Ways to Support Athletes with Sports Performance Anxiety

Even the most stellar athletes can experience anxiety and emotional problems that affect their lives and athletic performance. Understanding, support, and counseling can help athletes with sports performance anxiety overcome their fears and achieve goals on and off the field.

What Is Sports Performance Anxiety?

Anxiety can be difficult to define, but usually, anxiety is worry about the day ahead or a specific event. The intensity of anxiety can vary from a transitory feeling to a persistent state of agitation. For athletes, sports performance anxiety can be constant worry about their performance, impairing their ability to play. Sports performance anxiety can cripple an athlete’s ability to perform, causing panic, distraction, self-doubt, and a complete lack of confidence. An athlete can experience disorganization during performance anxiety in sports, where they expend too much energy with their anxiety, causing exhaustion and burnout.

What Are the Signs of Performance Anxiety in Sports?

Being expected to perform and perform past others’ expectations consistently can be stressful. Your body can react in a “fight-or-flight” mechanism during performance anxiety in sports, making you feel as if you’re in danger. Sports performance anxiety symptoms may include:

  • Digestive troubles. When you have sports performance anxiety, you may experience digestive cramps, diarrhea, or constipation. You may feel nausea and vomit from the stress. Anxiety makes your muscles tense during performance anxiety in sports, including your abdominal muscles.
  • Disrupted focus athletes. Athletes with sports performance anxiety may have trouble concentrating on the game, like not seeing where other players are and missing crucial plays. Distracted athletes are more likely to have injuries from their distractions.
  • Dry mouth and tight throat. You may feel as if your throat is shut dry during performance anxiety in sports. Speaking is difficult, causing a lack of communication with teammates.
  • Hyperventilation athletes. Athletes with sports performance anxiety may feel as if they’re choking or can’t catch their breath. Hyperventilation can lead to dizziness and fainting.
  • Muscle tension. Muscle tension in other parts of your body is common when you have sports performance anxiety. Your muscles may be so tight they become painful. You may also experience tension and pain in your head, leading to headaches.
  • Racing heart and pulse. Hormones, adrenaline, and cortisol can make your heart beat faster and your pulse race. Rapid breathing often goes with these symptoms. Dizziness and fainting can occur.
  • Sweaty and cold hands. Anxiety can make you sweat, but the fight-or-flight reaction can make your extremities cold. The reason for cold hands is your body, in a fight-or-flight reaction, adrenaline moves your blood to protect your body’s core organs such as your stomach, lungs, and other vital organs.
  • Trembling body. Fight-or-flight mode in sports performance anxiety can cause you to have trembling hands, lips, knees, and voice. Stress hormones like epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine course through your body, increasing your heart rate, blood pressure, and blood flow to your muscles. Your muscles tense up as you prepare to act. This sequence of events can lead to shaking or trembling.
  • Vision changes. Sports performance anxiety can cause vision changes. When athletes experience sports performance anxiety, they can experience visual irregularities, and double vision, have narrowed or tunnel vision, and see things out of the corner of their eyes that aren’t there. Vision may seem surreal and dream-like, momentarily brightening or dimming. Distorted images, blurs, flashes, halos, or odd-looking vision can occur. Kaleidoscope-like and vignette-like visions are possible. Unusual pulsing in vision where objects are out of normal shape or shadows, shimmers, seeing stars, ghosted images, and fogginess are all signs of vision problems with anxiety.

Any medical symptoms need professional healthcare to rule out other causes than anxiety. Heart, abdominal, nervous system and vision issues require attention to be sure disease and disorders symptoms are not mistaken for anxiety.

What Causes Sports Performance Anxiety?

Sports performance anxiety reasons vary from athlete to athlete. Athletes may experience many or a few reasons for sports performance anxiety. Common causes, however, of sports performance anxiety are:

  • Intense fear of failure. Anxious athletes may imagine the worst-case scenario. They might worry about letting their teammates, coach, family, friends, or school down or fear others laughing at them for their failure.
  • Lack of focus. When you have other issues happening in your life, you may lose focus. You might have trouble concentrating and instead focus on your other concerns.
  • Overthinking. Athletes may temporarily forget how to do actions they do automatically, like throwing a baseball or shooting hoops. Thinking about every action may cause athletes to freeze up during performance anxiety in sports and fail to perform.
  • Pressure. Parents, coaches, family, and friends can pressure athletes to perform well in competitions. Athletes may not have self-control over their game when others expect them to excel, to be the top athlete and performer above others. Helicopter parents who push kids to succeed, force kids to train to the detriment of other life experiences, and are argumentative with coaches, parents, and even children are examples of how extreme pressure can be for athletes who develop sports performance anxiety. Coaches, teammates, other family members, and friends can have high, unrealistic expectations for athletic performance and cause sports performance anxiety. Private humiliation from parents, coaches, family, friends, or fans for “not doing a good job” can lead to future sports performance anxiety.
  • Game importance. Big games to clench the title can cause sports performance anxiety. Athletes may feel anxious when a medal, trophy, prize money, or scholarship is on the line.
  • Social expectations. When a whole stadium is watching you play, expectations may be high, and the pressure may be difficult for athletes during performance anxiety in sports. This is especially in areas where sports are intensely crucial to community identity.
  • Past failure. Past failure may cause sports performance anxiety, especially when athletes have received strong criticism for their mistakes. Athletes may feel obligated to do better this time to erase their former failures.
  • Solo competition. When athletes compete as solo players, they don’t have teammates to cover for their mistakes. Victory or defeat depends on the solo performer during performance anxiety in sports, causing sports performance anxiety about themselves as individuals.
  • Reduced self-confidence. Performance anxiety can cause athletes to start doubting their abilities. They may wonder whether they can win.

Who Can Be Affected by Sports Performance Anxiety?

According to an article in Frontiers in Psychology, sports performance anxiety can affect between 30 and 60 percent of athletes. Athletes of any age are at risk of anxiety. However, the following types of athletes are more likely to experience anxiety:

Young Athletes

Younger athletes are more likely to have sports performance anxiety and show physical symptoms. They may have helicopter parents who push them to succeed or try to impress their peers. 

Novice Athletes

Beginning athletes or those who haven’t competed before may feel like they’re in the spotlight. A large crowd of spectators can be exciting and motivating, but it can also cause anxiety. Attending their very first competition makes them have a higher likelihood of sports performance anxiety.

Female Athletes

Girls have a greater risk of sports performance anxiety or may face less stigma about expressing emotions.

Ways to Support Athletes Struggling with Performance Anxiety in Sports

During performance anxiety in sports, supporting athletes is essential. Some ways you can help support athletes struggling with performance anxiety in sports are:

1. Identify Anxiety

Look for signs of anxiety. This might include muscular tension (e.g., jaw tightening), making a lot of errors, or acting out (e.g., throwing sports equipment). Any behavior out of character is a reason to ask about the athletes’ feelings.

2. Acknowledge and Normalize Feelings

Having anxiety in high-stress situations is normal. Honor the athletes’ emotions and let them talk about it without criticism.

3. Make a Game Plan

Help your athlete develop a game plan while dealing with anxiety. Go over what the athlete can do to remain focused during a game. Keep the game plan short and agreed upon by the athlete.

4. No Pushing

Avoid pushing the athlete to participate in sports. Encourage, but don’t demand. Don’t create conflict with coaches, referees, other parents, or team members.

5. Stay Positive

Be optimistic for athletes with sports performance anxiety. Give good feedback to athletes. Constructive criticism is better than disparaging and tearing someone down. Don’t criticize the athlete but cite what they can do to improve.

How Can a Sports Psychologist Help?

Sport psychologists help athletes overcome problems with sports performance anxiety. A psychologist who helps athletes focus on athletic mental wellness. Sports psychologists help athletes with various mental strategies such as self-talk, visualization, and relaxation techniques. They help athletes learn to focus on why the game matters to them and reduce anxiety through focus. Athletes learn to prioritize what’s important to them, such as their goals, supporting their teammates, elevating the sport, or performing better as a teammate.

A qualified sports psychologist will have membership in professional organizations such as the American Psychological Association (APA) and the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP). Some sport psychologists have doctorates who meet their state’s training and education requirements after passing a comprehensive exam. They undergo specialized education and training to help athletes.

Overcoming sports performance anxiety may seem difficult, but help is available. You can beat sports performance anxiety with counseling, family, friend, teammate, and coach support.

Resources:

4 Ways to Overcome Sports Performance Anxiety » ForeverFitScience. Information about overcoming sports performance anxiety from a fitness news perspective.

6 Weird Signs You’re Way Too Anxious. When you’re anxious, your body can do strange things. This article provides weird signs to look out for, such as cold hands and feet.

5 Tips for Overcoming Sports Performance Anxiety – Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital. John Hopkins is a prestigious teaching and research hospital. Its All Children’s Hospital offers top-of-the-line care and preventative medicine for children in mental and physical health.

Anxiety and Performance in Sex, Sport, and Stage: Identifying Common Ground – PMC. Information from Frontiers in Psychology about gender and sports performance anxiety. The information covers sports performance anxiety as well as other forms of anxiety.

How Social Anxiety Disorder Can Cause Shaking. The article covers why social anxiety disorder causes shaking.

How to Handle Performance Anxiety as an Athlete. Handling sports performance anxiety helps athletes to conquer their fears. Performance tips are essential to the process of stopping sports performance anxiety.

How to Overcome Sports Performance Anxiety | Psychology Today. Tips on overcoming sports performance anxiety.

Overcoming Performance Anxiety in Music, Acting, Sports, and More. Sports performance anxiety is not the only area where anxiety occurs. Help for sports performance anxiety can affect other areas of competition and endeavor.

Performance Anxiety: Symptoms, Diagnosis, & More. Definition of performance anxiety, symptoms, and diagnosis.

Sports Performance Anxiety: Causes, Signs, Tips to Cope. Tips to cope with sports performance anxiety.

What Causes Sports Anxiety? Plus, Tips to Get Your Game (Back) On. Causes of sports performance anxiety and tips to overcome sports anxiety.

 

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