Learn sports anxiety's effect on athletes — and how to handle it

Uncontrollable shaking, rapid heart rate, shortness of breath, profuse sweating ...

Uncontrollable worry, apprehension, poor concentration, difficulty in decision-making ...

Irritability, negative affect, angry emotional outbursts ...

Withdrawal and isolation, rumination, and difficulty staying on course ...

What you just read above are common physiological, cognitive, emotional, and behavioral symptoms associated with sports anxiety. While we often talk about the negative consequences of anxiety as it applies to sport performance, we don’t always dig deep and closely examine the responses that occur in the moment where fear replaces confidence and anxiety takes over in sports.

Think for a moment if just half of the above listed responses were to occur to an otherwise talented athlete — can you see how quickly the athlete’s performance would be negatively impacted? Herein is why it is so important for athletes to develop their mental toughness, resulting in greater strength as it applies to warding off the negative symptoms of sports anxiety.

The reason why otherwise talented athletes fail to live up to their potential

Many athletes perform well in practice or other low-stress environments, but tend to come up short in game situations. Almost always the reason for this change in performance is due to debilitating anxiety, but the good news is that anxiety can be channeled into positive arousal with a buy-in to mental toughness training. Arousal is often experienced as positive human energy, the type of feeling you get when you are excited to perform a task and when you feel like you are in “the zone” while performing.

Athletes who struggle with sports anxiety should be encouraged to try the following tips to help:

Deep breathing. Arguably the fastest, most effective way to calm down is to take 3-4 deep breaths all the way into your stomach, then hold the breath for about 4-5 seconds. Deep breathing should be used as often as needed, especially in game-situations.

Positive self-talk. Yes, what we say to ourselves has a dramatic impact on how we perceive and respond to the world around us. Train yourself to see challenges instead of threats, and use positive self-talk to walk yourself through tough situations.

Cue words. Come up with a word, phrase, or acronym that stands for something you find positive and inspiring, and place the cue word in discrete places where you can see it during games (i.e. written on your hand).

Imagery. Rather than getting caught up in the pressure of a game, try to instead see in your mind exactly what you are going to do next and envision yourself being successful performing your job on the field.

Improving up sports anxiety is something every athlete can do, but there must be a buy-in first. What this means is that athletes must be reminded that none of the skills discussed above are “magic,” and they may not work the very first time you try them. Fortunately, with a little patience and practice the positive results will soon be seen, making it that much more worthwhile to dedicate training designed to improve mental toughness.

For more information on this topic please check out The Mental Toughness Guide to Athletic Success.


Dr. Chris Stankovich is a graduate of The Ohio State University and the founder of Advanced Human Performance Systems, an athletic counseling and human performance enhancement center. 

For more information visit his website: www.drstankovich.com