How to Handle Performance Anxiety as an Athlete

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Sport performance anxiety, sometimes called "choking," involves a decrease or impairment in performance due to perceived stress. Such stress is often caused by an athlete's high expectations and the added pressure of being observed by onlookers.

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.

How Anxiety Affects Sport 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 tense.

A certain level of physical arousal is helpful and prepares us for competition. However, when the physical symptoms of anxiety are too high, they can 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 create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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

Signs of Sport Performance Anxiety

While everyone's individual experience differs, some common signs of anxiety in sport performance include:

  • Apprehensiveness
  • "Butterflies" in the stomach
  • Chills
  • Clammy hands
  • Fatigue
  • Increased breathing rate
  • Muscle tension
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Sense of panic or impending doom
  • Sweating
  • Trembling
  • Weakness

In some instances, people can experience panic attacks due to performance anxiety. During a panic attack, a person may experience intense, overwhelming fear, nausea, chest pain, pounding heart, difficulty breathing, and dizziness. 

Causes of Sport Performance Anxiety

Sport psychology is a division of psychology aimed at better preparing an athlete's mind for competition. Most sports psychologists work with athletes to help them understand what causes this anxiety and to overcome anxiety about performance during competitions.

Several factors can play a role in causing anxiety in sport performance. Some of these causes include:

  • Social anxiety: 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. This type of anxiety would be diagnosed as SAD in its most extreme form.
  • Lack of experience: 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 in competition and managing feelings of being "pumped up."
  • Solo sports: 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 manage some of the pressure you feel when competing alone.
  • Performance location: There is evidence that 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 plays at home.

Having greater fan support and being more familiar with the location helps to reduce anxiety.

How to 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 adequately 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.

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Coping With Anxiety in Sport Performance

There are many strategies you can employ to reduce performance anxiety symptoms, such as the following:

  • Prepare: Ensure you have practiced enough to be confident during the competition. Spend extra time on practice and preparation in the days or weeks before a game or performance.
  • Get social support: Ask friends or family to root you for "away" games. Knowing that your support system is there to cheer you on can help you feel more confident and less anxious. You can also generate that "team spirit" even for individual sports by making friends with other competitors.
  • Reappraise arousal: Learn how to interpret arousal during the competition as positive or acceptable rather than negative. Reappraising anxiety as excitement can help combat performance anxiety.
  • Change negative thoughts: Negative thoughts can make anxiety about sports performance worse. You can combat this by using cognitive reframing to change your thoughts about situations. Identifying negative thoughts allows you to actively challenge them and replace them with more positive, realistic ways of thinking.
  • Use positive self-talk: How you talk to yourself about your performance can also influence the amount of anxiety you experience. Research has found that positive self-talk can contribute to greater confidence and self-efficacy, better performance, and less anxiety.

You can also use several 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 self-help strategies, plan a visit to your doctor or contact a therapist to discuss your concerns. Severe anxiety in sport performance can be a sign of social anxiety disorder. In such cases, professional treatment can provide relief and help address anxiety before it interferes with your life and ability to function.

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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Arlin Cuncic
Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety."