Performance Anxiety - A Silent Killer

Updated: Mar 9, 2020

Written by Coach Cathy - Head Coach of the Eclipse Track and Field Club.

Performance anxiety in our youth today is very real. The problem with performance anxiety is when it causes athlete to disconnect from the sport they once really enjoyed. Let’s face it, anxiety is in all of us and its part of our DNA and emotional character. It's how we process anxiety that makes us all a little different.

Anxiety has long been regarded as an "unpleasant" feeling, and anyone suffering from anxiety had something wrong with them. Until we can recognize that anxiety is actually one of our many fundamental necessary emotions and recognize that is has a part in our individuality, we can’t truly understand how to deal with it.

Performance Anxiety before and during athletic competition can drastically affect and interfere with an athlete’s performance, especially is anxiety is connected to negative thought patters and expectations of failure and ridicule can bring about the self-fulling prophecies in the athlete’s mind.

The good news is that research shows that self-confidence plays a vital role in how athletes respond to symptoms of anxiety during athletic performances. If an athlete is confident in their abilities, they are more likely to have a positive reaction to being "pumped up" and will thrive on the challenge of competition. Studies have shown that Elite athletes are often so focused on their behavior that they interpret the “arousal of feelings” as excitement rather than anxiety.

How to Identify Performance Anxiety in Athletes:

For many athletes, they fear the feelings of anxiety. This also means that they probably won’t be able to communicate what they are nervous about initially. Some may not even realize that they are anxious; however, they might show signs of irritability or have trouble sleeping. There may be talk about wanting to quit a sport or activity. In some cases, they may pretend to be sick or injured to avoid participating, or even develop some physical symptoms; such as a stomach ache, that in actuality stems from anxiety. They may begin to feel light headed, report headaches, heart palpitations, sweating, frequent urination or diarrhea and even shortness of breath.

So how can coaches and parents figure out what's going on?

Sometimes it helps to approach the subject obliquely. You might tell your athlete about your own experience feeling nervous before a competition or event. Or you can also invoke the example of an athletic hero: "Do you think Steph Curry ever gets scared before a big game?" Prompts like these can help athletes understand and name their feelings. Try to help your athlete name the specifics of their worries. Are they worried about forgetting what to do? Letting down the team? Making a mistake? Getting hurt? Once you know, you can help reassure your athlete, and/or ask their coach to do the same. You can also problem-solve with them, suggesting some of the techniques below. In some cases, having a professional talk with your athlete can really help.

How Athletes Can Cope with Performance Anxiety:

There are a number of strategies that athletes can employ to reduce performance anxiety symptoms:

1. Reduce negative thought patternsthat contribute to anxiety through cognitive restructuring (self-help books on cognitive-behavioral therapy will help with this)