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The Emotions of Sports: Fighting the fear

Leading up to a contest, athletes use a variety of methods to ensure they are able to master fear

Posted: August 5, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: August 5, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Athletes will employ a variety of methods to combat the fear and anxiety that can begin to surface in the moments before a game or individual event. Athletes will employ a variety of methods to combat the fear and anxiety that can begin to surface in the moments before a game or individual event.
Athletes will employ a variety of methods to combat the fear and anxiety that can begin to surface in the moments before a game or individual event.

When it comes right down to it, all sports are played for the same purpose.

The goal is to win.

Whether it's an individual or team sport, girls or boys, high school or professional, the desire to win always exists.

Desire is often accompanied by anxiety, the fear of losing and the fear of failure on the biggest stage and in the most important situations.

"If you start thinking about it too much, that's when you start forcing it, that's when you start second guessing yourself," says former Valencia High School basketball star Lonnie Jackson.

Leading up to important competitions like CIF championship games and state cross country meets, many athletes and coaches report feeling nervous or anxious in one way or the other.

Everyone feels it at different times. Some say the night before. Others, like recent Saugus High graduate Kaylin Mahoney, say the feelings peak in the moments leading up to the start of a race.

"It's frightening," says Mahoney, who contributed to four straight CIF cross country state championships and won two individual CIF-Southern Section Division II track and field titles in the 3,200-meter run. "It's definitely nerve-wracking with everybody staring at you. There's no noise. You're just waiting for the gun to go off. All you can hear are the voices inside your head saying, ‘Go, go, go.'"

The feelings are similar across all sports. Somehow, athletes have to find ways to purge the negative thoughts that may lead to personal doubt and lackluster performances.

The ones that excel under even the most intense pressure often use the anxiety as a tool for their ultimate success.

Former Hart High and USC running back Ted Iacenda remembers using the memory of a loss in the 1994 CIF-Southern Section Division II football title game as motivation going into the 1995 championship game.

"Every press clipping from the loss I saved," Iacenda says of the 1994 loss to Antelope Valley. "I had the press clippings in my helmet all year long. ... Emotions can carry a high school kid a long way."

It ended up carrying Hart to a 38-35 revenge victory over Antelope Valley for the 1995 championship. Iacenda earned CIF-SS Div. II co-Offensive Player of the Year honors that year.

For athletes like Iacenda, they are only responsible for calming themselves. Coaches have the burden of keeping an entire team calm before a championship game.

Eight years after Iacenda, Hart was back the CIF title game in 2003, this time at the Home Depot Center against powerhouse Mission Viejo.

Even a veteran coach like Mike Herrington admitted his doubts going into the game.

"Just pulling into Home Depot, we were on school buses, Mission Viejo comes on charter buses," says Herrington. "They had an entourage to take the equipment in, and I'm having to haul in things as a head coach and I'm just thinking, ‘Oh Jeez, we're never going to beat them.'"

Once again, Hart came out on top, winning 25-7. Despite his own doubts going into the game, Herrington says he tried to project confidence and tranquility to the team.

For athletes and coaches alike, maintaining composure under pressure can often define careers. The increased level of focus needed in such situations can lead to an athlete's highest achievements.

While waiting in the locker room just minutes before a game tips off, Jackson says he has to do everything in his power to keep his mind fixed on executing the game plan, rather than worrying about what could go wrong.

He'll listen to music. He'll go over plays he's practiced. Whatever needs to be done.

Once the game starts, he says the anxiety disappears.

"I think the key is, when I'm in the situation, I'm not really thinking about how big the situation is, but just trying to stay in the moment," Jackson says.

Most players and coaches experience tense moments and situations when the fear of losing rears its head.

Not everyone can overcome them.

Those that do earn an elusive label in sports - clutch.

Signal sports editor Cary Osborne contributed to this story.



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