Oct 6, 2016
Axing Anxiety
Dr. Brent Walker

Mental preparation can help athletes in many ways. One way is through teaching them to conquer performance anxiety. I once worked with a runner who got so nervous during races that she was unable to perform anywhere near her training capabilities.

Our initial discussions revealed that she would start to doubt herself and panic when she sensed the pack making a move late in the race. At that point, she would fall back and run a much slower pace.

We turned that point in the race into a cue and changed her thinking about it. First, heart rate biofeedback was used, which provides immediate feedback when negative or stressful thoughts are experienced. She learned to understand when anxiety was beginning and then used focused breathing to calm herself physically and mentally.

Next, she played a jet ski video game in which her performance was judged by her ability to remain calm. If she wasn’t calm, the jet ski would slow down and fail to clear ramps, dark clouds and fog would roll in, and she would fall behind in the race.

To help her overcome the poor performance spot in the jet ski race, she returned to her calmness training and eventually started to get through the race with less and less “bad weather.” We replicated the training with EEG biofeedback, teaching her to maintain her attention with a clear mind.

We then transferred the mental training to her running by instructing her to visualize the race up to the point where she started to worry about being passed by other runners. When she first visualized this, a negative response could be seen in her heart-rate patterns. At that point, she was instructed to return to a calm mental state. Through this continued process, she was able to transcend the negative feelings and stress surrounding the scenario and perform to her full potential.

Brent Walker, PhD, is the Associate Athletics Director for Championship Performance at Columbia University. In addition to serving on the Executive Board of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology, he has worked with the U.S. Soccer Federation and provided mental training services to NFL, NBA, and MLB players.

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