What is Sports Performance Anxiety

What is Sports Performance Anxiety

Have you ever begun a game and felt like you couldn't stop worrying about what was going to happen? Have you ever felt like your thoughts were racing out of control, or your hands and legs wouldn't stop shaking during a game?

If so, then you've likely dealt with sports performance anxiety — one of the most common mental blocks athletes deal with.

As a mental performance coach, I work with a lot of athletes who deal with anxiety before a game and during a game (sometimes it's even felt during practice).

And so, in this article, I'm going to discuss what sports performance anxiety is, and then show you a way you can work on overcoming it if it's something you're currently struggling with.

Sports Performance Anxiety Defined

Performance anxiety in sports involves extreme worries about what may or may not happen.

Typically, performance anxiety will be focused on what you don't want to have happen — making mistakes. This is why the fear of failure and anxiety go hand in hand.

When you grow anxious, you are worried about making a mistake or not playing well. This happens because of what you think will result from the mistake or poor performance, such as a drop in stats or getting yelled at by your coach.

The more anxious you become, the more you are going to worry about the future and then what will follow is fear. You will likely grow afraid of making a mistake, causing you to play timidly.

When you experience sports anxiety as an athlete, you will recognize it mainly by the way that you feel. These are the main physical symptoms of performance anxiety, which include:

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

However, while the physical symptoms are what you may notice the most, what's actually the underlying problem are your thoughts. It is your thoughts that are driving the anxiety you are feeling.

To better understand sports performance anxiety, it can help to break it down into three different factors: cognition, autonomic arousal, and behavioral response.


The first element of sports performance anxiety is cognition.

This involves your thoughts. And what's really frustrating is that these are typically subconscious thoughts and you may not recognize them in the moment. But they're there.

Cognition is your mental reaction to a situation or environment. So when we're discussing sports performance anxiety, this will include your mental reaction to the game.

If you have anxiety before each game, then it's the thoughts you have about the game in general that are leading to the anxious feelings. However, you may also have more specific anxiety, in which case the cognition will be centered around a specific situation.

Autonomic Arousal

Following cognition is the body's reaction to the thoughts. This is what you notice the most — that anxious feeling you've grown to hate.

Look over the list above of all the physical symptoms of sports performance anxiety. Those occur as a result of the cognitive response to the situation you're in.

Because these feelings are so intense, they will be followed by a behavioral response.

Behavioral Response

The number one behavioral response to sports performance anxiety is avoidance. Experiencing anxiety is a terrible feeling, and so your mind's natural reaction is going to be to avoid the situation causing your anxiety.

But what happens when what's causing your anxiety is your sport? What then? Does that mean the only option you have is to avoid playing?

Not, not at all! But your mind may think it is.

And so what will you do if your goal is to avoid the anxious situation, but you know you're not going to quit your sport? Well, this is where we see self-sabotage happen.

The athlete is worried about making a mistake and so they experience intense feelings of anxiety. But the more anxiety they feel, the more they want to avoid the situation, so they end up sabotaging themselves (performing poorly), which then ends up making their anxiety worse.

The Cause of Sports Performance Anxiety

Looking over the three factors that make up sports performance anxiety outlined above, what would you guess is the number one cause of the anxiety in the first place?

Well, it all has to do with the first factor, cognition.

The main cause of sports performance anxiety is your thinking. Specifically, thinking too much about the future. This is known as outcome-oriented thinking.

When you go into a game worried about what's going to happen, your mind is focused on the future. Instead of having your attention centered on what's going on in the moment, it has traveled onto what you don't want to have happen.

I was working with a basketball player who was dealing with a lot of sports performance anxiety. His was caused by the thoughts he had before going into the game about not wanting to embarrass himself.

Another example is from a softball player who focused on not wanting to get out. She worried about getting benched and what coach was going to think and how she couldn't get out again and needed to get a hit.

Both of these examples highlight the main cause of sports performance anxiety: worrying about the future.

The more you think about what you don't want to have happen, the more anxious you will become. Instead, you want to work on bringing your attention more into the present moment.

Overcoming Sports Performance Anxiety

Due to the negative impact anxiety has on your performance, you want to work on reducing the anxiety you experience.

The main way this is done is by bringing your attention more into the present moment and building the belief and trust you have in yourself and your skills.

Now, we can get much more detailed about different tools you can use and strategies that will help to reduce the anxiety you feel going into a game.

I've written an article that covers four techniques you can use to overcome sports performance anxiety, so I encourage you to give that a read if you're currently struggling with anxiety.

Another option is working one-on-one with me to manage your anxiety.

With mental performance coaching, I will work with you on identifying the main cause of your anxiety, and then put together a personalized plan that will work on getting you to focus more in the present moment, build your confidence, and overall reduce the anxiety you feel.

To learn more about mental coaching for sports performance anxiety, please fill out the form below.

No matter what path you choose, the bottom line is that if anxiety is currently holding you back as an athlete, you need to begin taking steps to do something about it! Because your sports performance anxiety will not go away on its own.

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

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