with more positive and rational self-talk. This will lower your nervousness and raise your confidence, which will help you execute better and choke less.

Here are examples of better self-talk that reduces nerves:
"It's OK. It was only one mistake. I can play better starting now!"
"This is an important game but I've prepared well for it. I am ready!"
"We're only down 10 points. It's not over yet. We can still win if we keep fighting!"
"Relax, breathe deeply, and focus on the task at hand. I can do this!"
"There are so many people watching, but I like it. This is fun!"

However, you need to be careful of using self-talk that reduces nerves too much. Sometimes athletes try to reduce their nerves by downplaying the importance of a game. They may say to themselves "This game doesn't even matter. I don't care if I win or lose." This kind of thinking can be helpful sometimes, but it can also reduce motivation significantly. The best self-talk reduces nerves while maintains motivation.

Remember, peak performance depends on 4 factors that you can control in games. They are motivation/effort, concentration, confidence/relaxation, and intelligence (strategy). Any self-talk that raises these four things is good self-talk. Any self-talk that lowers these four things is bad self-talk. Any self-talk that gets you in the zone, or keeps you in the zone is good. Any self-talk that prevents you from getting in the zone, or takes you out of the zone is bad. You need to be aware of how your self-talk affects your mindset and ability to enter the zone (peak performance).

One of the best ways to improve your self talk is to create and fill out a "thought tracker" sheet. This is what it looks like:

Can I think in a more positive, rational, or more productive way? If so, fill out the columns to the right.

New thought
New Emotion
New Outcome
Example: Misses a free throw
“I’m terrible at free throws.”
Anger, embarrassment
Lowers confidence, tries too hard, tightens up, and continues to miss free throws.
“It’s OK, I usually make 70% of my free throws. I just need to breath and relax.”
Stays confident, calm, and loose.
Makes more free throws.
Example:  Losing at half time
“We’re going to lose. We can’t come back and win. They’re too good..
Lack of motivation, doesn’t care anymore. No confidence.
Gives up, lazy effort on defense and low concentration. Loses the game.
It’s not over. We  can still win if we adjust our strategy and give 100% effort..
Stays motivated, confident, and calm.
Plays well and has a chance to win the game.

Next week, I will write about the last strategy for dealing with nervousness in games: gaining good game experience.