Five Reasons Athletes Develop Sports Performance Anxiety

Struggling with sports anxiety? Find out the top 5 reasons athletes develop sports performance anxiety

When an athlete is suffering from sports performance anxiety, their mind is consumed with worry. This can be a debilitating experience, often resulting in a complete lack of passion and motivation for the game they once loved.

There’s no doubt, every athlete has the desire to perform their best. However, when this is accompanied by anxiety surrounding what will happen if they don’t succeed, attaining the results they want becomes extremely difficult.

Sports performance anxiety is a major hindrance to peak performance. It will keep you from performing up to your potential through distracting thoughts.

To reclaim joy for your sport, and give yourself the best possible opportunity to achieve your goals, sports anxiety must be managed in a positive way. In order to do this, we must first look at the reason you have developed sports performance anxiety in the first place.

What is Sports Performance Anxiety

Differing from typical nervousness felt before a game, sports performance anxiety is characterized by an extreme state of worry. You aren’t simply feeling the nerves everyone experiences before a game.

The nervousness you feel is taken to a whole new level, venturing into the realm of anxiety. With sports anxiety, your mind is fixated on the outcome. It grows concerned about what may happen if you do not attain the result you desire.

Once this concern is felt, it becomes entrenched in your mind. Now, there are thoughts racing through your head every day leading up to competition, during a competition, and even after a competition.

The reason sports performance anxiety affects you after a game is due to its residual effects. If you perform well, you will grow anxious about whether or not you will be able to hold onto such levels of success.

If you perform poorly, you grow anxious as to when you will get a glimpse of success again. Sport performance anxiety is no joke and takes a serious toll on your level of play.

In order to perform at your peak, you must allow your talents to shine, performing freely and naturally. There needs to be high trust in your skills to allow such free-flowing performances. Yet, anxiety places a roadblock in your mind.

You are not free to play with ease and confidence, because all your mind can focus on are the worries associated with failing. When you are suffering from sports performance anxiety, the process can be categorized into three distinct parts:

  1. Cognition: the worries experienced in having to perform.
  • Worrying about not being perfect.
  • Fear of making a mistake.
  • Fear of embarrassment.
  • Fear of negative self-evaluation.
  1. Autonomic arousal: the physical symptoms that are felt in an anxious situation.
  2. Behavioral response: the actions that will follow the two previous factors.

A terrible aspect of performance anxiety is that it latches on to every area of your life. Any situation that can be deemed a performance will be accompanied by anxious thoughts and feelings.

Where do these feelings come from? Why is it that we experience performance anxiety in the first place? As an athlete, there are five areas that can be pointed to as being the main culprits for developing performance anxiety.

Causes of Sports Anxiety

There are many reasons why an athlete will develop anxiety surrounding their sport. It’s a very easy state to find yourself in, especially the more weight you place on yourself. The higher your ambition, the greater your chances of developing anxiety as an athlete.

Do you know why this is? It’s due to the amount of pressure you feel to succeed. When you tell yourself and others you have the goal and aspiration to reach a certain level or attain a specific stat line, you open yourself up to vulnerability.

This leads to many devastating ways of thinking, ultimately influencing the adoption of sports performance anxiety. The first question you must ask yourself when faced with anxiety in sports is, “What am I really afraid of?”

“When you tell yourself and others you have the goal and aspiration to reach a certain level or attain a specific stat line, you open yourself up to vulnerability.”

Fear of Failure

Anxiety in athletes is based on fear, that’s why you grow consumed with worry. Have you ever wondered what it is you’re so concerned about in the first place? With sports performance anxiety, it’s failing. You are afraid to fail.

The fear of failure directly results in you becoming an anxious athlete. Your mind has already drifted into the future, allowing fear of what may occur to fill your head. Now, you must do something to feel as if you have control over not failing.

As irrational as it may be, your mind’s natural response is anxiety. This is due to the fight or flight response ingrained in us. Fear signifies a threat, so the anxiety that spawns, as a result, is telling you to either flee or stand up and fight.

But, you’re simply performing a sport, not facing off with a predator. So, the response your body has no longer is there to protect you from danger, but is inhibiting you from performing your best.

It makes sense that our minds react to fear with anxiety, it’s the perfect signal for imminent danger. What’s often confusing is, why do we grow so fearful of a performance? It’s just a game after all.

Well, you know as well as I do, that’s a ridiculous statement. To anyone who places any amount of pressure on themselves to succeed, it’s much more than a game. It’s your future, your identity, the way you determine your own worth.

That’s why the fear of failure is present, you have begun to combine your own identity and self-worth with the success of your performance. When you do this, the consequences of failing include:

  • Feeling ashamed and embarrassed.
  • Developing negative self-talk.
  • Having your future plans negatively affected.
  • Losing the esteem of others.
  • Causing those you care about stress.

No longer is it just a game, there are serious consequences you perceive will happen if you fail. This drives fear, which leaves your mind no choice but to adopt sports anxiety as a defense mechanism.


When the need to be perfect enters your mind, sadly, such perfection will never be attained. This is the tragic fate of a perfectionist. Always seeking an ideal vision of perfection, yet, always falling short within your own mind.

Why on earth would any of us adopt this form of thinking, knowing that perfection is not actually possible? Well, because in our own heads, the twisted thoughts of perfectionism mixed with our individual arrogance make us think we are different.

I’ve struggled with perfectionism throughout my whole life and seen it in many of the athletes I work with. It can make beginning a new project difficult because you feel that everything needs to be aligned perfectly in order for you to get started.

Not to mention the toll it takes on your athletic performance. Perfectionism, while it may seem to fuel motivation and drive a strong work ethic, proves to be much more harmful than beneficial in the long run.

After a performance, a perfectionist will begin nit-picking every little detail of their performance that didn’t go exactly how they would have liked. For myself, immediately after a game, my thoughts would turn to everything I did wrong.

Even in training, I would finish by analyzing the work I put in that day. No, I wouldn’t think about how well I did, but rather, find what I did wrong. So much so, that my mom would harp on me to start off by saying what I did right.

This idea of first focusing on what you did right has been something I’ve worked to ingrain in the athletes I work with through mental performance coaching. They too seem to naturally look at all the things they did wrong following a practice or game.

Sadly, as you know if you are a perfectionist, it just doesn’t feel okay to focus on what went right. You are chasing perfection, so you have to identify what went wrong in order to fix it, so you can finally taste the perfection you’ve so longed for.

Over time, though, you will grow tired of constantly tearing yourself down. The toll it takes on your self-confidence results in you becoming fearful of not being perfect.

Enter fear of failure, which will always be present since perfection in your eyes will never be attained. Knowing what awaits you at the end of the game, you grow anxious leading up to your performance.

“When the need to be perfect enters your mind, sadly, such perfection will never be attained. This is the tragic fate of a perfectionist. Always seeking an ideal vision of perfection, yet, always falling short within your own mind.”

Negative Self-Talk

Here we discover both the cause and effect of many mental game challenges. The way you speak to yourself has a direct influence on the way that you feel. A negative voice in your mind will drive anxiety in sports and allow it to thrive within your life.

Let’s examine the two causes of sports performance anxiety we have previously outlined,  fear of failure and perfectionism, and see how negative self-talk is related.

Fear of failure is based on the growing fear you have of making a mistake. This fear drives thoughts of what may happen if you were to fail. Enter negative self-talk, constantly reminding you of just how awful it will be if you fall short of the success you desire.

As perfectionists, you and I both know, falling short of success is all too common. When you continually discover mistakes within yourself and your performance, how do you think your mind will respond?

The reaction will be a series of derogatory thoughts, aimed at reminding you just how imperfect you actually are. This goes to show how fear of failure and perfectionism drive negative self-talk.

Here is where we arrive at the statement I made at the onset of this section, that negative self-talk is both the cause and effect of many mental game challenges. Developing negative thinking leads to anxiety in sports, due to the immensely negative feelings associated with such thoughts.

You will grow anxious about your own thoughts, which results in further negative self-talk taking place. Now caught in a cycle, you can see how negative self-talk is both a cause of sports anxiety and subsequently, an effect of the anxiety it generates.

Low Confidence

High confidence equals trust, trust in yourself and in your abilities. I want you to think about this, if you were incredibly high in the belief that you possess the necessary skill and capabilities to succeed, would you grow anxious over the results of your performance?

Probably not, because high levels of confidence equate to low levels of anxiety in athletes. Knowing this to be true, the inverse must also hold true.

When faced with low self-confidence, doubt is a natural state for your mind to adopt. Now, what happens when you doubt your abilities? You become worried, concerned over whether or not your skills will be adequate enough to succeed that day.

As your confidence drops further, the worry you experience becomes stronger. Prolonged, the self-doubt regarding your skills transforms into anxiety leading up to a game.

Interestingly, the more sports performance anxiety you have, the worse your confidence will become. Self-confidence is such a fragile trait, one that thrives on experience. Witness yourself succeed, and your confidence soars, see yourself repeatedly fail, and your confidence plummets.

Anxiety in sports places self-confidence on the edge of destruction in two ways. One, it results in lower levels of performance, lowering the belief you have in your skills.

Second, athletes anxiety places the idea of failure in your mind. Since you are worried about making a mistake, that becomes all your mind can see. As you visualize failure or the possibility of such, your self-confidence will be negatively affected.

So once again, much like negative self-talk, we find low confidence to be both a cause and recurring effect of sports performance anxiety.

Lack of Preparation

The previous four factors have involved mental game challenges and negative ways of thinking that lead to anxiety in sports. For our last reason, I want to switch gears a bit to an aspect that is more directly within your control.

First, I want to preface this section by saying sports anxiety by no means signifies a lack of talent. I have witnessed athletes with ample amounts of skill and talent suffer greatly from anxiety.

It’s not a lack of talent that is to blame for the anxiety you are facing in your sport, but there should be a question in your mind of whether or not it has to do with a lack of preparation. Now, what do I mean by this?

There are two facets to preparation that you must pay attention to regarding sports performance anxiety. The first one is obvious, being the physical preparation you do leading up to a competition.

How much time have you honestly put into training? Being someone who felt they were a hard worker, yet still dealt with incredible amounts of anxiety, I understand how irritating this question may be.

However, it’s a brutal truth worth facing. Could you be putting more time into making your skills second nature? Is there a way you can train yourself in a way that resembles more of a performance?

It’s always a good idea to examine whether or not your training has grown stagnant. Be sure you are still pushing yourself each time you train. That way, when performance time comes, you have done all you can from a physical standpoint to get yourself prepared.

The second area is one quite often neglected but is honestly more important in terms of anxiety as an athlete than physical preparation. I am referring to mentally preparing yourself for the game.

If you know that you have the tendency to feel anxious leading up to a game, and you’ve been experiencing anxiety in your sport for a while now, why would you not be doing all you can to strengthen your mind against this challenge?

Failing to put in the necessary time to train your mind will result in an open susceptibility to anxiety. You are doing nothing to develop the mental skills necessary to remove sports anxiety from your life, so why would you expect it to magically disappear?

Without adequate preparation from a mental standpoint, performance anxiety will have no reason to leave you alone and allow you to perform freely and naturally. You will remain stuck in the vicious grasp of anxious thinking.

“Failing to put in the necessary time to train your mind will result in an open susceptibility to anxiety. You are doing nothing to develop the mental skills necessary to remove anxiety from your life, so why would you expect it to magically disappear?”

Final Thoughts

Sports performance anxiety is categorized by an extreme state of worry. You grow incredibly concerned over what may happen if you are to fail, that your mind is consumed by distracting thoughts.

This pulls all your focus away from the moment, leading to lower levels of performance.

But why do athletes adopt such a terrible way of thinking, knowing the negative effects it has on their performance? I doubt any of us would choose such a state willingly, but as a result of other factors, it can easily become fixed within your mind.

Fear of failure, perfectionism, negative self-talk, low confidence, and a lack of preparation all contribute to the development of anxiety in sports.

If you are struggling with anxiety as an athlete, work needs to be done to build your mind to help you deal with anxiety in sports.

If you are interested in learning how to deal with anxiety in sports, see how mental performance coaching can teach you the mental skills that will place you in the best position to counter the negative effects of sport performance anxiety.

I hope you found this article helpful, 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.

Contact Success Starts Within Today

Please contact us to learn more about mental coaching and to see how it can improve your mental game and increase your performance. Complete the form below, call (252)-371-1602 or schedule an introductory coaching call here.

Eli Straw

Eli is a sport psychology consultant and mental game coach who works 1-1 with athletes to help them improve their mental skills and overcome any mental barriers keeping them from performing their best. He has an M.S. in psychology and his mission is to help athletes and performers reach their goals through the use of sport psychology & mental training.

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