Many factors can lead to successful athletic achievement. Athletes may require weeks, months, or even years of training and practice to be fully emotionally present at the right moment when peak performance is critical.
Unfortunately, there are also many factors that can negatively impact sports performance. Physical injuries are common in athletes. Life stress can be distracting. Although it is not talked about as much, mental state can be just as important in determining performance as physical preparedness.
One common mental state athletes experience is anxiety.
Sports performance anxiety can impact anywhere between 30 percent to 60 percent of athletes. So, how does anxiety present itself, how does it impact sports performance, and how can athletes properly manage it?
What Is Anxiety?
Anxiety can be either an emotion or a worry, such as a feeling of uneasiness, nervousness, or dread about something with an uncertain outcome.
It is common for people to suffer from some level of anxiety, especially when faced with high-stress situations, such as a big game, a presentation at school or work, or before making a big life decision. Anxiety can manifest itself either physically or emotionally.
Both the emotional and physical symptoms of mild anxiety can actually help you cope and even can give a boost of energy (adrenaline rush) that can help you focus. When anxiety is extreme, however, it can have a detrimental effect on your performance.
For people with anxiety disorders, this feeling can be overwhelming and debilitating and can interfere with daily life.
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Signs of Anxiety
Anxiety symptoms can be broken up into physical and mental categories.
Physical signs of anxiety may include:
- Shortness of breath or rapid breathing.
- Chest tightness.
- Increased heart rate.
- Excessive sweating.
- Feeling run-down, weak, or tired.
- Headaches, muscle aches, and stomach aches.
- Gastrointestinal issues, such as loose stool or diarrhea.
Anxiety also can interfere with sleep — something particularly critical for good athletic performance.
Mental signs of anxiety can be just as debilitating as physical symptoms. These can include:
- Having a sense of dread, impending danger, panic, or doom. This can include a fear of failure or of letting coaches or teammates down.
- Feeling restless or on-edge. Allowing an upcoming game or match to impact daily life for days at a time.
- Trouble focusing or overthinking. Athletes rely on some actions being on autopilot, such as baseball players knowing where to throw a ball to get the next out. Anxiety can cause gaps in that normally automatic process, impacting performance. When anxiety drives repetitive negative thoughts, called ruminations, it becomes even harder to perform the actual action needed to succeed in that moment.
If left untreated, anxiety can lead to more harmful coping strategies, including self-soothing with alcohol or marijuana — both detrimental to athletic performance.
The Impact of Anxiety on Sports Performance
According to the International Journal of Physical Education, Sports, and Health, anxiety is essential to competition. However, when anxiety gets too high, or even too low, performance can be negatively impacted.
There are many theories dating back decades on how anxiety impacts sports performance. Popular theories include:
- The inverted “U” theory, which proposes that there is an optimal level of anxiety and that performance declines when that level is too low or too high.
- The drive theory, which indicates that high performance and high anxiety go hand-in-hand, meaning that higher anxiety leads to better performance.
- The Conceptual Model of Athletic Performance Anxiety (Smith and Smoll model), which holds that anxiety can influence stress responses to a competitive situation, which in turn will influence performance in a multidimensional way — physiologically, behaviorally, and/or mentally/cognitively.
How to Handle Sports Anxiety
Depending on the severity of your anxiety and how it impacts both your performance and your daily life, there are several self-guided ways that may help minimize the issue.
Studies show positive self-talk can benefit athletic performance. Repeating positive phrases can help replace negative thoughts and the sense of dread that comes along with anxiety. Creating a “mantra” is a popular tactic among long-distance runners, repeating a simple phrase such as “one mile at a time” during training and on race day.
Visualization can be a powerful tool for athletes. This can be done on your own or with the help of self-guided mindfulness-based apps. Exercises using visualization to help combat anxiety include:
- Visualizing themselves: In this exercise, an athlete visualizes each part of their body and tells themselves that this part of their body is in good condition.
- Visualizing opponents: In this exercise, athletes visualize their opponents playing in the game while telling themselves their skills are superior to their opponents.
- Visualizing the process: In this exercise, athletes visualize practices, game-day preparations, the actual game, and victory.
Deep breathing, or diaphragmatic breathing, involves contraction of the diaphragm, expansion of the belly, with deep inhales and exhales. Used in meditation and in the Sports Performance Program at UPMC Sports Medicine, studies have shown the positive impact of diaphragmatic breathing on minimizing anxiety and stress.
When to Seek Help
For more severe or persistent anxiety, a sports psychologist may be able to help.
A sports psychologist specializes in helping athletes with motivation, loss of focus, communication with teammates, controlling anger, and a number of other anxiety-related issues, such as reduction of high arousal, negative thought cycles, or rumination.
Sports psychologists also can help athletes who don’t necessarily have an existing problem but want to learn other ways to improve their performance.
About Sports Medicine
An athletic lifestyle carries the potential for injury. Whether you’re an elite athlete or a weekend warrior, UPMC Sports Medicine can help. If you are looking to prevent, treat, or rehabilitate a sports injury, our multidisciplinary team of experts can help you get back into the game. If you are seeking to improve your athletic performance, we can work with you to meet your goals. We serve athletes and active people of all ages and experience levels. Our goal is to help you keep doing what you love. Visit our website to find a specialist near you.
UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is the hub of UPMC Behavioral Health, a network of community-based programs providing specialized mental health and addiction care for children, adolescents, adults, and seniors. Our mission is to provide comprehensive, compassionate care to people of all ages with mental health conditions. UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is a nationally recognized leader in mental health clinical care, research, and education. It is one of the nation’s foremost university-based psychiatric care facilities through its integration with the Department of Psychiatry of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. We are here to help at every stage of your care and recovery.