Sports Performance Anxiety

Performance anxiety consists of psychological and physical symptoms brought about by a sense of apprehension of a perceived threat. This state can differ according to the situation and the individual. It could be related to public speaking, a musical performance, acting on stage or asking your boss for a raise.

In this article I’ll confine my topic specifically to athletics and sports performance prior to or during in actual competition.

Sports performance anxiety is when you feel super tight, scared or apprehensive in competition, but not in practice. Such anxiety can shatter the performance of any outstanding athlete, which can make them feel terrible.

One should not confuse sports performance anxiety with pre-game jitters. Pre-game jitters are when you feel excited, juiced-up and ready to go and can be very helpful to improve athletic performance. You have anticipation and momentum going into competition. You might have butterflies but for you they always fly in formation.

Pre-game jitters go away quickly after you begin the game, however, if you feel tight, nervous, tense or controlled during competition and such feelings do not subside, then most likely you have a form of performance anxiety.

Psychologists agree that the primary cause of sports performance anxiety when analyzed objectively is fear of failure.

Such fear must be uncovered, identified, faced and processed. The most common fears are embarrassment, the fear of letting others down, the fear of not getting approval from someone you know or the fear of working hard without any pay off at the end. Once the fear is identified it can then be addressed.

Somatic anxiety includes the physical symptoms of anxiety, such as butterflies in the stomach. It is commonly contrasted with cognitive anxiety, which is the mental manifestation of anxiety, or the specific thought processes that occur during anxiety, such as concern or worry.

Performance anxiety in sport is commonly known as choking. Choking is associated with excessive perceived stress which then leads to decreased athletic performance. Perceived stress often increases in athletes on game day because (1) they have an audience and (2) they have extremely high expectations of their success.

Athletes who choke typically do so because they are too worried about results or what will happen if they fail or embarrass themselves. One explanation for choking is related to when athletes think too much when performing.

When athletes are in the zone, they can react intuitively based on their practice–they let it happen naturally instead of trying too hard to make it happen. Many athletes feel more at ease during practice because they’re not performing in front of an audience. This is often related to perfectionism in the athlete.

The key to managing any performance related anxiety is to disarm the fire alarms that originate from within our mind. By controlling our emotional thermostat we can preclude the need to defend against it in self-defeating ways. This ties in beautifully with the basic premise of preventive medicine. No treatment is required for a condition that doesn’t exist. But what if it does?

Feelings of anxiety are the body’s physical response to various neurochemicals coursing through our body, principally cortisol and adrenaline. We might get clammy hands, increased heart rate, rapid breathing, perspire profusely, start shaking or even get nauseous. It varies from one athlete to the next but the bottom line is that it frequently detracts from optimum performance and that’s the problem.

The Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal axis in conjunction with amygdale and limbic system, controls our response to any perceived threat. Under stress we might feel the primal urge to run away or fight, emotions which have now been expanded into flight, fight, freeze, friend or flop, aka the five F-s.

The flight or fight responses are well known and self-evident. You either run away and live to fight another day, or stand your ground and put up your dukes.

Friend is our earliest defensive strategy. It begins at birth as crying. The non-mobile baby must call its protector to its aid, and this is why some adults might scream out spontaneously in hope of rescue.

The freeze response is tied in with reducing a threat from a predator. In humans we call this frozen or paralyzed with fear. In athletes it can literally impair motor function and affect normal voluntary muscle response. Other animals that freeze when threatened include squirrels, rabbits and chipmunks. Freezing may also be employed to indicate submission to a dominant animal of the same species.

Flop occurs when the freeze mechanism fails. The survival purpose of the flop is to minimize impact. If impact is going to occur, the likelihood of surviving it will be increased if the body yields, and psychologically the situation will be more bearable if the higher brain functions shift from sympathetic to a more relaxed parasympathetic state.

In sport an athlete might be overwhelmed by anxiety and simply ‘flop’ down, walk off the field and quit playing. In a physical confrontation, it might be better in the long run intellectually for all parties concerned, to let the aggressor push you down instead of resisting.

In practical terms, by the time we actually feel anxious as athletes about to perform in competition, the chemicals responsible for creating these subjective feelings have already been produced. They are not instigated in terms of root cause by some invisible outside force, but rather by our own internal thoughts and emotions, either consciously, or unconsciously.

What makes us feel anxious is simply related to the expectations we have of ourselves prior to competition. Thus, from a practical point of view as athletes engaged in competition, we must find a way to conquer and control any emotions or thoughts that lead in any way to a clear reduction in our sports performance.

There are many techniques and strategies offered by sports psychologists to help relieve sports performance anxiety. Here’s are 12 to consider.

1. Be Prepared

Benjamin Franklin once said, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” Winston Churchill is credited with something similar: “Those who fail to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.”

Show up before competition with plenty of time to spare. This provides an opportunity to analyze the meet or game flow and confirm the actual scheduled time of your competition. Track and field competitions often have a rolling time sequence subject to immediate change at the meet for each event, either sooner or later, so it’s definitely better to be there sooner.

Planning in advance sounds pretty straight forward, but you’d be surprised how many athletes are not well prepared or fail to prepare for the big game. I’m talking about you’re actual training routine and conditioning program that you do or should have done in the months and weeks prior to competition.

Are you on track and hitting the right numbers? Do you have a periodized exercise routine, with mezocyles, microcycles and macrocycles clearly defined?

Are you looking after all aspects of conditioning, including aerobic capacity, strength, power, speed, endurance, agility, balance, dexterity, flexibility and skill training specific to your sport?

Are you overtraining or undereating or both? Do you get plenty of rest and sleep?

Being prepared also means showing up with plenty of time to spare on the day of competition and checking to make sure you have everything you need to avoid any last minute panics. The same thing applies to taking a vacation or going on a fishing trip.

One more thing that deserves mention here. During competition, be prepared for the unexpected. Thinking you have everything in control means you don’t, but if you think you do, you might be a control freak. This element of character ties in with athletic perfectionism.

2. Warm-Up

Can you imagine just walking onto the field and competing without any warm-up at all? For me the warm-up primes the pump and gets the blood flowing. My core body temperature rises and this helps prevents injury. It also makes me feel good and ready, as any boxer or martial artist will tell you.

I need about 10-15 minutes to warm-up for a hammer competition. This includes rotation of all my major joints, core twisting and some basic light stretching. I also like to swing the hammer around my head with each arm to loosen the shoulder joints, and then take some practice throws from inside the competition circle, starting with 1 turn then progressing to 2 and 3. To show up late and miss out on my warm-up would definitely create unnecessary mental stress and increase the risk of anxiety.

3. Expectations

Some athletes have super high expectations and expect to win often. In matches when they make mistakes, they berate themselves, get frustrated, and lose focus. This is a high confidence killer.

You have to be very realistic about your capacity to perform in the ‘now’ as opposed to some imagined reality in the future, and also be patient as you train and prepare with diligence to become better at your game.

Be your own best friend on the field. You’re going to make mistakes, so you need a high level of self-acceptance. In athletics the rule is embrace failure.

If you’ve experienced sports performance anxiety in the past, the best expectations for your performance in your next game or meet are NONE. Go easy on yourself. Don’t think about every facet of your skill set as you’re about to perform. Just let it go or in my case with the hammer, let it fly!

Do your best with what you’ve built into the fabric of your individual genome. We know that great technique is mostly about memory and neurons that fire in harmony from neural tracks laid down in the brain from many hours of tough monotonous training, so let go and let perform.

Let your chi flow naturally and gracefully. Feel the force Luke.

Don’t worry about disappointing others such as a coach, a fellow teammate, a parent or someone you know in the crowd. Don’t worry about being judged for failure. The audience for the most part wants you to succeed and is very understanding. They are there to support and encourage you. Many of them have already been in your shoes.

You have to learn to play for yourself and not others. You have to trust in your technique and athletic ability. Instead of worrying about the consequences and outcome of your performance at competition, focus more on the process and what you need to do to improve your performance in the now.

Separate your mindset into two modes of thought, one of practice and one of competition. Use verbal commands in practice and focus on specific technical drills. Break everything down and practice until the cows come home. Let your coach deconstruct everything and be teachable.

In competition however, perform with images and positive feelings. Trust what you’ve learned and have created in practice. Quiet the mind, simplify your performance and trust in your action. Be in the moment and don’t worry about any consequences. This is easier said than done.

4. Self-Doubt

Self-doubt is the polar opposite of confidence. If you doubt your ability to perform well during competition then you most likely lack self-confidence. What elements of your ability to you doubt? List them on paper, then try to reframe them by looking at them is a more positive light. For example if you lack physical size and think you’re not big enough, focus instead on your speed and agility and work harder in practice to improve it.

5. Image

For many athletes, the pressure to maintain a strong image comes with the cost of hiding their struggles with mental health and sports performance anxiety. This desire to appear as if everything is normal only adds pressure to the athlete, who is avoiding rather than confronting the issue.

Be honest about what you’re facing. Do not let the fear of admitting your struggle with performance anxiety to negatively impact your game. This pressure is self-induced so the logic is to investigate it, be honest with yourself and understand the source of your fear. All effects have causes, but when it comes to human emotion, they are seldom easy to detect.

6. Breathing

How well do you breathe? In general, anxiety makes us breathe faster and shallower, so the antidote is to breathe in deeply through the nose, and out slowly through the mouth. Try this technique just before you perform. Slow down and take a deep breath. Calm your mind and relax.

When you lift weights, you need to inhale for power just before you exert yourself, and then exhale as you push or pull the weight to complete the rep. Have you examined your breathing strategy in your sport or even considered it?

Pay attention and think about your breathing pattern, cadence and rhythm during practice. Experiment with taking longer, deeper breaths and with different patterns of inhalation and exhalation in relation to the timing of your exertion and recovery.

7. Meditation

Meditation is a learned technique utilized to change a state of being attentive to a state of unfocused attention. Experimental data indicate that meditation produces both relaxation of the body and activation of the mind.

Meditation has long been recognized for its mental benefits. It teaches one how to be fully present (i.e. in the “Now” or moment) without agenda, goals, or expectations. To perform at our best, we need to be absolutely present in the moment. Meditation is the ideal practice to help us cultivate focus and mindfulness.

Meditation teaches us to control our thoughts, visualize success and cultivate the mental positiveness and confidence required. This helps prevent over thinking and the negative worry associated with outcome. Over time, meditation has been shown to not only reduce performance anxiety, but also actively improve athletic performance.

Here’s how to meditate.

  • Sit or lie comfortably.
  • Close your eyes. ...
  • Make no effort to control the breath; simply breathe naturally.
  • Focus your attention on the breath and on how the body moves with each inhalation and exhalation.

The idea here is not to meditate just before your event as form of treatment, but rather to incorporate meditation into your lifestyle and daily routine so that the psychological benefits of mindfulness will slowly improve your capacity to stay in the moment when it’s time to perform your best in competition.

8. Humour

It’s well known that laughter is the best medicine and a terrific tonic, but do you know why? Humor boosts the immune system and helps relieve stress and nervous tension. So have a laugh. Find a way to laugh out your anxiety when you’re experiencing it. For example, if you feel nervous or tense, try watching a funny video on your smart phone or tablet. Tell someone a joke or make a funny comment to someone who in turn might laugh and then you can laugh together.

9. Visualize

Deliberately think of something else if you’re over thinking your performance. It’s not possible to ‘not think’ about what’s making you feel anxious, so you have to think about something else. Become a magician and distract your mind with intention.

Visualize something positive, something wonderful or somewhere beautiful and serene. Try and get as many of your sensory organs involved through imagination. Use a photograph if you like to get your mind centered and on target.

10. Music

Music can sooth the savage beast. Remember the effect the enchanted golden harp had on the giant in story of Jack and the Beanstalk. It calmed him down and put him to sleep. Plato believed that music was our stairway to heaven.

Throw on some headphones and listen to your favorite tune. The right genre of music can relax the brain and actually change brain wave frequency and emission. Why do you think they play soft, soothing music in elevators or at the Dentist’s office? My favorite forms of relaxing music are renditions of the harp and the Hawaiian steel guitar. What are yours?

11. Grounding

In martial arts the most widely used stance is a shallow standing squat with knees slightly bent. This position is neutral and agile from which both attacks and defences may be launched. It provides for the delivery of force when attacking and stability when defending.

Why do soldiers march before battle and even sing songs? They are preparing for war and minimizing performance anxiety. Think about it! Pounding their feet on the ground makes them feel secure.

To perform well in sport both of your feet have to have a solid connection with the ground beneath you, which is the opposite of what’s happening when you’re experiencing anxiety in your mind. Your head is swelling and it feels like you’re rising up and about to float away like a balloon filled with helium.

When you’re feeling anxious, try stomping your feet on the ground. Jump up and down several times on your toes. Skip for a minute. Perform 10-20 jumping jacks, but whatever you do, make sure your feet are in contact with the ground.

12. Physical Movement

Just prior to performing, try punching the sky. Practice some shadow boxing in front of a mirror or with an invisible partner. Get on the ground and do 10-20 push-ups. Get yourself out-of-breathe. This will flood your body with endocannabinoids and endorphins, which will make you feel much better.

Finally, to overcome sports performance anxiety:

  • Understand what your ultimate fear is all about. Be honest. For example, are you afraid to disappoint others, or look like a fool if you choke in front of a crowd?
  • Challenge the rationality of your fear. What’s so important about it? Most likely it’s all in your head. In fact it is.
  • Learn how to embrace competition pressure instead of the fear that you might fail to perform well. Over time develop mental toughness. This is where courage comes in. The acronym for fear is False Evidence Appearing Real. Emotions are intangible consequences that originate from within our brain.
  • Let’s be clear about one thing. The reason you put in so many damn hours of training is because you love the sport you play, or at least you should! Have fun in practice and then express your finest athletic ability in competition. Trust your hard earned skills! Let the athlete inside guide you to self-mastery.

Photo by Sarah Pflug from Burst

As always...Stay Well and Live Free!