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Anxiety In Sports: What Causes Athletes To Develop Anxiety?

Anxiety In Sports: What Causes Athletes To Develop Anxiety?

Dec 23, 2021

Pressure and expectations run rampant throughout sports. The culture is embedded in the idea of competition. No matter the level, there are athletes who experience pressure to succeed, either placed on them by other people, themselves, or a combination of both. 

Now don’t get me wrong, I love sports, competition, and all the pressure that comes along with it. I have spent years working my way through high school, college, and now professional baseball. 

There is little that has provided me with such joy, while simultaneously being the trigger of incredible pain. Sports give us the opportunity to challenge ourselves, learning how to deal with both success and failure.

My experience in sports has taken me on an incredible journey. I’ve met so many wonderful people, traveled to incredible places, and grown personally to heights I never knew imaginable. 

But with all the positives that come along with participating in sports, there is also a dark side. An area that accompanies these joys and challenges, often lurking in the shadows until it’s become too large not to notice.

The dark side to sports I am referring to is anxiety, that troublesome state so many of us find ourselves in. Often left wondering, where did my anxiety come from and what caused it in the first place?

 

Anxiety In Sports

A lot of the time, anxiety is referred to in sports as performance anxiety. This term refers to the intense state of worry and nervousness athletes and performers find themselves in leading up to competition. 

No matter if you play baseball, soccer, football, basketball, are a musician, a dancer, or are in any other performance related field, you are susceptible to performance anxiety. 

The reason we use the term performance anxiety is because the anxious feelings you experience will largely be centered around your sport. Anxiety will accompany you before, during, and after a performance.

For myself, this was very true. I can remember lying in bed the night before a game, with my mind just racing uncontrollably. There was no hope in the moment of controlling the thoughts filling my head. 

Every worrisome idea that popped into my mind spurred further feelings of anxiety. What would ensue was a vicious cycle of anxious thinking and feeling that didn’t let up until days after the performance. 

Have you ever found yourself in a similar situation?

An interesting aspect of performance anxiety that I believe is important to mention has to do with a popular misconception. You see, dealing with performance anxiety does not mean an individual only grows anxious about their sport.

Anxiety, if allowed to thrive long enough, becomes their natural state. I had this happen to me, so I know first hand how true this is. We begin to train our minds to think anxiously and the results spill over into all areas of our lives.

While it may originate within your sport, as will be discussed later in the article, anxiety begins to impact your whole life. Which is why identifying the initial cause and working through it is so vital.

 

Symptoms Of Anxiety In Sports

The symptoms of anxiety reveal themselves in two forms. There are the physical symptoms you experience, and then the behavioral responses they drive. 

Now, the physical symptoms of anxiety I’m sure are more than apparent to you. If you have ever dealt with even the slightest bit of anxiety, you understand the terrible physical reaction your body has. 

When finding yourself in the midst of anxiety, there are many responses your body may have, including:

Physical Symptoms Of Anxiety

  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Dry mouth
  • Trembling hands and knees
  • Shaky voice
  • Sweating
  • Dizziness
  • Blurred vision
  • Light-headedness
  • Feeling of coldness 

Do any of these ring a bell? 

Whenever I feel really anxious, my body’s typical response is trembling (mostly shaky hands), dry mouth, and feeling cold. I do tend to develop a rapid heartbeat as well. Sometimes it seems my heart is trying to join a band with how hard it’s drumming. 

Let’s say you’re about to start a game and you experience some of these symptoms. Do you think you will be in the most optimal state to perform your best? No, in fact, anxiety is a one way ticket to unfulfilled potential (more on this later).

Experience these physical symptoms enough, and your mind will begin searching for a way out. Enter the behavioral responses that accompany anxiety:

Behavioral Responses To Anxiety

  • Avoidance
  • Flight, meaning escaping the anxiety-producing situation.
  • Engaging in alcohol or drug use to cope with anxiety.
  • Quitting the activity that causes anxiety.
  • Losing all ambition due to fear of performance anxiety.

Most of the time, especially with avoidance, the behavioral response will be subconscious. A major behavior I tend to adopt is self-sabotage. Sabotaging ourselves is a surefire way to avoid an anxious situation

Plus, by taking part in self-sabotage, we don’t have to outright quit our sport, which is typically even harder for us to do. But self-sabotage does not result in pleasant feelings, and definitely curbs any hope you have of attaining success. 

That is one of the most frustrating aspects of anxiety. We grow anxious due to hopes of success, yet the physical symptoms and behavioral responses do everything to keep such success out of our reach. 

 

"Most of the time, especially with avoidance, the behavioral response will be subconscious. A major behavior I tend to adopt is self-sabotage. Sabotaging ourselves is a surefire way to avoid an anxious situation."  

 

Negative Impact Of Anxiety In Sports

The physical symptoms outlined above take a heavy toll on your ability to achieve peak performance. Well, actually, forget about peak performance for a moment. These symptoms will keep you from even performing okay. 

I’ve had times where I grew so anxious I performed in a way that was completely mind blowing to me. The performance was so below my standard, I wasn’t thinking about reaching my potential after that, I simply wanted to play decently. 

I used to have a coach that would say, “A relaxed hitter is a dangerous hitter.” 

This saying pertains to every athlete or performer, no matter their sport. Being relaxed promotes confidence and places you in an optimal state to perform. What anxiety does is eliminate almost all possibility of getting yourself into such a relaxed frame of mind. 

Not only does anxiety keep us from performing freely and naturally, but the way we seek to rid ourselves of these feelings also wreaks havoc on our performances. 

 

"I’ve had times where I grew so anxious I performed in a way that was completely mind blowing to me. The performance was so below my standard, I wasn’t thinking about reaching my potential after that, I simply wanted to play decently."

 

Self-Sabotage To The Rescue

Our minds desire peace and harmony, though the way that’s obtained can oftentimes seem confusing. Take the number one behavioral response to anxiety for example. 

When we find ourselves chalked full of anxiety, our minds will work to free ourselves from situations that cause such feelings. Enter avoidance, since avoiding an anxious situation is the quickest and easiest way to rid yourself of anxious thoughts.

However, as an athlete, you are unlikely to quit your sport, which is a major factor in the development of your anxiety. So, what does your mind do? It begins to adopt self-sabotaging behavior. 

The more you sabotage yourself and your performance, the greater chances you have of avoiding anxious situations. Your mind (however irritating and wrong it may be) believes that through self-sabotage anxious environments can be avoided. 

While this may turn out to be true, another situation is also avoided, the one you’re actually anxious about. There will be no hope of you finding yourself in a situation where you’re successful if you continually sabotage your performances. 

That proves to be a major negative impact anxiety has on your level of play. The more anxiety you feel, the more your mind seeks ways to be free of these thoughts and feelings. If allowed, your mind will turn to the quickest way possible.

Sadly, this turns out to be self-sabotage. Usually leaving you still in the midst of anxiety, but now even more frustrated at the fact your performances have grown even worse!

 

"The more you sabotage yourself and your performance, the greater chances you have of avoiding anxious situations. Your mind (however irritating and wrong it may be) believes that through self-sabotage anxious environments can be avoided."

 

Number One Cause Of Anxiety In Sports

Experience anxiety for even one game and you understand the negative impact it has on your performance. It generates a tense state, where a relaxed and confident performance becomes impossible, 

Outside of the immediate impact, over the long haul, anxiety leads to self-sabotaging behavior. As your mind searches for a reprieve from the terrible grasp of anxiety, avoidance becomes the best option, which seems to be easily accomplished through sabotaging your own performance. 

But the question remains, where does anxiety come from in the first place?

I found myself asking this question over and over when I was younger. It’s one I find myself repeating even to this day whenever I feel the incessant worrying of anxiety grow within my mind. 

However, when I was younger, I approached the question through helpless eyes. If the voice within my head could have been heard, it would have sounded very whiny. Feeling sorry for myself and confused as to why these thoughts were appearing in my life. 

Though, I now take a different approach, the one I hope you adopt as well. Asking the question of where my anxiety comes from is now performed through the eyes of a practitioner. Seeking to locate the cause, in order to take steps towards change. 

What I’ve come to realize is no matter what specific thought pattern I land on, or situation that is provoking my anxiety, one constant is always present. There is a constant that I truly believe is the number one leading factor of anxiety in sports…outcome-oriented thinking.

 

How Outcome Oriented Thinking Fuels Anxiety 

If you had to guess, what do you think I mean by outcome-oriented thinking?

What I’m referring to is the habit many of us have (especially in athletics) to focus completely on the outcome. In sports, this is going to be the outcome of a season, a game, or even a specific moment within the game. 

As a baseball player, my mind was often full of outcome oriented thoughts. These would center around the outcome of a specific at bat, but especially what my stats would look like at the end of the season. 

If I got out, or made a few errors in the field, immediately my head shot into the future, analyzing and calculating what my statistics would look like. 

There’s a word I just used that truly highlights the problem with outcome oriented thinking, do you know what it is? 

The word is future. Anxiety, by definition, lives in the future. It is characterized by extreme worry about what may happen. When you’re in the middle of a performance, having your mind venture into the future is deadly. 

Accompanying this transition of focus is anxiety, leading to the devastatingly negative effects described earlier. 

It’s difficult for athletes to free themselves from outcome oriented thinking. We often believe thinking in such a way is helpful, since we are placing our focus on what we wish to happen. 

That would be good if it was truly the case. However, seldom is outcome oriented thinking centered around positive outcomes. For the majority of the time, worrying about the outcome is fueled by focusing on what you don’t want to have happen

Out of this type of thinking, anxiety is born. Fueled by the worries you have regarding the future, it grows into full blown performance anxiety. This leads to worse levels of performance, resulting in even further concerns about the future. 

As you can see, outcome oriented thinking places you in the midst of a vicious cycle. One that has the power to eat away at your confidence, and strip the last bit of joy from the sport you once loved. 

 

"Out of this type of thinking, anxiety is born. Fueled by the worries you have regarding the future, it grows into full blown performance anxiety. This leads to worse levels of performance, resulting in even further concerns about the future."

 

Final Thoughts

Anxiety in sports is no laughing matter. Experiencing extreme worry on a constant basis leads to weakened performances. That’s why understanding why anxiety forms in the first place is a crucial piece of information. 

As discussed in the article, anxiety is fueled by outcome oriented thinking. The more your mind drifts into the future, becoming concerned over what may happen, the stronger anxiety grows. 

Knowing that having your mind drift into the future is a direct cause of anxiety, what can be done to stop this from happening?

The best way is to develop a strong mindset, centered in the present moment. Building the skills of mindfulness, and gaining a process focused mindset will be incredibly valuable to you. 

If you are interested in learning more about how you can build such a mindset, click here to learn how mental performance coaching can help you achieve such a result. 

I hope you enjoyed this article, and if you did, please feel free to share it with your friends.

Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all that you do.

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