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Simple Tip May Ease Athletes' Performance Anxiety

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Break the Thought Cycle continued...

David Straker, MD, says some athletes start thinking the worst when they step up to the plate in a baseball game or need to take a foul shot on the basketball court -- and then they choke.

"They have likely done this thousands of times. And 99% of the time, they do it perfectly, but still they choke," he says. Straker is an adjunct assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City. He often recommends a short course of therapy to help people change how they think and overcome self-defeating thoughts.

"See a therapist and try to work on changing how you think in these situations," he says. "When you start ruminating, take a step back and remind yourself that you have done this so many times and you do it well," he says. "The fist- or ball-clenching technique used in the new study may also help distract people from the negative thoughts."

In the Zone

And performance anxiety is not just an issue for athletes. "We know that elderly people are more likely to fall if they are thinking about it, and people also choke during exams even though they know the subject cold," Straker says. Whatever the scenario, changing the thought process can make a difference.

Sports performance expert Todd Stofka puts it like this: "You think you can or think you can't." He is the founder of Philly Hypnosis Performance in Philadelphia and regularly helps athletes think that they can. "Your confidence dictates whether you do better or worse. It is more than positive thinking. It's desired-results thinking."

He often tells clients to visualize what they want in that high-stress moment. This process starts with breaking the initial connection.

"Think of it as a series of light switches," he says. "You can pull your ear or adjust your shirt or do something to stop the negative thoughts, and from there can move toward visualizing hitting the ball out of the park."

Being calm is also important. "Top performers play their very best when they are relaxed and in the zone," he says. Getting in the zone starts with stopping anxiety-producing thoughts and anticipation.

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