Helping Athletes with Sports Anxiety

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An anxious sprinter sits on the track, holding her head.

Big sporting events can mean big nerves for those competing. But sometimes that unsettled feeling goes beyond typical jitters, and athletes have difficulty performing during the event — and in their everyday lives.

Anxiety is one of the most common mental health conditions in the United States. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, about 18% of the U.S. adult population, or 40 million people, experience anxiety each year. Performance anxiety, or stage fright, can lead people to avoid doing things they love and affect how well they do them.

Athletes are no different. Sports anxiety causes athletes to perform poorly, and it can affect their confidence and self-esteem. But athletes have ways to cope, and coaches can help them address the problem before it leads to more serious consequences.

What Is Sports Anxiety?

Sports anxiety, sometimes called “choking,” is diminished athletic performance caused by stresses surrounding a sporting event. The feeling goes beyond typical pre-event nervousness to interfere with the athlete’s ability to compete.

Causes of Sports Anxiety

High expectations from oneself and from family and friends can create anxiety about performance. Social media can exacerbate the issue, facilitating the quick spread of stories and videos of individual sports performances worldwide.

The high-profile nature of competing in public becomes even more stressful when coupled with these frequent causes of sports anxiety:

  • Returning from injury — Concern about re-injury or about the amount of time needed to return to past performance levels
  • Fear of failure — Worry about failing to live up to expectations
  • Fear of success — Concern about the responsibilities and commitments that success brings
  • Unhealthy lifestyle — Failure to get the sleep and nutrition required for good physical and mental health
  • Perfectionism — Feeling that any mistake makes a performance unworthy
  • Postgame analysis — Negative feedback that affects the mindset

Signs of Sports Anxiety

Players experiencing pregame nervousness may be distracted or unable to sit still, but that typically disappears once competition begins. For athletes with sports anxiety, however, the stress doesn’t end there, and can cause physiological symptoms such as:

  • Increased heart rate and quick breathing
  • Sweaty, clammy hands
  • Dry mouth and throat
  • Shaky body and voice
  • Blurred vision
  • Nausea

The mind’s response to sports anxiety can be more serious. Anxiety’s physical effects can make moving fluidly and with confidence difficult for an athlete, affecting performance. These performance issues can lower an athlete’s self-esteem and self-confidence. If left unchecked, the anguish that anxiety can cause may lead to more dangerous outcomes, even suicide.

How Coaches Can Help Athletes Cope with Sports Anxiety

Recognizing the symptoms of sports anxiety is the first step to coping with it, and coaches can help lead the way in tackling the problem. Approaches based on facing the issue rather than pushing it aside are most effective.

To help encourage a positive mindset, coaches should be aware of how they’re addressing athletes. They should praise effort, not just outcomes. And coaches should resist language that adds pressure, such as, “We have to win this game.”

Preparation helps prevent anxiety during performance. Practices and warmups that incorporate multiple repetitions of the movements required during competition will help those moves to become second nature.

The following are some tips coaches should encourage athletes to follow to cope with sports anxiety:

  • Practice mindfulness, focusing on the now and breathing.
  • Follow a healthy lifestyle, getting enough sleep and avoiding substance abuse.
  • Establish a group of friends and family who will provide support.
  • Recognize that we can control only our own thoughts and actions.

Athletes experiencing anxiety as they return from injury may benefit from goal setting and targeted relaxation techniques such as sport-specific visualization. During visualization, an athlete establishes a mental image of a desired outcome, thinking of a past or future outstanding performance. The imagery should be as detailed as possible, with the visualization including the following practices:

  • Picturing the images associated with the positive outcome
  • Feeling how the body reacts to the desired result
  • Hearing the roar of the crowd responding to the performance

When athletes practice this visualization on a regular basis, they train their minds and bodies to perform as imagined in actual competition.

Mental health professionals also are a great resource to guide athletes in overcoming anxiety — but coaches should suggest this help in a way that doesn’t cause an athlete to feel shame or alienation.

Skills Needed to Help Athletes

Coaches must know their sport and push athletes to perform at their highest level. But coaches are also mentors, friends and caretakers charged with helping those who are struggling. Basic understanding of leadership skills and sports psychology can give coaches the edge when helping athletes cope with issues such as sports anxiety.

The following are some coaching skills that can help athletes:

  • Communication
  • Empathy
  • Motivation
  • Understanding of individual athletes’ needs

Good coaches also rely on leadership-driven strategies such as visualization and encouraging language to help athletes when sports anxiety arises.

Level Up Your Coaching Game with Rider University

Ready to level up your coaching skills? An advanced degree in athletic leadership can help you gain the tools you need to better assist your athletes.

With Rider University’s Master of Arts in Athletic Leadership program, you can choose from tracks that include Coaching and Sports Psychology. You’ll learn about leadership, communication and other coaching fundamentals — and you’ll hear it directly from sports professionals, on a flexible schedule that fits your life.

Explore Rider’s Master of Arts in Athletic Leadership curriculum, and make a move to enhance your coaching game today.

Recommended Readings

10 Leadership Lessons from the Best NBA Coaches

Careers in Sports Psychology: Helping Athletes Excel

What Is Sports Psychology? Examining the Mental Side of Athletics

Sources:

Anxiety and Depression Association of America, Facts & Statistics

Cleveland Clinic, How to Mentally Come Back from a Sports Injury

CleverMemo, “12 Coaching Skills That Make You a Good Coach”

New Health Guide, How Does Anxiety Affect Sports Performance?

Psychology Today, “Combating Depression and Anxiety in Sports”

Sport Psychology Today, “3 Things Coaches Can Do to Help Players Overcome Anxiety”

Team USA, Tips for Helping Athletes Overcome Sports Anxiety

Verywell Fit, “Qualities of a Good Sports Fitness Coach”

Verywell Fit, “Sports Psychology for Performance Anxiety”

Verywell Fit, “Visualization Techniques for Athletes”

WebMD, Stage Fright (Performance Anxiety)