Is anxiety a performance enhancer or suppressant? Is it common? Is it even manageable?
The answer is YES.
Anxiety, of varying levels, is extremely common in every day life, and even more so in elite level athletics. The activation of your fight or flight complex can enhance your performance, or it can act as a barrier if it becomes overwhelming. There are a number of tried and true techniques recommended by professionals that you might want try, should you find yourself overcome by nerves.
First of all, it should be noted that your feeling of anxiety is how YOU interpret your state of arousal. Some athletes refer to this state as being "pumped up". It is when "pumped up" meets "self doubt" that arousal becomes anxiety. Techniques including visualization, establishing cue-words, and routine implementation, have all been proven to increase an athlete's performance, and decrease their anxiety levels. Here is a brief synopsis of what each method entails, they are simple, yet require absolute commitment and repetition:
Visualization - This method is one of the most well-known and incorrectly performed techniques in Sports Psychology. Rather than just sitting cross-legged in the middle of a quiet room with their eyes closed, the athlete actually needs to immerse themselves in the sounds, smells, and feelings of a game situation. For example, if you are a basketball player, take 10 minutes out of your day to sneak into the gym and turn up a recording of game sounds in your headphones. Hold a basketball in your hands, close your eyes, and start by just breathing deep, and inhaling the smells of the gym. From there, play a game in your mind, from start to finish. Imagine yourself succeeding in every facet of the game, over and over again. Enjoy your imagined successes and think about how it feels to perform at your peak. If negative thoughts creep in to your mind (and don't worry, at first, they often do), open your eyes, take a deep breath, and start again. Be conscious of your body and maintain relaxed muscles and a calm mind. It is always best to perform these visualizations on your field of play, and with the potential game sounds playing. Because you have practiced visualizing so much, you can do this mid-game, right before you perform a certain skill, and you can likely do it with your eyes open, as you are performing the visualization in your mind's eye.
Cue Words - DOMINATE. That is the word that was written on the palm of my baseball glove. Before every single pitch, I had to look in to my glove to get the grip for my pitch. I would see DOMINATE, and it would give me a mind-set to focus on. DOMINATE was the word I selected, because it made me pitch aggressively to hitters. Rather than chipping away for the perfect pitch in perfect spot, I challenged hitters. Consequently, I had my best season as a college baseball player. When selecting your word, make sure it is one that triggers an emotional rise within you. It should illicit a positive response, and should immediately snap you in to a "zone". If you are going to use cue-words, ensure that you put it in a place that you are certain to look. If you have to search for the word, chances are you are going to forget about it, and it will not be useful.
Routine - Two-time NBA MVP, Steve Nash, is a career 90.4% free throw shooter. This is good. This is VERY good. In fact, this is the best of all-time. And when he gets to the free-throw line, he performs the exact same physical routine, every time: He ghosts the motion of shooting a free throw, (with no ball) twice, he licks his fingers (gross), he bounces it three times, and then shoots without a pause. He made 3054 out of 3378 free-throws in his career...that is incredible. Nash's phantom free-throw shots (performed with no ball) are referred to as motor-imagery. You can incorporate this in to any sport where there is a stop in play, and you have a moment to visualize the next skill that is to take place.
It is important to keep in mind that these techniques are not a one-off, fix-all, guarantee. To the contrary, you must practice them with regularity to achieve optimal results (sound familiar Mr. and Ms. Athlete? I'm talkin' bout PRACTICE). Remember, while emotions like stress and anxiety have physical manifestations, they are still emotionally controlled. Control your mind and you will control your body.