Are you nervous or excited? Your perspective impacts how you play

by Jeff Smith

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There were 10 seconds remaining in our high school basketball game when I received a pass just behind the free-throw line. I was wide open for a shot I had made on many opportunities over the years.

Only this time the stakes were much higher. We trailed by two points in a single-elimination playoff contest. As I rose up to shoot, the thought briefly flashed across my mind: What if I miss the shot? We’ll probably lose, and my basketball playing days will be over. (I wasn’t talented enough to play collegiately.)

That’s exactly what happened. Playing out of fear — out of what I might lose instead of what I could win — I short-armed the shot. It bounced off the front of the rim and into an opposing player’s hands for the rebound and the eventual victory. Negativity won, and my team lost.

Time for a new perspective

That missed shot stuck in my gut for awhile. In fact, it motivated me to change my perspective on close games and the most important matches when I began coaching 21 years ago.

Funny thing is, I didn’t even realize that the change in mental approach I took to big and tightly contested games has a scholarly term attached to it. It's called “anxiety reappraisal.”

In a nutshell, anxiety reappraisal is when you tell yourself that you feel excited when your body is feeling nervous. It’s the conscious act of embracing nervousness as excitement — the intentional decision to enjoy the moment and see the championship match, tough opponent or nip-and-tuck score as a fun opportunity to revel in instead of letting anxiety negatively affect your approach to playing.

A change in perspective makes a huge difference.

(For more background, an article on anxiety reappraisal in The Atlantic explains that anxiety and excitement are each aroused emotions that cause the heart to beat faster, cortisol to surge and our body to get ready for some type of action.)

Helpful tool for my teams

My new mental approach to key games and closely fought matches was meant to help me handle these pressure moments as a young coach. But not only did anxiety reappraisal benefit me — I saw myself making poised decisions and communicating confidence in the heat of battle that gave my teams the adjustments and leadership needed to pull out victories — it aided my teams as well. Instead of letting nerves make us play tentatively or without poise and confidence, we usually rose to the occasion in tight games and the biggest tournament and playoff match-ups and won the vast majority of these contests.

I still remember one of my first matches as a coach. We were tied late in the finals of a tournament when our opponent called timeout. As we huddled up, I told our team, “This is so much fun. Games like this are why I love to coach.” My players looked surprised, so I explained, “Playing in a close game at a tournament is so much more exciting than winning 25-8. Moments like this bring out the best in us. This is what makes our sport so fantastic to play and coach. Enjoy the moment, go for it and have fun playing together on the court.”

It wasn’t Knute Rockne, but what I said helped our team loosen up and play aggressive, together and free, competing with excitement instead of anxiety. We went on to win the tournament championship, and I used various forms of that mini-speech before and during other larger and more challenging games in future seasons. Nine hundred and ninety-nine wins later, I’m one victory away from 1,000 coaching wins, and this mental approach is one of the reasons behind this success.

You’re excited, not nervous

If you feel nervous or anxious at your next key match, view the butterflies in your stomach as a sign of the excitement you’re feeling about the chance to play in this game. In short:

Embrace the moment. See it as a fun challenge that will bring out the best in you. Trust your skills, your preparation, your coach and your teammates. (Confidence matters.) Smile and enjoy the game and your team. Don’t treat it like a do-or-die situation. I like to tell teams that look uptight, “This is volleyball, not a final exam in algebra. It’s fun — enjoy it. if we win, that’s great. If we lose, we still got to play and enjoy this game together, and the sun will still rise tomorrow.”

Celebrate your team’s every success on the court. Ignore the scoreboard — if you just focus on playing well and with great enthusiasm, everything will usually take care of itself. Affirm your teammates, and let them affirm you. Use positive self-talk (“We’ve got this,” “The next point’s ours”). Play your game — don’t try to do too little or too much — play for each other and go for it. The team that has more fun and is more assertive almost always wins.

And don’t ever think about what will happen if you don’t do x, y or z. Train yourself to be relentlessly positive. The more you allow yourself to enjoy the game, enjoy your team and play with hope and excitement, the better you’ll play on the court.

Jeff Smith is Serve City’s girls volleyball director.