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Manage Game Day Jitters With These 3 Sports Psychologist-Approved Strategies

December 06, 2022

The lights are on, the stands are full of screaming fans and the championship trophy is on the line – but what about the dizzying nerves churning in your stomach?

Jitters before a big game like this weekend’s Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference state football championships is not unusual, even for athletes who have played for years.

“When the mind knows that there is an important upcoming event, the body will start to prepare itself by activating the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system becomes active in intense situations that involve anger, fear, excitement and/or physical activity. This system mobilizes resources to get the body ready to act,” says Peter Lucchio, PsyD, a clinical psychologist who works with athletes at Hartford HealthCare’s Bone & Joint Institute.

“In essence, jitteriness is the body letting an athlete know that this game matters and it’s getting ready to perform. Misinterpreting these sensations as weakness or lack of preparedness can be problematic.”

> Connect with the Hartford HealthCare Bone & Joint Institute

Working through anxiety

Just like running through your plays, working through anxiety takes practice. Dr. Lucchio suggests focusing on breathing.

“Anxiety can come with excitement or getting worked up before games or competition. Use breathing to regain some control,” he explains.

One of the most popular techniques to manage anxiety is box breathing, which is inhaling, holding the breath, exhaling, and holding the breath. For those new to breath work, Dr. Lucchio suggests starting with three second intervals.

“Athletes can also use this technique during time outs or breaks in play if needed,” he adds.

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Staying focused

Anxiety can threaten to disrupt a player’s focus, which can cause key mistakes during the game. To address this, Dr. Lucchio says he recommends players practice mindfulness.

“Mindfulness allows athletes to cultivate focus on the present. This is done by noticing when thoughts or emotions come up in the mind, letting go of these experiences, and coming back to the senses,” he says. “An athlete can practice noticing when distracted and reorienting to the present. With practice over time, an athlete can better cope with anxiety or focus.”

Mindfulness apps are the best resource for help.

Often, jitters will ease as the game goes on, but if they do not, Dr. Lucchio says the player should think about the thoughts they’re having.

“Are the thoughts on winning, people in the stands, or making a mistake? If the mind is off into these types of thoughts, athletes can use this as a reminder to come back to the present moment,” he says.

Talk it out

Being part of a team means there are others to talk about things such as anxiety with, from other players to coaches. Parents can also be a good support, Dr. Lucchio says.

“Athletes should identify a trusted person who can help them cope or connect to resources if needed,” he says.