Lessons from Sports; How I Overcame My Test Anxiety, By Jonathan Steele, MFT Intern
It’s bottom of the ninth, just got called from the bullpen, its time to go in. My walkup song starts and I feel my adrenaline rising, breathing a little faster, heartbeat starts racing. My coach is standing on the mound with the catcher next to him. I approach. He hands me the ball saying, “Runners on 2nd and 3rd, two outs. Hitter’s a lefty, has tendency to pull the ball down the right field line, so stay away. One more out, go get em!” I lookup and my adrenaline starts to coarse through my veins. I take a few deep breaths to calm myself and start my warmup. Fastball. Like clockwork my nerves start to settle. Changeup. Its like I’m playing catch in the backyard with just me and my dad. Curveball. My preparation from years of throwing these pitches takes over. Fastball. My anxiety settles and my confidence increases. I tell the catcher I’m ready. The ump checks with me and signals game on. I draw a cross on the back of the mound with my foot, part of my game routine, and step on the mound.
Athletes and anxiety, they go hand in hand. From making the game winning shot as time expires, or scoring the last goal in a penalty shootout, to hitting the home run in the bottom of the ninth, or in my case, strike 3 with runners on 2nd and 3rd. As a former player and avid watcher of sports, that pressure or anxiety happens today, just outside of the sports world. Like presentations in front of 40 people, deadlines on projects, or passing a test to get licensed. What helps me perform in these situations, specifically test anxiety, are three things; normalizing, game routine, and a grounding technique.
Let’s take a look at the origin of anxiety. Anxiety is in our head, specifically in the brain. Our senses recognize a possible danger that starts a two step process. First, is the fear reaction or our fight/flight response. Physical symptoms start at this point which include, sweaty hands, faster breathing, rapid heartbeat and more. These symptoms happen without a chance for our brain to regulate. So if when you experience those symptoms, remind yourself its a natural part of your body’s response to possible danger.
The second reaction has to do with another part of your brain called the pre-frontal cortex. The cortex’s job is to ask, is this fear appropriate? If the answer is yes, like this bear is about to eat me, then the fight/flight response increases. If the answer is no, like there is no bear just a noise in the bushes, the physical symptoms can decrease and your body starts to calm and relax.
Before we jump into test anxiety, its important to distinguish the difference between stress and anxiety. Take a look at the cartoon below:
Anxiety starts after the immediate stressor passes where the brain communicates there is still a need for fear. Just because the stressor passed, doesn't mean there is no longer a need for a fear reaction. There are positive attributes to healthy anxiety, like increased motivation to prepare and sharper focus. But if anxiety starts to overwhelm, its important to reflect on normalizing, routine and grounding techniques.
Think back to the last test you took, for me it was in the last 6 months, a Law and Ethics exam. My test anxiety started right after I received my test date, similar to your teacher saying, “Your test is at the end of the week on all the material we've gone over, make sure to start studying.” Once my test date was set, my stress level immediately rose. I remembered my physical symptoms, a little faster heartbeat, quicker breathing, and sweatier hands. Then my anxiety kicked in. I started to ask myself questions, what if I don’t study enough? What if I can’t take the test because of personal or family problems? The “what if” questions kept coming and I realized my physical symptoms had increased even more.
As the questions swirled, I reminded myself, “This anxiety is ok, its normal.” Stress and anxiety were a normal part of my reactions to this danger, because whether I liked it or not, this test just created some threat in my life. So first, its important to normalize the stress and anxiety as a part of our natural process. It’s the brain’s way of alerting us to something important. But if you are telling yourself “I should not be stressed out because of this test, its just a stupid test”, you’re literally fighting your brain’s response.
So how do you normalize stress and anxiety? I’d start with expression, getting it out of your head by either written or verbal communication. That could be journaling or talking to someone. I remember I did both, I wrote down how stressed I was about studying and told my wife how anxious I was if I didn’t study enough.
I blinked and my test date had arrived. I was parked in the parking lot and in creeped my test anxiety. I completed a few deep breaths and listened to some of my calming music, similar to my routine before a bottom-of-the-ninth-inning big game. my ritual helped to increase focus and calm my nerves. Find that calming routine that works for you. Maybe its a song you can hum in your head or some lyrics you can recite, maybe a few deep breaths. The routine can provide security, the feeling like “I’ve done this before, I can do it now.”
As my pre-test anxiety decreased, my in test anxiety was still lurking. I was half way through my test and I got stuck on a question. I spent time re-reading the question, once, then twice, and then my brain sensed a threat, time. My anxiety jumped to “what if I don’t finish all the questions in time, what if I fail, if I fail I have to take it over, if I take it over will I ever get licensed?” As my hands became sweatier, I realized I needed a break. Sometimes I take a break by going to the bathroom, resetting my game routine. Other times its hard to leave the room, so I find a foot pressure grounding technique as helpful. As I’m sitting down, I focused on my left foot. I told myself to press my left foot into the ground as hard as I could. Two things distracted me from my overwhelming anxiety, the physical pressure in my left foot and telling myself to do something other than feel the fear of anxiety. This technique brought me back to the question at hand and I was able to finish my test with a few minutes to spare.
Now these three techniques, normalizing, game routine, and grounding can help to decrease your anxiety. But if your anxiety is affecting your everyday functioning for a period of time, I recommend seeking extra support. Check with a therapist who specializes in anxiety and see your family physician. And remember, if you are watching the NBA playoffs or the MLB season, check out some of the calming techniques these athletes use. There will be plenty of free throws to pitchers warming up on the mound. You never know when those techniques will come in handy, especially if you’re in the bottom of the ninth with runners on base and looking for that final out.
The author of this post, Jonathan Steele, MFT Intern is currently accepting new clients. He may be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 619-272-6858 x709.