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Nerve: Thoughts for Managing Performance Anxiety

Nerve: An Epiphany

I just finished reading a superb book on managing performance anxiety. Having struggled with performance inhibiting nervousness during my own playing career, I have spent the past 20 years studying, reading, talking, and asking questions about this mysterious phenomenon. If you’ve ever played in a game that meant something to you, you know all the tell tale signs– rapid heart rate, increased respiratory rate, feelings of weightlessness, loss of motor control, and spiraling internal chatter in your mind. These symptoms often cause a significant degradation in performance that my friend Ron Wolforth has termed “game slippage”. During my own playing career I experienced these sensations whenever I was overwhelmed by a situation I somehow deemed tremendously important. It didn’t always cause me to fail, but even if I survived such an experience, I walked away feeling I could have performed much better and helped my team a lot more had I been able to control my emotions.
As my playing career ended and I got into coaching, I soaked up every bit of information I could find on the topics of mental toughness, and performance anxiety. I first encountered the concept of positive self talk to suppress feelings of fear in the late Harvey Dorfman’s book The Mental Game of Baseball. Ken Ravizza and Tom Hansen in their book Heads up Baseball introduced me to techniqes for allowing the subconscious brain to take over performance by moving thoughts out of the way. Dr. Patrick Cohn of Peak Sports Performance taught me that with practice a player can learn a pre-performance warm-up to ensure consistent levels of focus and confidence for each game. From Daniel Coyle’s Talent Code, I became aware that thousands of hours of focused practice are required to myelinate (or insulate) the electrical neuromuscular pathways to allow smooth uninhibited performance of motor skills. Then while attending a pitching coaches’ conference at The Texas Baseball Ranch, I heard a talk by Andy McKay of Sacramento City College that offered practical applications of all these concepts. However, the puzzle was still complex and largely unsolved in my mind. Most of the literature I encountered was aimed at trying to squelch the internal chatter that causes erosion in performance. My questions remained. Even as a coach, when games got heated, I felt things speeding up as those old demons of fear and nervousness would begin to rear their heads again. Finally, my good friend and MLB agent Mike Milchin recommended Nerve by Taylor Clark, which caused an epiphany in my thinking.
Clark outlined the neurologic root of the fear/anxiety response. Given my background as a physical therapist, this scientific explanation was right up my alley. The center for reflexive emotional responses such as worry, fear, stress, anger, and anxiety is a tiny almond sized collection of neurons called the amygdala. This area is designed to provide an immediate fight or flight response by rapidly activating the sympathetic nervous system in the brain anytime we sense danger. This was a very important adaption for ancestors who probably faced life threatening situations several times per day. They needed a system that would allow them to either fight or run first and ask questions later. The activation of the amygdala is a powerful reflex that travels much faster than the conscious brain. Therefore we are largely incapable of suppressing it with even the most disciplined thought control.
Try holding your face up to the glass aquarium of a poisonous king cobra. No matter how much you convince yourself the deadly snake is behind glass and cannot pose a threat, you cannot stop the inevitable flinch and fear response if that cobra happens to strike at you through the glass. It’s actually a very important and necessary survival mechanism. As our society has become more sophisticated, truly life threatening situations have become much more scarce. However, no one remembered to tell the amygdala that things are much safer now. The little almond shaped fire ball still jumps into action in unfamiliar situations of anxiety or stress. When the amygdala reflex fires, a physiologic response is initiated. The heart begins beating rapidly and respiration becomes fast and shallow. Blood is shunted from the extremities to the core of the body creating a sweater vest of safety for vital organs, but robbing the performing athlete of much needed fine motor control in his hands and feet. Movements become clumsy and awkward and previously smooth and mindless athletic maneuvers are slow and inaccurate. This explains the errant throws, clanky gloves, wild pitches and feeble swings we see in pressure situations. Unfortunately, this reflex is completely irrepressible.
While nearly everyone experiences the fear reflex, not all are paralyzed or inhibited by it. Many elite musicians handle the physiology well and go on to have virtuoso performances in the most stressful situations. Medal of Honor winners, abandon their fear and fight with feverish intensity and effectiveness. Many athletes seem to perform better “in the clutch” (although statistics bear out that these players actually remain the same in high stakes environments while others around them degrade). So what is the common thread linking these high quality performers?
Given the unavoidable nature of the amygdla response, Clark offers a novel approach to anxiety management. He postulates that the best performers don’t try to suppress the reaction, they just go with it. Instead of trying to beat back the sensation with the brute force of cognitive thought, they ride with it like a surfer rides a wave. Instead of chastising themselves with babbling positive self-talk mantras, they expect the nerves and the butterflies, welcome them, and operate within the context of the reflexive physiologic response. Then they focus on the task at hand with such intensity that the amygdala shuts down the nervous response and settles back into its normal state of hyper-readiness, waiting quietly as a frog for the next perceived stimulus to jolt it into action. The following is my interpretation of Clark’s thesis and its application to the pitcher under duress.

1) First, expect the amygdala to jump into the fray. Welcome him to the party.

2) Understand that nervous reactions and fear happen to everyone. It’s a reflex. Just because you’re nervous doesn’t mean you’re soft mentally. Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is doing what needs to be done even though you’re afraid!

3) Recognize the symptoms you feel are not obvious to those watching. You are not transparent. No one can see your knees shaking. They cannot see your hands trembling and they have no idea about the pounding of your heart.

4) As prescribed by Dorfman and others, take a deep cleansing breath–in through your nose using your diaphragm (your belly expands when you breathe with your diaphragm), and out slowly through your mouth. This will signal the parasympathetic nervous system to whisper the amygdala to sleep, and calm the reaction.

5) This is my idea–not yet confirmed as scientifically valid: Do something to stimulate blood flow to the hands and feet. Try swinging your arms in large circles, bounce up and down on your toes, or run in place briefly. This should restore some of the fine motor control you so desperately need to make quality pitches.

6) Finally, and most importantly, turn your focus from inward to outward. That is, stop monitoring your physiologic symptoms, or your mechanics, and immerse yourself in the goal of making the next pitch. It would be even better if you could be totally invested in your team’s goals. Executing pitches would become the product of an insatiable desire to help your team win a game, no matter the cost. Just like the heroic soldier abandons his fear and fights to keep his buddies alive, you would be fighting for your teammates, and your nervousness would fade. I don’t think this is something you can fake. You must spend time cultivating relationships with your teammates so that you enter the battle as a band of brothers. You will find strength when you concern yourself with helping your teammates achieve their goals. Your anxiety will be controlled when you realize your brothers need you to do your job and make the next pitch. Calm will be found as you become aware that while they love and support you, they really don’t care how you feel, they only care how you play. Teammates who have mutually invested in each others’ success have every right to expect one another to work through fear and perform at peak levels when it matters the most. If you are able to focus outward on the team goals, you will be able move your conscious thoughts aside. You will then naturally and comfortably flow through the movement patterns you have developed through thousands of hours of focused practice. The Bernstein principle will take over and your body will organize itself in accordance with the overall goals of making the next pitch and helping your team win the game.

Nerve ….. Read the book. It’s great. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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