How to Handle Performance Anxiety as an Athlete

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Performance anxiety symptoms are often present in athletes. While some people become "pumped up" during the competition, if you interpret the rush of adrenaline as anxiety and negative thoughts take over, this can interfere with your ability to perform.

Before you learn how to manage the symptoms of anxiety during competitions, it is critical to understand the relationship between anxiety and athletic performance.

Performance Anxiety and Sports Psychology

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 lead to anxiety.

Sport psychology is a division of psychology aimed at better preparing the mind of an athlete for competition. Most sport psychologists work with athletes to help them overcome anxiety about performance during competitions. In its most extreme form, this type of anxiety would be diagnosed as SAD.

Performance Anxiety and Athletic Performance

Anxiety before or during athletic competitions can interfere with your performance as an athlete. The coordinated movement required by athletic events becomes increasingly difficult when your body is in a tense state. While a certain level of physical arousal is helpful and prepares us for competition, when the physical symptoms of anxiety are too great, they may seriously interfere with your ability to compete.

A certain amount of worry about how you perform can be helpful in competition. At the same time, negative thought patterns and expectations of failure can bring about a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If there is a large difference between how you fare during practice and how you do during competitions, anxiety may be affecting your performance.

Sports Performance Anxiety Triggers

Some types of athletes are more prone to feeling the effects of anxiety on performance. As an amateur athlete, you are more likely than seasoned professionals to experience anxiety that interferes with your ability to perform in competition. This makes sense due to your relative lack of experience both in competition and in managing feelings of being "pumped up."

If you are an athlete who participates in individual sports, you are also more likely to experience anxiety than those who play team sports. It makes sense that being part of a team helps to manage some of the pressure that you feel when you compete alone.

Finally, there is evidence that in team sports, if your team plays at the venue of the opposition (known as an "away" game), anxiety levels tend to be higher than when your team is playing at home. Again, it makes sense that having greater fan support and being more familiar with the location helps to reduce anxiety.

How Some Athletes Thrive Under Pressure

How are elite athletes consistently able to rise to the challenge when faced with the tough competition? Research shows that self-confidence plays a role in how you respond to symptoms of anxiety during athletic performance. If you are confident in your ability, you are more likely to have a positive reaction to being "pumped up" and will 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.

How to Manage Performance Anxiety Symptoms

Based on what's been discussed, there are a number of strategies you can employ to reduce performance anxiety symptoms, such as the following:

  • Reduce negative thought patterns that contribute to anxiety through cognitive restructuring (self-help books on cognitive-behavioral therapy will help with this)
  • Learn how to interpret arousal during the competition as positive or acceptable rather than negative (self-help books on acceptance and commitment therapy will help with this)
  • Ensure that you have practiced enough so that you are confident during competition
  • Generate that "team spirit" even for individual sports by making friends with other competitors
  • For "away" games, ask friends or family to be there to root you on

You can also use a number of strategies to help manage anxiety and induce relaxation related to athletic performance including visualization and progressive muscle relaxation.

A Word From Verywell

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 from SAD and need professional treatment.

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