What's Happening in Your Anxious Mind?
A lot, really. To give you targeted help, the focus of this article is two hallmark thought processes that will likely cross your mind when you experience pregame anxiety. It's normal to have negative thoughts and to focus on past failures. You're not alone either, when you have concerns over what anxiety or 'thinking badly' will do to your game. When you can't let go of negative thinking or get wrapped up in imagining how badly your day will go, you may struggle to perform your best. There's ways to diffuse those thought processes and it starts, like most mental training, with self-awareness.
If you're anxious in general, you might have an 'aha' moment when you hear folks who struggle with anxiety tend to be more sensitive to 'threatening' situations and stimuli. You might have a second 'light bulb' moment hearing it's common to repeatedly mentally rehearse what could go wrong and relive what's gone badly in the past. If you only get anxious before games, it's common for those thoughts to occur before you play or even linger with you during the game. Take a moment to ask yourself. To give those thoughts a name, you can call them:
Worry: relatively uncontrollable thoughts (e.g. images or words) about what might happen in the future that brings with it negative feelings (Borkovec, Robinson, Pruzinsky, DePree, 1983, p. 10).
Rumination: repetitive thinking about your own mood, how you feel, and how it will impact you (Nolen-Hoeksema, 1991).
Both are repetitive negative thoughts about things relevant to you. The main different between worry and rumination is to do with where your mind is in time. Worry is a focus on future threats and rumination is focus on past negative events and failures. When you're thinking about all the things that could go wrong in the future, you might notice (Hirsch & Mathews, 2012) that the things you notice have a negative or threatening tinge to them, it's difficult to focus on something specific or on the 'right' things, your thoughts and memories are more verbal than image-based. Those are great clues, aside from just noticing that you're focused on what could go wrong in the future, to help you identify when you're getting worried.
There's a few other red flags that might apply to you, too, when you're noticing things that are 'threatening' to you. You might get easily distracted by or shift your focus more exclusively to things that you feel are threatening. When things aren't quite clear to you or they're uncertain, it might feel threatening or unpleasant. You might even feel like there's more at stake for you than there actually is. What's interesting is these types of thoughts are partially automatic - they're not always up to you to have or not have at a given time. You may experience some or all of these things when you're anxious, but it's important to remember they're normal and does happen - in more people's minds than you might realize! Knowing the 'red flag' type of thoughts that highlight and are typical of times you're anxious, you should be better able to identify and put words to what you're experiencing (Cisler & Koster, 2010; Mathews & MacLeod, 2005). You'll be able to spot trends and know when to take action to help yourself 'cool down and hit reset.' If you decide those thoughts and emotions are too much or you want help navigating them, you've not got more vocabulary to say 'Hey. I'm looking for some help with my mental game. This is what I'm experiencing...'
To gain better footing for your attention when anxiety is taking you for a ride, you might benefit from mindfulness practice. Mindfulness is, at it's simplest, paying attention to something specific on purpose. When your mind is wandering into the past or the future, having a mindful perspective helps you stay present-focused and out of your thoughts. You're able to concentrate (control where your attention goes) on things that are helpful to your game. A mindful perspective also helps you stay objective and less attached to your emotions, so things that you might perceive as threatening or problematic are looked at as what they are right now rather than as the problem they might become in the worst case scenario. Your perspective and how you relate to anxiety-evoking situation will begin to shift in small, noticeable ways when you build mindfulness into your game. The result will hopefully be better performances and feeling more peace and calm of mind when you compete.