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Sidelined by Anxiety

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In recent months, three Major League Baseball players have been diagnosed and sidelined with “social anxiety disorder,” an inability to handle stress, especially in public situations. Though few people know what it’s like to feel the pressure of performing in professional sports, most everyone understands the challenges of speaking publicly, making presentations, or simply meeting everyday deadlines.

The three baseball players are not the most famous people with social anxiety disorder. Barbra Streisand, a notorious perfectionist, struggled for three decades to perform in public.

“You’d think a talent like Barbra Streisand wouldn’t have to deal with this,” says Marie Gray, a psychologist and specialist in anxiety disorders at Misericordia University in Pennyslvania. “But there’s a terror and anxiety that comes from these expectations of being perfect.”

Social anxiety disorder also can be triggered by a sudden loss or trauma, such as divorce, serious illness, or death in the family.

More often, it’s a symptom of not being able to channel anxiety into something positive, says Jim Afremow, a sports psychologist at Arizona State University and consultant for Athletes’ Performance who works with pro and college athletes.

“One thing I tell athletes is to imagine playing your sport at 60 beats per minute,” he says. “You’d be half asleep. You need to get your body primed. When you start getting that rush of anxiety, say to yourself, ‘This is great.’” Afremow says there are several ways to put that anxiety to work:

1. Talk yourself into it. 

“The key is not to get rid of these feelings but to use pressure to sharpen your focus,” Afremow says. “Self-talk is important. Say to yourself, ‘My body is getting ready to perform. This is making me stronger and shows me that I care.’ “Butterflies in the stomach are good so long as they’re flying in formation. You have to channel that energy.”

2. Put things in perspective.

Some athletes play to win, others not to lose. Defense is vital to most sports, but Afremow suggests thinking of competition as a no-lose situation. “You’re either going to learn from this or you’re going to succeed,” he says. “There’s everything to gain. I ask clients which would they rather be: a knight protecting the castle or one trying to take it? Most athletes say it’s more fun to take the castle. There’s everything to gain, nothing to lose. If you’re in that position, then even on your worst day nothing changes. If you’re guarding the castle, there’s everything to lose.

3. Practice like you play.

Every coach stresses the importance of practice and executing as you would in a game situation. Football coaches sometimes pipe in crowd noise or start a clock with two minutes remaining. Afremow says there’s nothing wrong with that, but the key is to adopt a mindset of practicing like you play and playing like you practice.

“When I was working with athletes for the Olympic trials, they became tighter and more nervous the closer we got. I told them we need a human performance, not a superhuman performance. You don’t need something special. Jack Nicklaus said that he used to look forward to the majors because he just went out and played his regular game. Everyone else thought they had to come up with something special and got too amped up.”

Says Gray: “It’s a matter of giving yourself permission to be human and recognize that you don’t have to be perfect. Basketball coaches often will have players run wind sprints and then immediately try and hit consecutive free throws. Afremow says that’s not just a way to simulate late-game fatigue.

4. Do some cardio.

No matter how hard you try mentally, it’s difficult to simulate a heightened nervous condition. “It’s not enough to say, ‘Okay, there are two guys on base,’” Afremow says. “You need to get your heartrate up. I challenge them to do some intense cardio for a minute. You recreate that feeling of flight/fight and then practice. That way, you learn that body response.”

Afremow says this applies even to public speaking. Instead of just practicing a speech in front of a mirror, do a minute of cardio and then deliver the speech. That way you practice under the raised heart rate you’re likely to have the day of the speech.

5. Be "The Boss".

Afremow likes to cite an interview he once heard Bruce Springsteen give. The Boss was asked how he performs at a high level every night. He said he told himself two things before every show. First, this concert is the most important of his life. Second, it’s only rock and roll. “The idea was that the effort has to be all out, but the attitude is relaxed,” Afremow said. “You care about the performance, of course, but you have to free it up so that you don’t paralyze yourself.”

About The Author

Pete Williams – Pete Williams is a contributing writer for CorePerformance.com and the co-author of the Core Performance book series.

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Tags: Stress, Pressure, Attitude