Category Archives: Sports

Performance Anxiety:
“I get extremely anxious when I compete in sports or engage in public speaking.”

"Purple Rain" by Mimi Stuart ©

“Purple Rain” by Mimi Stuart ©

As long as I do not take myself too seriously I should not be too badly off.


Think of how little anxiety you experience when you are comfortably on your couch watching TV. Now imagine that you are going to perform a concert, give a speech, compete in a tournament, or go on a first date. Would you want to be as stress-free as you are in front of the TV? Or would a totally relaxed, lackadaisical attitude hurt you?

Some stress is good

Some people think that they want to eliminate all anxiety and stress from their lives. Yet a total lack of anxiety generally only occurs when someone feels low energy, apathetic, or indifferent.

In situations involving danger, the unknown, and peak performance, you need to be at your best and on your game; you need to be alert and ready to take action. Anxiety — or stress — in moderate doses prepares you for those situations.

Anxiety is a physical response to a mental state, in addition to other factors such as genetics, personality, history, disease, and drugs. Stress generates an increase in cortisol and adrenaline, which cause you to be alert and ready for action. In excess, anxiety can cause you to freeze, panic, or lose mental or motor control. Yet in moderation, it arouses the senses and increases awareness and the ability to react quickly. It turns out that having too little cortisol can be just as much a problem as having too much.

Excitement and passion

Falling in love, traveling, and intellectual and physical challenges cause anxiety and concurrent chemical changes in the brain known as “excitement.” Events involving situations of novelty, significance, or the unknown cause an arousal of the senses and a state of alertness that allow you to notice everything vividly. Without some anxiety, you won’t experience the exhilaration involved in anticipation, adventure, and peak performance.

Having stress in your life is healthier than no stress, as long as you can exercise some control over the situation. Thus, the goal is not to eliminate stress completely but to re-train your brain to handle anxiety better in the more extreme situations you may face.

Four ways to train your neural-circuitry

1. Practice

Whether your goal is public-speaking, performing at a concert, or competing in a sport, the most effective way to practice is to practice extensively, always with focused attention, and not necessarily in “perfect” external circumstances. With such focused practice, the required movements will occur more naturally and automatically in the future regardless of your anxiety levels.

If you have performance anxiety, it’s good to start with mildly stressful situations to avoid traumatizing yourself. A gradual increase in stress is much more effective than jumping into panic-inducing situations. If you want to do more public speaking, for instance, practice in front of the mirror, make toasts at the dinner table, go to toastmasters, and eventually give small workshops. If you play an instrument, start by practicing with other people in the room, and invite more and more people over to listen.

2. Imagine the worst-case scenario

Prepare yourself by imagining how you would handle the worst-case scenario. For example, at a Nationals water ski tournament, I saw a slalom competitor respond beautifully to a worst-case scenario. After falling at the one ball on her opener, which is about the worst performance possible, she came out of the water without any hint of anger or embarrassment, and simply shrugged it off. She laughed and said that she felt fortunate to be competing at Nationals, and that she hoped to do better the following year. Because she had such a great response and demeanor, other people did not feel embarrassed or sorry for her. Instead they felt comfortable, and retained respect for her.

It also helps to have a sense of humor about yourself and to remember what Michael Jordan once said:

I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career, lost almost 300 games, missed the game-winning shot 26 times. I’ve failed over and over again in my life. That is why I succeed.

3. Practice getting centered.

During practice or performance, we need to be prepared to deal with self-defeating thoughts that do nothing but intensify our anxiety.

“What an idiot I am! That was horrible!”

“What if I can’t remember?”

“Oh no. Look who just walked in.”

When people get distracted by a negative thought or an unexpected interruption, they get centered again in very different ways. Here are some examples of how to get your focus back quickly:

1. Take a slow deep breath.

2. Focus on others rather than how you appear to them.

3. Focus on kinesthetic feeling rather than on your thoughts about how well you must perform.

4. Imagine a relaxed place — a serene beach or a loved one appreciating you.

5. Practice simply letting go of distracting thoughts and moving on. Meditation is a great way to practice getting centered.

6. Pretend you are someone who exudes the right kind of confidence or does your activity well. Mirroring is the fastest way to learn new attitudes and behaviors, just as infants and children do. With practice, you will own that energy and embody it in your own personal way.

4. Gain Perspective

Given personality traits, upbringing, and other environmental factors, people develop unconscious assumptions of what will happen if they fail or make mistakes. For example, they may feel that they will be unlovable, a failure, worthless, or unhappy.

To put your fears in perspective, it helps to investigate what makes people feel happy, worthwhile, or lovable. Research shows that the greatest happiness comes from activities such as maintaining meaningful relationships, helping others, having a sense of community, meditating, smiling, and laughing. Exercising, adequate sleep, and eating healthy foods also have a serious impact on our well-being. Learning and executing skills does positively effect our well-being as well, but it is lower on the list than having good relationships, helping others, and feeling a sense of community. We want to make sure that our perfectionist thinking about performing skills doesn’t sabotage the more important ingredients for a happy and meaningful life.

Living life

Life is rarely stress-free because life by its nature requires us to deal with the unknown on a daily basis. However, the more practice we get in handling the unknown, the more confidently we can approach life and its challenges. If we are experiencing anxiety, we are living. Only by doing mundane activities mindlessly do we get relief from all stress — by sleeping through life. Is that what we really want?

Look at the adventure, challenges, and growth we would be missing if we chose to eliminate all stress! Through facing the anxieties of living life, we learn to handle new exhilarating and challenging situations.

Sometimes it takes years to become an overnight success.


by Dr. Alison Poulsen

Developing New Habits:
“I never exercise the way I should. I went to the gym twice and then gave up.”

"Long Drive" by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

It is not easy to change old habits, but it can be done. Research shows that people who are successful in developing new habits, such as exercising, tend to apply the following guidelines to motivate themselves:

1. Focus on pleasure. Frame your new habit in terms of what will give you pleasure. Remind yourself that you’re choosing a healthy lifestyle, which is more pleasurable than one of inactivity.

Choose a sport or exercise that interests you or that will bring you joy. Don’t go to the gym if you’d rather go on a walk outside. Figure out a way to enjoy the activity, such as doing it to music or with a friend.

2. Make a step-by step plan. Having a series of intermediate goals rather than one over-arching goal diminishes your fear of failure and the magnitude of the goal.

3. Implement change in increments. We can change our habits dramatically if we change them incrementally.

Consistency is key. So start with realistic expectations of yourself. For example, start with a minimum of five or ten minutes of exercise a day, though you might aspire to an hour a day. You’re more likely to develop a new habit if your goals are achievable. Starting is the hard part. Once you start walking or swimming and enjoying it, it’s easier to stay out longer.

4. Reflect on regrets and benefits. Think of how much you’ll regret it if you don’t exercise. Research shows that a few moments of reflecting on potential regret will motivate a person to get started.

5. Tell your family and friends. Telling others of your goals helps motivate you to achieve them and might also encourage them to participate. When you state your goals publicly, you increase your motivation to live up to them, and you also garner the support of others.

6. Reward yourself. Be grateful for every step you take and give yourself a reward for every intermediate goal achieved.

Exercise becomes easier the more you pursue it, because it triggers mood-enhancing endorphins, and gives you more energy, health, and vitality, making it increasingly desirable in itself.

by Dr. Alison Poulsen

Read “Sports Psychology I — GOALS: ‘I really want to win, but I never do.'”

Reference: Richard Wiseman, Author of “59 Seconds: Think a little, Change a lot.”

Sports Psychology & Coaching Effectively: “I told you not to pull the kite in and drop the board!”

Click on the picture below to watch the short video:

Everyone learns slightly differently. However, there are some general rules of thumb for coaching and teaching sports that hold true for most people.

1. Keep it simple. Focus on one thing at a time until it becomes a good habit. Then add a new element. Avoid giving too much information and lists of things to think about or the athlete will become overwhelmed or confused.

2. Focus on the positive. It can be helpful to show the right technique in contrast to the wrong technique so you can really see the clear difference. But you don’t want to focus too much on what not to do. Otherwise those negative images are the ones that stay in the athlete’s mind.

3. Be encouraging.
Build on what the student does well rather than focusing on everything he or she did poorly. Avoid scolding.

4. Take small steps. Avoid foolish and overly difficult expectations. People generally learn best when they can have success and then build on their successes.

5. Be specific. People learn better when you are precise rather than vague and open-ended.

6. Have fun. Sports are about having fun and enjoying yourself.

by Dr. Alison Poulsen
Healthy Relationships and
Effective Communication


Watch “Couples should pursue their individual passions for happiness.”

Read “Sports Psychology: ‘I don’t want to fail and disappoint the coach.’”

Read “Performance Anxiety: ‘I want to be totally relaxed instead of anxious when I compete in sports or engage in public speaking.’”

Sports Psychology:
“I don’t want to fail and disappoint the coach.”

"On Fire" Steve Mahre by Mimi Stuart © Live the Life you Desire

“On Fire” Steve Mahre by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

Fear of failure

Most coaches are more disappointed by people’s embarrassment and fear of failure than by their inability to perform well right away. Feelings of self-defeat and self-pity can be infectious. If you feel mortified, your body language will cause those around you to feel uncomfortable on your behalf. Feeling apologetic for your lack of prowess won’t help you improve and won’t make others feel comfortable with you.

By letting your fear of failure get the best of you, you also cheat yourself of the opportunity to try new things, improve, and have fun. If fear of appearing inept prevents you from trying new sports, getting the coaching you need, and being able to focus on improvement rather than on how you appear to others, you end up missing out on one of the great joys of life—enjoying sports.

Without accepting failure as part of the process, there can be no learning!

Objective analysis

The first step to being a coachable athlete is to discard self-defeating thoughts. Negative thoughts and emotions simply disrupt the clear thinking and body awareness you need to improve in any sport or activity. The best way to learn a sport is to objectively analyze both what you are doing well and what you need to do to improve. Think clearly about what needs to be done rather than judge how terrible you are.


You need to tenaciously practice those small changes to improve your performance. Don’t dwell on how long it takes to improve or on the fact that you may backslide from time to time. Remember Malcolm Gladwell’s findings that the key to excelling is to practice a specific task for 10,000 hours.


It is best to replace your embarrassment and shame with focus and determination. When you are truly focused, there is no room for feelings of self-consciousness or humiliation.

Some people are natural athletes. However, those who are not as athletic can also enjoy significant improvement if they persist in repeated and focused practice, particularly with the guidance of an observant, constructive coach.

I don’t care how challenging it is for some people to excel at a sport. If they persevere with focus and a good attitude, keeping a sense of perspective and humor, they will be able to enjoy great improvement and joy in some of life’s many opportunities.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Read “Peak Performance—in business, relationships or sports:
‘There have been highlights, but a lot of inconsistency in my relationships and at work.’”

Read “Sports Psychology: ‘I’m terrible at this sport. I can never get it right.’”

Watch “Quieting a Harsh Inner Critic.”

Fear of Making a Mistake:
“I’m deathly afraid of investing more time, money and energy in something that could be doomed no matter how hard I try.”

"Determination" — Nick Watney by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

Errors, mistakes, and failures are part of the life experience. Without them we will never achieve success. Spending inordinate time and energy avoiding mistakes, covering up failures, and avoiding changing course prevents people from moving along in their journey of life. There is no such thing as a risk-free life. Often, failure to act is a failure to live and can be the biggest mistake of all.

People who have made the most mistakes also have enjoyed the greatest successes.

However, all mistakes and failures are not equal. We want to avoid failure that stems from poor preparation, carelessness, or failure to be objective about the situation. Yet we don’t want to live in fear of making mistakes and end up running away from uncertainty.

Making the right kind of mistakes and avoiding the wrong kind involve the following:

1. Being objective about ourselves, others, and the situation,

2. Developing and practicing needed skills (whether in relationship, business, or sports), and

3. Assessing the risk to us and others of our actions.

The water ski legend Andy Mapple teaches that you never make a perfect slalom pass. Moreover, the goal is not to make a perfect pass. The goal is to be able to know what mistake you’re making while you’re making it, so that you can quickly adjust and compensate for it while skiing.

This is a great analogy for most aspects of life, such as relationships. No relationship is perfect. By eliminating the expectation that a relationship is either perfect or doomed and a waste of time, you can focus on improving your ability to better a relationship through practice. You can develop the ability to see more quickly how you are being triggered and to appropriately adjust your responses, OR to change your entire course regarding the relationship.

Relationships are a series of experiences and adjustments. The more we look at the relationship objectively, improve relationship skills, and consider the potential outcome of our choices, the more enriched our relationships become.

If we expect mistakes, but practice to reduce them, we end up making more interesting and less painful mistakes, and we will enjoy many rewarding successes along the way.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Recommended: Walt Disney’s Biography.

Read “Fear of failure: ‘I’m worried about failing.’”

Read “Sports Psychology: ‘I’m terrible at this sport. I can never get it right.’”

Peak Performance—in business, relationships or sports:
“There have been highlights, but a lot of inconsistency in my relationships and at work.”

"Centered" — Ernie Els by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

Peak performance in business, relationships, and sports requires consistent effort. Having occasional great moments — a big sale, a fabulous date, a high score in a tournament — does not lead to ongoing achievement of excellence.

Why does the tortoise beat the hare?

By establishing certain habits you can achieve consistent results. Knowing what to do is not enough. You have to do it on a consistent basis. While there will always be setbacks, it is the relentless preparation and a focus on the details that generally add up to ongoing success in relationships, business, and sports.


Years of steadfast loyalty, respect, and enjoyment are hallmarks of a great relationship. Peak performance in relationship comes from keeping the passion alive while knowing and understanding a person deeply. The multifaceted love that can emerge in a peak relationship is more powerful than the excitement of occasional wining and dining, the one-night stand, or time spent with charming Casanova types.


Consistent integrity, hard work, and doing your homework lead to ongoing high performance at work. Landing one great deal rarely makes up for lack of persistence and hard work.


Consistent, focused practice and hard work lead to a person’s individual peak performance in sports. Naturally athletic people might play or score well now and then. But to maximize peak performances, consistent dedication to learning, improvement, and repetition are absolutely crucial.

Living in the zone of peak performance comes from putting in heartfelt consistent effort without becoming a slave to routine.

Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.


by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Read “Breaking Patterns through Dramatic Practice: ‘I have good intentions, but…’”

Read “Developing New Habits: ‘I never exercise the way I should. I went to the gym twice and then gave up.’”