You’re not alone. Most basketball players feel anxious before and during competitions. What they do to cope is they accept performance anxiety as a perfectly normal. Instead of freaking out, they let the anxiety sharpen their focus. After all, having anxiety is proof that you care about your basketball game and outcomes – which is totally OK! But too much anxiety is uncomfortable and interferes with performance. So today we’ll discuss how to handle anxiety in basketball.
A moderate level of anxiety is necessary for optimal performance. But some hoopers experience panic. Panic is an extreme form of performance anxiety. A panic response is an exaggerated mind-body reaction – a false alarm – that can be diffused or redirected. Our instinctive responses to panic are always counterproductive, such as fleeing, isolating ourselves, trying too hard to relax, or beating ourselves up mentally.
Let’s jump into how to use your anxiety positively, and how to avoid panic. Many of the greats have figured out exactly how to do so, and we’ll share their methods with you.
“I’ve been living with pressure since a lot of years, because everybody says ‘You’re so young to be there.’ I always say when I head to the court I forget everything, and I just play basketball.” said Dallas Mavericks’ point guard Luka Doncic.
If you have a high level of performance anxiety, then you’ve learned a sequence of responses. Once you trigger the sequence, it is hard to stop. (Imagine touching one domino at the beginning of a chain – and then trying to stop the other dominoes. Pretty hard, huh!) So your priority is to stop the sequence early.
Panic always eventually passes. Try to keep in mind that it’s a harmless experience that only exists in your mind, and by extension, in your body.
Panicking is not going crazy, but rather the manifestation of fear of a terrible outcome. What you really fear, if you are willing to admit it, is embarrassment that you will fail to perform in the moment.
Dr. Wendy Borlabi, Director of Mental Performance & Health for the Chicago Bulls said, “Pressure is the stress associated with expectation of performing well in a situation. That expectation could be a negative or a positive. When we think about pressure, your body feels the same thing – whether your palms are sweating, your heart’s racing, it does the same thing whether it’s good pressure or bad pressure.”
“So it’s all about perception. Whether you perceive that feeling in your body as something positive that helps to increase your performance, or you perceive it as something negative that helps to decrease your performance.”
Basically pressure is in the mind of the beholder – that means you! Some hoopers see pressure as a privilege, while others think it indicates something has gone wrong. Russell Wilson, the Seattle Seahawks’ quarterback sees it as an opportunity. He said, “I love it when the game is on the line, when everyone else is nervous, I’m excited.”
Basketball players will experience intense pressure in their performance as long as they perceive athletic contests as an impending disaster rather than a great opportunity. These athletes also tend to interpret normal bodily sensations, such as an increased heart rate prior to a game, as a catastrophe. Which as a result leads to a complex chain of biochemical events resulting in overstimulation such as a pounding heart, sweaty palms, and a whirling mind.
It’s super important to practice performing with this increase stimulation and learn to work through it. The mental challenge is to change from a negative to a positive point of view. Think of this moment as your occasion to thrive. There is nothing to lose because you will either win or learn from your performance.
To overcome the physical part of the over stimulation, incorporate this quick drill into your practice sessions. Quickly elevate your heart rate and get your arms shaky. Do pushups, run in place, or jump rope for 90 seconds. Take a few really deep breaths, and then try to hit free throw shots, or game-ending threes, or whatever you goal is. As you get better at managing this stress response, it’ll provide you with greater assurance over time that you can perform how you need to even when your adrenaline is spiking in a high stakes situation.
Everyone experiences pressure in different ways. Some have trouble sleeping or sleep too much. Some get irritable, angry or restless. Others can find themselves unmotivated or unfocused. We all handle pressure differently. But lucky for us, there are many ways to handle pressure. Not all will work for you, but challenge yourself to find what does.
Here are some ways to help overcome anxiety in basketball:
Exercise releases fell-good endorphins that can enhance your sense of well being. Exercise also means you’re putting in practice to improve your skills. That can improve your basketball confidence. Which in turn can help with your nerves.
The way you breathe affects your whole body. Deep breathing increases the supply of oxygen to your brain and helps to promote a state of calmness. Breathing techniques also help you feel connected to your body. Plus breathing exercises are easy to learn. You can do them whenever you want, and you don’t need any special equipment.
One method to try is belly breathing:
Meditation and mindfulness can help your body and your mind relax. During meditation, you focus your attention and eliminate the stream of jumbled thoughts that may be crowding your mind. Awareness of breathing is one of the most fundamental techniques for moving into mindfulness. The easiest way to focus on awareness of the breath is to sit comfortably with your eyes closed and begin to focus on your in-breath and your out-breath.
Here’s a five-minute meditation to try. Take a few deep breaths from your diaphragm and release the tension in your body. Focus on a five-count breath:
Reverse this process on the exhale for another count of five, exhaling from the crown, chest, ribs, belly, pausing on the last bit of breath out of the body, and then begin again.
For this, get a piece of paper and draw a circle. Everything in the circle is what you can not control. Everything outside of the circle is what you can control. So for example, the referee would go inside the circle.
Make a list of things that make you happy. Things that help to shift your mood. When we’re feeling pressure, it’s really hard to find things to help alleviate that. So if you don’t have to think about it, and can just get your list out, and look at that list and then do something on that list, that’ll help decrease your pressure.
Here are some tactics to help you overcome performance anxiety so that you can fully enjoy basketball and perform at your best from The Champion’s Mind. These tactics won’t totally get rid of intense feelings but will help you redirect them toward a positive outcome.
The more prepared you are for competition, the less you will fear it. Nothing helps build confidence more than knowing that you are ready for the challenge at hand. Proper preparation comes from paying close attention to feedback from coaches, studying the playbook or game film, and practicing conscientiously. Before the game, always remind yourself that you have prepared as best as possible.
Don’t worry about what other athletes are thinking or how well they seem to be doing. It’s normal to be anxious. It’s common not to suspect that others are overcome or overwhelmed with anxiety. But it’s likely they’re experiencing the same level of anxiety or even more so, no matter how calm they appear.
For example, when WNBA Champion and 3X3 Olympic Gold Medalist Stefanie Dolson first arrived for college basketball practice at UConn, she was nervous. “I was scared. I’m the type of person that the more you are around, the probably more surprised people are at the fact that I went to college for basketball, and that I play in the WNBA. Because I’m usually scared, I’m always nervous. I think I have so much pressure I put on myself, I just want to be really good. So if I’m not, I freak out. So I was so scared, like petrified.” she said, reflecting on the experience.
Her nerves followed her throughout her college career, too. Her senior year going into the Final against Notre Dame, undefeated, she said she was, “Probably wanting to vomit. Any game, I’m nervous.”
Don’t bother trying to get rid of the anxiety. Instead channel it into performing well, and talk to yourself about trying to use your anxiety instead of trying to avoid it. Use self-talk and say, “My body is preparing itself to perform,” and “I’ve done well before, and I can do it again now.”
Take a series of deep breaths to calm your nerves. Good breathing reduces anxiety by clearing your mind of fog and by reducing physical tension. Simply prolonging exhalation, regardless of inhalation length, promotes the relaxation response. So regulate each breath with a deep inhalation and a full exhalation.
A stress-reducing marine breathing technique you can try is:
Get creative and use your imagination. For instance, give the anxious feeling an imaginary form – such as a firecracker or sparkler – and then place it in an imaginary safe place or container that will protect you from it. Understand that you are bigger and more powerful than this anxious feeling.
Monitor negative thoughts about the future, and worrisome thoughts about winning or losing. The results and outcomes can wait while you remain focused on playing each play to the best of your ability, one by one, until the final whistle.
“You have to be in the moment. You can’t worry about what just happened, the basket you missed, the foul you made two minutes ago, because it’s over. You can’t worry about what’s gonna happen the next time down the floor. You have to be right there in the moment. It’s most important especially in the playoffs because that’s the time of year when you have to live for the moment. It doesn’t matter what’s gonna happen in Game 3 when you have to play Game 1. You have to be here right now to play basketball when it’s happening.” said the Chicago Bulls’ Bill Wennington.
Stay on a positive thought channel. Flip the switch from negative to positive self-talk when you are emotionally spiraling down. Try to talk sense to yourself instead of letting your fear run wild. Remind yourself, “Even though I am feeling anxious and uncomfortable right now, I can still play well and reach my goals.”
WNBA Champion and Olympic Gold Medalist Breanna Stewart said, “You could look at it in two different ways. You could look at it and say, ‘Yeah there’s a ton of pressure. I’m supposed to do this, and this, and this, and this. And what if I don’t do it?’ Or you could look at it and just say, ‘This is what I’m supposed to be doing.”
A game is an opportunity to test your fitness, challenge the competition, and demonstrate how hard you’ve worked. You are not your game. Take what you are doing seriously, but learn to take yourself lightly. Always remember that sports is what you do, and not who you are. Smile. Laugh, Have a good time. Ask yourself, “What’s the worst thing that can really happen?” If the worst does happen, ask, “What can I do to cope?”
FEAR means to ‘face everything and respond.’ So don’t be afraid of fear. You’re ready to crush this game. To perform at your highest level and overcome basketball performance anxiety, guide your butterflies to fly in formation! If you’d like some helpful reminders before your next game, get this handy printable basketball journal. Up next, learn about visualization for basketball.
This site is reader supported. If you purchase some of the items linked from this post, they send us a little funding to help keep our pro hoops reporting flowing – and it doesn’t cost you any more than it always would. Thank you!