You've spent the last few months preparing. All of those early morning training sessions, additional vegetables in your diet, hours studying the pros who play in your position all comes down to this one opportunity.
You step out on the pitch knowing a spot on the team is on the line, and you've done everything you can to make sure you're being offered a shirt. You feel fitter, sharper and more comfortable than ever. Then the kick off whistle blows, and suddenly you vanish. You hardly receive the ball, and every time you do, you take a bad touch, or give the ball away. You try to take a shot and It soars well wide. You try to dribble, and the ball gets stuck between your feet and you almost trip over. Then the whistle sounds a final time, and it's all over. You leave the pitch already knowing you're not being offered a spot, and feeling nothing but frustrated about not being able to show what you're fully capable of.
So what happened?
There's a good chance you just faced a strong dose of Sports Performance Anxiety, otherwise known as "choking", which is a decrease in athletic performance due to too much perceived stress.
The two most common causes of the stress are:
1. The audience you're playing in front of (scouts coaches).
2. Incredibly high expectations of success (hoping to get signed by a team).
The most important word in the definition of Sports Performance Anxiety is "perceived", meaning this is how the individual interprets the situation and isn't always an accurate reflection of what is actually happening.
From my own personal experience from being invited to a number of trials throughout my career, I've had both successful, and unsuccessful trials with clubs. When I performed badly at trials, It was very obvious that I put too much on the line for myself. Instead of focusing on being present in the trial and my performance, I was already thinking too much about the outcome. Instead of making my decisions freely in the moment of what felt right, I was worrying too much about whether the coaches were looking at me in a positive light, or if I needed to do more, and this is always a recipe for disaster.
This is where I developed the nothing to lose mentality.
I realized, when you attend a trial, you walk in there without a contact, and if you perform badly, you walk out without a contract. So technically, you walk out, exactly the same as when you walked in and you didn't lose anything at all. You can't lose something that was never yours to begin with.
When I began to understand that, I really found it much easier to control my Sports Performance Anxiety, because my perception of trials completely changed. Instead of worrying about the outcome, which I can't control, I focused more on the things I could control; my work rate, calling for the ball, my decisions when I have the ball, my encouragement and communication with other players. I switched my mindset from thinking about the task at hand, rather than the outcome, and with that, my perceived stress reduced and I was able to play better.
Now, I'm not saying it's unhealthy to get pre-trial jitters. Where you feel slightly nervous and eager to do well, that's healthy. You need to understand that it's an important opportunity and that you should do your best to arrive to the occasion. However, if you're putting to much pressure on yourself to perform, and as a result hindering your performance, this isn't healthy and needs your attention.
Here are a couple of techniques you can try:
Prior to the trial:
- Accept nerves, rather than try fight them. That adrenaline rush you feel is normal and it is part of your body's natural preparation for the competition. Notice it, but don't focus on it. Once the trial begins, it will settle, it always does.
Be prepared - Arrive at the trial with plenty of time so you aren't rushed, which only increases your stress. Get a thorough warm-up. Do some easy stretching. Know the course. Dress for conditions.
Visualize - Mentally rehearse, showing yourself doing everything right. Breathe easy, close your eyes and use mental imagery to visualize yourself performing well. This positive self-talk can change your attitude. Football is a free flowing event with hard to predict moments, but imagine some likely scenarios you may find yourself in and how you would solve those situations.
During the Trial:
Be Present - Stay in the moment and avoid thinking too far into the event or thinking about whether or not you're going to get signed. If you find yourself thinking negative thoughts or negative self-talk, stop and focus only on your breathing. Focusing on your breathing rhythm will automatically pull you back into the present.
Force a smile - If you are struggling with negative thoughts and can't break out of the cycle, just stop for a second and smile. Sounds simple, but it actually releases positive endorphins into the body and instantly lowers stress, even if just a small amount, every little helps.
After the Trial:
Focus on the positives - Certainly acknowledge mistakes, but quickly dismiss them. Rather, you want to focus on the times when you did well. This is a form of mental rehearsal where you practice skills that will be used in the next opportunity.
Finally, accept the outcome. Sometimes you may play your best, and still not get chosen, and other times you may perform average by your standards, and get the call back. Above all else, successful trials are determined by the coaches opinion, and he may be looking for something so specific that you may or may not resemble. You can't control their opinion, nor do you need to worry about it, a coaches opinion does not determine the player you are. I've played the exact same way in front of 2 different coaches, one of them loved my style, the other didn't like it at all, everyone has a different view of the way the game should be played.
If you have a trial coming up, I wish nothing but success for you. Be sure to take these words into account and use any of the methods to help you reduce your stress if Sports Performance Anxiety is something you suffer with, don't worry if you do, it's a lot more common than you think.