Exciting opportunities. An unpainted script. A new start. 

Whether it be this transition into the winter sport season or any other time of the year, the dawning of a new season brings a plethora of excitement, anticipation…and nerves, particularly for tryout week. 

Whether a team or organization is cut or no-cut, the first week of practice means that athletes  will receive a decision at the end of the week based on performance and evaluation of coaches. 

All athletes strive to be their best during tryout week, yet internal expectations, the pressure of being watched/judged, and fear of the worst often prevent them to. 

It doesn’t matter whether an athlete is a returning star or a bubble player trying to make the roster, harnessing the mental side of sport can help an athlete be the best version of themselves during one of the most critical times of the season. 

The challenges of tryout week will always be there, but here’s how to best handle them. 

Identify the Reality, Name it and Tame it

Different athletes experience different pressure when it comes to tryouts. For a seasoned player it may be ‘what line will I play on?’ while for another athlete it may be ‘I just want to make the team.’ Regardless of the situation, the worries often stem from a common denominator. 

“When you think of tryouts, there’s this element of evaluation that is heightened,” Premier’s Dr. Matt Mikesell says. “While that is the job of the coach, there’s often an anchor or bias of what am I doing wrong? instead of what am I doing right? for the athlete.”

Mikesell emphasizes that it’s important for athletes to acknowledge and recognize that. After that? Changing the mindset from viewing things as a threat to instead, a challenge. 

“There’s fear of people’s opinion and that can feel really threatening and then we focus on everything that we’re doing wrong,” Mikesell says.”To view it as a challenge (instead of a threat), think of things that you bring to the table and challenges that you’ve overcome in the past. Rooting it in what you’ve done well and bringing that to life is so valuable because we block that information out more often than not in tryout week and it becomes so negative.”

When Coach is Watching

It’s no secret that tryouts week means more coaches’ eyes on athletes..and that can lead to a lot of nerves. 

Arms become heavier, feet become slower, and a simple free throw may seem like aiming for a needle in a haystack. 

It’s because the what if’s kick in. 

“(When you start feeling nervous when coaches are watching), come back to what is important in the moment,” Mikesell says. “Think about where your attention is at. If it’s about being judged by coach, then it’s in the future and we’re playing the what if game. You have to bring your attention back to the present because that’s the only way you’re going to perform well.”

It’s okay to be nervous, and even more important to acknowledge it. When those nerves kick in, we often go from cruise control that results from thousands of previous reps to manual autopilot, focusing on mechanics that prevent us from playing freely. To get back to cruise control, Mikesell recommends using tactical breathing and focusing on sensations rather than mechanics. 

“It could be building in a deep breath, maybe focusing on how we want the movement to feel,” Mikesell says. “Instead of thinking I want my arm to be here or my release point to be here, it could be ‘I want to feel smooth.”

The Results: Out of Our Control

Tryouts present an opportunity for athletes to showcase themselves to the best of their ability. Yet at the end of the day, the final decision of varsity vs. JV, etc. often is out of an athlete’s control. Acknowledging that is important for the athlete, followed by focusing on capitalizing on things within one’s control. 

“If you’re a basketball player and your jump shot is really struggling, perhaps focus on controlling your efforts on rebounds,” Mikesell says. “By allowing yourself to say that hey there really are things in my control that I can do, that takes some of the pressure off of hitting every single jump shot.” 

At the end of the day, it’s important to recognize that pressure and nerves are a normal part of tryout week and experiencing them isn’t a sign of weakness. Yet when the going gets tough, gratitude can be a great way to center oneself and remind us why we’re there. 

We know that when we’re grateful, anxiety and struggles drop,” Mikesell says.”It’s really hard to be scared about something that we’re happy and excited about.”