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Understanding Performance Anxiety in Sports: Principles for Success

Try to imagine this situation: you are standing at the start line, the sun beating down on the track and the shoulders of your competitors jostling you as you assume your starting position. Your pulse quickens, initiating a wild rhythm in your chest and the noise of the crowd becomes an indistinct buzz as your mind becomes flooded by doubt and fear. The race begins and you surge forward, limbs feeling heavy and uncoordinated as panic tightens its grip. The meters feel impossibly long as your ideal game plan goes out the window and the only goal becomes getting to the finish line without completely falling apart. As you cross the line, you are overcome with frustration and disappointment. Performance anxiety has snatched victory from your fingertips yet again, leaving behind a bitter taste of unfulfilled potential.

Track athlete with performance anxiety preparing to run at the starting line

What is Performance Anxiety?

Performance anxiety affects athletes of all ages and levels, both in sports training and competition. It can occur when some kind of performance is demanded of you by a coach or your own expectations, whether in a sporting event, race, or challenging training session. When performance anxiety is too high it has been shown to interfere with performance and can be detrimental to your mental health.

Performance anxiety usually includes a combination of worries (e.g., negative thoughts or catastrophic predictions about how the demanding situation is going to turn out), and feelings of physiological activation (e.g., racing heart, “butterflies”, elevated breathing rate, muscle tension, increased urinary frequency).

Is Performance Anxiety All Bad?

Anxiety, in general, gets a pretty bad rap. There is no denying that it can feel very uncomfortable and distressing, as well as being very physically and emotionally draining. As such, it is tempting to view this unpleasant emotion as something to be “conquered” or driven away.  However, let’s consider that anxiety might exist in our emotional repertoires for a reason, especially in demanding performance situations – for instance, running faster than you thought possible from a potential danger. 

In fact, research shows that we can actually use this uncomfortable feeling to our advantage, control its intensity, and create a much less overwhelming experience, possibly allowing us to perform better. In sport psychology, the Yerkes-Dodson Law is used extensively to describe the relationship between anxiety and performance, particularly how too little and too much anxiety can impede performance (Landers & Arent, 2001; Yerkes & Dodson, 1908). As outlined below, finding the sweet spot of just enough anxiety is actually critical for performance success!

Here are the key points:

1. Not enough anxiety

When anxiety is very low, people tend to be relatively unmotivated or disinterested. In this state, performance is often below its potential because of a lack of focus or energy (the feeling of adrenaline we get when we’re nervous about a performance is actually our body’s way of preparing us for exertion!).If you have no anxiety at all about an upcoming competition, you would not likely be motivated to adequately train and prepare! Likewise, even if you train decently, if you are too relaxed on race day, you may skip helpful processes like visualization or proper nutrition/hydration.

Lazy young man with chips and drink watching TV on sofa at home

2. Too much anxiety

Beyond the optimal level of anxiety, performance starts to decline. Excessive anxiety or stress can lead to a state of “overload” where you become too agitated or overwhelmed to perform at your best. In this state, it is too difficult to focus on the task at hand and your body uses up excessive energy in a state of nervous agitation. For example, if your level of anticipatory anxiety is too high for a sporting event, it may be extremely difficult to focus on your preparation and pre-competition routine, such as engaging in visualization or being in the correct starting position. Also, during the event itself you may feel exhausted or so agitated that you cannot focus or remember the game plan or strategy you created. You may start too quickly or feel discomfort for the duration of the event.

Nervous frustrated young woman looking at computer screen

3. Optimal level of anxiety

This is the Goldilocks-style “sweet spot” where you are sufficiently stimulated, focused, and motivated to perform at your best and most likely to achieve a state of “flow”; it’s enough positive stress to generate energy while also allowing you to stick to your plan all the way to the finish. Everyone has an individual optimal level of anxiety which may differ depending on the task. It can be worthwhile to pay attention to how you tend to feel when you do have a successful performance (e.g., What do you feel in your body? What types of thoughts go through your head? What emotions do you notice?). Developing this awareness will allow you to recognize the skills you use effectively to reach your optimal level of anxiety before and during a performance.

Confident male athlete in a stadium

How can I be the one in control of my performance anxiety?

At this point you might be thinking, “that’s great that I don’t have to eliminate my performance anxiety to be successful, but how on earth do I create the optimal level of performance-related stress???”

To achieve this desired state, athletes at the highest levels of sport routinely use the following strategies:

1. Focus on the “controllables”

These are the aspects of performance that you, as an individual, have control over (e.g., your effort in training, the attitude you bring to a competition, eating a good meal before an event). On the other hand, “uncontrollables” are things that we don’t necessarily have control over but are very tempting to worry about, such as the skill level of the team you are facing in your next game, bad weather at a competition, getting sick, or the bad reputation of the referee at your tournament.
In the moments leading up to and during an important performance, it is most helpful and productive to focus on the tasks and preparation that are in your control and to do your best to let go of the circumstances and stressors that are outside of your immediate control (Beaumont et al., 2015). It can be helpful to make a list of all aspects that you are in control of and what you can do about them. For example, make a training schedule, have an accountability partner, plan your meals before, during and after the event, take the steps necessary to get sufficient sleep and hydration, etc. For the aspects you can’t control like weather or referees, consider those that you can like clothing choices or motivational videos/podcasts/quotes.

2. Engage with a “challenge” versus a “threat” mindset

Anxiety often stems from how we view a situation, or the nature of our mindset and self-talk when facing a challenge. We can view the demanding task or performance situation as a threat, where the primary goal is to avoid failure at all costs – this mindset usually corresponds with the emotion of fear and heightened anxiety. Alternatively, we can work on seeing the demanding task as a welcome challenge and focus on the potential opportunity for success – this mindset may still come with anxiety, but it will also be more likely to make you feel focused and determined, perhaps even excited. Challenging yourself to be open-minded to the possibility of a range of outcomes, not just the fear-based negative outcomes, can help reduce performance anxiety to an optimal level.

3. Stay in the NOW

Fear and negative anxiety thrive in the natural tendency to focus on past failures or worry about possible future mistakes. The stuck athlete who is overwhelmed by anxiety is often bouncing back and forth between the past and the future in their mind. Instead, focus on what is happening in the present moment and detach it from setbacks you may have faced in the past; every game or race can be a fresh opportunity for success.

Male cyclists staying focused

4. Breath control

This tool is especially useful as a relaxation technique for managing the physical symptoms of anxiety. When you get anxious before a sporting event and notice that your breathing becomes shallow and rapid, your heart rate increases rapidly, your limbs feel shaky, or those “butterflies” in the stomach start fluttering, try these 3 simple steps!

  • Find a quiet space, either literally or within yourself, where you can simply close your eyes for a moment and shut out your immediate surroundings by bringing your focus inward.
  • Notice and release any tension in your body by relaxing your muscles and letting your shoulders drop.
  • Inhale deeply through your nose for 2 counts and exhale through your mouth for at least 4 counts (the key is to make the exhale long and slow). While you’re breathing, focus on drawing the breath deep and low into your belly.

Repeat this pattern 3-5 times, or more if it takes longer for your body to relax.

Female athlete meditating outdoors

5. Use confidence-building imagery

  1. Imagery involves creating a detailed image or scenario in the mind’s eye of a specific skill, action, or entire performance, without physically executing it. To use this tool for building confidence and managing anxiety, you want to mentally rehearse yourself executing the demanding task well. Include as many details as possible to make the images realistic (e.g., imagine the details of the setting where you will perform, what you would hear, smell, and what your body would feel like). Repeatedly imagine yourself executing the task correctly and effectively, and picture yourself remaining calm under pressure (Weinberg, 2008).

Remember, performance anxiety doesn’t necessarily have to be a negative experience or get in the way of you achieving your goals and performance expectations! Using these skills and strategies can help you control the level of anxiety you experience before and during those demanding situations that you really care about so performance anxiety doesn’t have to dictate how things turn out.

Sport psychology, and learning about how athletes maintain resilience and perform under immense pressure can teach us useful strategies for the demands of day-to-day life. While this introduction to understanding and managing performance anxiety is helpful, it can be even more impactful to develop an individualized approach for your specific sport or activity. If you would like to learn more and explore additional helpful coping strategies for the demands and stresses of life, our team of professionals at The Mindful Living Centre can help. Contact us today for more information!

Male athlete talking to therapist about performance anxiety
Ms. Rachel Jewett

Ms. Rachel Jewett

Clinical Psychology Resident

Please note: this article is for informational purposes only, and is not intended as a substitute for therapy or advice from a qualified professional.