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How Do I Handle Performance Anxiety as an Athlete?

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Updated December 09, 2013

Sports and performance anxiety often go hand-in-hand. Have you ever "choked" during an important sporting event or felt your nerves get in the way of your athletic performance? While many athletes become "pumped up" during competition, when the rush of adrenaline is interpreted as anxiety, and negative thoughts begin to swirl, it can have devastating effects on your ability to perform. Before you learn how to manage the symptoms of anxiety during competitions, it is important to understand the relationship between anxiety and athletic performance.

What is Sport Psychology?

Sport psychology is a division of psychology aimed at better preparing the mind of an athlete for competition.

How Does Sport Psychology Relate to Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD)?

People with social anxiety disorder (SAD) fear social and performance situations. The most common fear is public speaking. However, other types of performances such as musical and athletic may also elicit anxiety. Most sport psychologists work with athletes to help them overcome anxiety about about performance during competitions. In its most extreme form, this type of anxiety would be diagnosed as SAD.

What is the Relationship Between Anxiety and Athletic Performance?

Anxiety before or during athletic competitions can hinder your performance as an athlete. The coordinated movement required by athletic events becomes increasingly difficult when your body is in a tense state. A certain level of physical arousal is helpful and prepares us for competition. But when the physical symptoms of anxiety are too great, they may seriously interfere with your ability to compete. Similarly, a certain amount of worry about how you perform can be helpful in competition, but severe cognitive symptoms of anxiety such as negative thought patterns and expectations of failure can bring about a self-fulfilling prophecy. If there is a substantial difference between how you perform during practice and how you do during competitions, anxiety may be affecting your performance.

What Factors Influence the Effect of Anxiety on Athletic Performance?

Some types of athletes are more prone to feeling the effects of anxiety on performance. Amateur athletes are more likely than seasoned professionals to experience anxiety that interferes with their ability to perform in competition -- this makes sense due to their relative lack of experience both in competition and in managing arousal.

Athletes who participate in individual sports have also been found to experience more anxiety than those who play team sports. Common sense suggests that being part of a team alleviates some of the pressure experienced by those who compete alone.

Finally, there is evidence that in team sports, when a team plays at the venue of the opposition (known as an "away" game) anxiety levels tend to be higher than when playing at home. Again, common sense would indicate that having greater fan support and more familiarity with the venue plays a role in anxiety levels during competition.

Why Do Some Athletes Thrive Under Pressure and Others Falter?

How are elite athletes consistently able to rise to the challenge when faced with tough competition? Research shows that self-confidence plays a role in how you respond to symptoms of anxiety during athletic performance. People who are confident in their abilities are more likely to have a positive reaction to arousal and anxiety and thrive on the challenge of competition. Elite athletes are often so focused on their behavior that they interpret arousal as excitement rather than anxiety.

In general, self-confidence tends to be highest when you believe in your ability and feel that you have properly prepared for a competition. Worry and confidence are at opposite ends of the spectrum -- when confidence is strong, it tends to crowd worry out of the mind.

What Can Be Done to Manage Anxiety About Athletic Performance?

You can use a number of strategies to help manage anxiety related to athletic performance including visualization, progressive muscle relaxation, and cognitive restructuring. If you find that your anxiety symptoms are severe and do not improve with the use of self-help strategies, plan a visit to your doctor to discuss your concerns. You may be suffering with SAD and need professional treatment.

Sources:

Humara M. The relationship between anxiety and performance: A cognitive-behavioral perspective. Athletic Insight -- The Online Journal of Sport Psychology [serial online].

Riewald ST. Strategies to manage performance pressure. NSCA’s Performance Training Journal [serial online].

Rodriguez C. Can sport psychology help athletic performance by increasing mental toughness through decreasing anxiety?.

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