Tapping the subconscious to beat performance anxiety

By Colette House

Sweaty palms. Pounding heart. Racing thoughts. Dizziness. The physical symptoms of performance anxiety are all too real for the many young athletes that experience them on game day.

Performance anxiety is a common psychological problem facing young athletes. As pressure mounts on the athletic field, female athletes are especially prone to struggling with confidence and performance, experts say.

Chicago area sports psychologist Dr. Jeffrey Fishbein  helps high school, collegiate, and professional athletes recognize and manage symptoms of performance anxiety through a variety of techniques such as imagery, relaxation exercises, and cognitive training. He is the sport psychologist for the Chicago White Sox and runs Fishbein Performance Consulting,   He sees a wide variety of individuals with issues related to their social, emotional, academic, or occupational functioning.

Managing sports anxiety. (Animation scripted by Colette House/Medill; animation by Next Media Animation.)
dr.fishbein headshot
Sports psychologist Dr. Jeffrey Fishbein works with high school, college, and professional athletes on managing performance anxiety. His practice, Drs. Gault, Fishbein and Asso. is in Deerfield.(Jeffrey Fishbein/courtesy)

Fishbein shared insights on what causes performance anxiety and how athletes can overcome their anxiousness to compete successfully.

CH: What are common causes of performance anxiety among young athletes like the gymnast we see in the animation? What types of thoughts could cause anxiety that athletes need to be aware of?

JF: Usually it’s a memory that they haven’t let go of or it’s a thought they can’t get out of their minds. Has she had a previous experience where she fell and she is sort of re-experiencing that? Maybe it happened a week ago maybe it happened a year ago, but something about this environment is triggering that memory, possibly. What is the language? What is she saying to herself? How does she interpret this event? Is this a “big” event and is she attaching so much meaning to it?

CH: Tell us more about what it means to attach meaning to an event and how it affects performance.

JF: Attachment of meaning, that’s a phrase I like to use when it’s an event that’s bigger than normal or for whatever reason you just want to do really, really well in. You’re doing something that is telling your body there is a potential threat if it doesn’t work out. Any time we interpret a situation as threatening we’re increasing the likelihood of the body and brain chemistry changing so much so that we feel the effects of that. If we get too high of an effect we’re going to perform less than what we desire.

CH: How does the amount of competitive experience impact performance anxiety?

JF: There could be athletes that have anxiety a year from now or two years from now who say, ‘Well that’s normal anxiety, no problem.’ But because someone is new to the competitive world he or she is experiencing something that’s unique. There’s an overreaction to the physiological symptoms. So that could be another thing, a misinterpretation of symptoms.

CH: How common is a misinterpretation of symptoms?

JF: It’s very common. Every athlete who comes in here, I would say 95 percent of them, have no idea what’s happening to their bodies when they perform. I just had somebody in here with test anxiety and somebody with basic performance anxiety in a sport and it’s the same thing. There are normal physiological sympathetic nervous system arousal changes that occur in the body and the athletes don’t know why or what or how (it’s happening), and they certainly don’t know how to react to it. Once you teach the way to respond to those initial symptoms they’re not going to be as prominent in your mind body and overall performance.

CH: What are physiological symptoms of performance anxiety that athletes need to be aware of?

JF: It goes from your head to your toes really. Certainly there may be an increase in sweat. There might be an increase in heart rate and their stomachs might hurt. The digestive system is impacted. The respiratory system is impacted. They may have racing thoughts they can’t shut down or shut off. Their blood flow changes so they might get a little light headed or dizzy. I had an athlete who was on my golf team this year and he won in a sudden death play off. He told me afterward that he thought he was going to throw up. And that’s just, sadly, a very normal physiological response to at least a perception of a very important situation for someone. As long as you understand that, you can manage it through breath work and self-talk primarily.

CH: What athletes focus on and what part of the brain they activate while performing is extremely important. Can you tell us more about that?

JF: Some professionals have talked about the conscious mind as mind 1 and subconscious mind as mind 2. The whole object is to get rid of the interference from mind 1 so that mind 2 can surface. Mind 2 is really the subconscious mind that you wire through repetitive behaviors. With those repetitions you are able to create confidence. We’re trying to make sure that nothing interferes with that. I think if we can get ourselves there as athletes, whether it’s on the ice, the beam, the course or court, it’s the best place to be.

CH: Tell us more about how the conscious mind affects performance.

JF: The conscious mind, or left brain – this is the part of the mind that interferes with performance. The conscious mind lights up after falling (or making a mistake.) Like any athlete knows, once an error or mistake or flaw surfaces, there is a fear of that happening again. Not for all athletes, but I would say for many athletes. So when you have that kind of negative self-talk and you have that conscious mind being highlighted, one would typically find lots of fear, negative apprehensive sort of language that occurs. If that person gets back on the beam and its proceeded by the worrisome, negative, pessimistic self-talk the likelihood of her falling off again increases because what she’s doing is reinforcing negative event. So that would not be the part of the mind that I would want stimulated and activated after a mistake.

CH: What is the benefit of having athletes like the girl in the animation, activate their subconscious mind during an event?

JF: All of the great beam work that she has performed in the last many, many years are stored in that subconscious memory and the only way to get those back out is to shut down the conscious mind. So if she were my athlete and I were able to communicate with her after she fell, we would not be talking about what do you need to think to be able to do this again? It would be, “Let’s picture you performing that way that you’ve always performed successfully.” We’d create a picture in her mind of a routine that is successful. We would talk about the images associated with that and the feelings associated with that. Now the self-talk can be beneficial here by using other kinds of language that bring out some of those successful performances. Things like, I can do this. Let’s get back on. I have a great routine. I’m going to perform. Those thoughts, paired with that sort of subconscious right brain activity, are going to be better for her to get back on quickly and rely on her muscle memory. We want to remove all the interference that’s taking place right now in the conscious mind and let her performance be dictated by what her body is equipped to do.

CH: Why is it better for athletes to use imagery over words and phrases to overcome performance anxiety?

JF: Because the picture activates the subconscious mind or the right brain. When you’re thinking in terms of pictures that right brain which is the brain that we want working as an athlete is activated. When we’re thinking it’s more the left brain that’s activated and we kind of want to stay away from that. When athletes are thinking, they’re usually not thinking the right things. They’re not using the right language and even when they think they’re using the right language they’re not and they’re confusing the subconscious.

Photo at Top: A gymnast experiencing performance anxiety, but she knows how to overcome it. (Still from the story animation scripted by Colette House/Medill; animation by Next Media Animation.)
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