How Anxiety Impacts Your Performance

Nerves are good

Sports performance anxiety can be a terrible thing to deal with as an athlete. Which is why it’s important to work on overcoming your performance anxiety.

But before you begin taking the steps to do so, it’s helpful to understand just how hurtful anxiety can be to you as an athlete.

Now, being nervous before a game can often help you by increasing your focus and providing you with a boost of energy and motivation.

However…what happens when these nerves cross the line from being helpful to hurtful? That’s where we see sports anxiety form.

Just as nerves can be used to help you, anxiety will inevitably hold you back from reaching peak performance.

Just how much does anxiety really hurt you as an athlete? That is what we will uncover by the end of this article.

Nerves vs Anxiety

How many times have you heard the phrase, “It’s good to be nervous?” I used to get so irritated when I was told this. How could being nervous, that gut-wrenching feeling which makes me want to run away, help in any way with my performance?

The truth is, nerves are good, but anxiety is not. Confusing anxiety with nerves is where a lot of frustration is born within sports.

For this reason, I want to start off by addressing the differences between nerves and sports performance anxiety. If we fail to separate the two, we run the risk of worsening our anxiety.

The border between performance anxiety and nervousness is quite thin, with one easily transforming into the other.


First, let’s look at what it means to be nervous. Feeling nervous before a game is due to the body’s response to the performance. What happens is our brains produce stress hormones, such as adrenaline, to help us perform in an optimal way.

I would describe this feeling as being “amped up” before a competition. The nerves fuel the excitement you have and help to increase motivation and focus.

There is nothing wrong with feeling nervous. In fact, I would say having a bout of nerves shows the event or performance matters to you. It’s a good indication of the passion and meaning behind your performance.

We just have to be careful not to give the nerves too much attention. Otherwise, we run the risk of them becoming that which we all fear…anxiety.

Performance Anxiety

Sports performance anxiety involves extreme worries surrounding your performance. It occurs when there is a deep fear regarding your game. Simply put, you become afraid of making a mistake.

When you have performance anxiety the nerves felt are much more intense. This is due to the fear that is driving the anxiety. You are afraid of failing and that puts your mind in a constant state of worry.

A great way to distinguish between anxiety and nerves is the frequency of the feelings.

When you become nervous, it is likely to occur the day of an event, or maybe the night before. However, with performance anxiety, these feelings are continuous, only to intensify as the game grows near.

When you find yourself consumed with the fear and dread that accompanies performance anxiety, you realize that this is not the type of nerves people are thinking of when they claim being nervous improves your performance.

Quite the opposite. Anxiety in sports is only going to hold you back.

Factors of Performance Anxiety

Now let’s take a look at the factors which make up performance anxiety. Here we will examine the process that occurs to create performance anxiety in you as an athlete.

I am going to break it down into a three-step process. Though, once the initial anxiety is felt, it becomes a continuous loop. For the sake of simplicity, it’s best to see each factor and how they play into the whole experience of being anxious.

Factor #1: Cognition

The first factor of anxiety is cognition. Cognition refers to the mental process of gaining knowledge or comprehending what is going on around you. In terms of performance anxiety, this is going to be a mental response to the stimulus that is driving our anxiety.

So, your sport.

All feelings must be preceded by a thought. While you may not be aware of the thought (i.e., subconscious thoughts), they are taking place in reaction to your external surroundings.

To help make the process of cognition easier, I want to paint a scenario for you.

Let’s say you have a game coming up this Saturday. The game is going to be the stimulus for which you will have a cognitive response. Now, in terms of your cognition, there are multiple thoughts that you can experience.

Here are a few typical cognitive responses you can display:

  • Worrying about not being perfect.
  • Fear of making a mistake.
  • Fear of embarrassment.
  • Worrying about losing your starting spot.
  • Worrying about losing the game.
  • Fear of getting benched.

You may deal with one, two, or all of these. Or maybe there are other concerns you experience when facing an upcoming game or performance. Whatever your cognitive response may be, it will be the first factor comprising performance anxiety.

Factor #2: Autonomic Arousal

The second factor is the autonomic arousal. Here you will experience your body’s response to the cognition. The autonomic nervous system is responsible for a lot of bodily processes, such as heart rate, respiration, and digestion.

This makes sense when we look at the different symptoms that are experienced when in an anxious state. Your heart rate will quicken, maybe you become short of breath, and your stomach becomes upset.

It makes it easier for me to think of this as our bodies saying, “Whoa, something is not right here.” We have perceived a threatening situation, such as a game or performance, and now our bodies are signifying to us we need to find a way out.

Factor #3: Behavioral Response

Now it’s time to find our way out of the threatening situation.

Up to this point, you’ve had worrisome thoughts fill your mind, this has triggered your autonomic nervous system, and now you have a decision to make. Do you face the threatening situation, or do you find a way to avoid it altogether?

The behavioral response is going to be the actions you exhibit following the two previous factors. Due to the desire we all have to feel safe and remain in a harmonious state, a natural response is avoidance.

The way this avoidance is accomplished is often one of the main culprits of a bad performance (think of self-sabotaging). Couple that with distracted thoughts along with physical symptoms and you begin to see how anxiety negatively impacts your performances.

Negative Impact of Anxiety

As an athlete or performer, your aim is to attain peak performance. When you struggle with anxiety, reaching such a level of play is incredibly difficult. The focus and relaxation required for optimal performance are hindered by the constant worries.

When taking a closer look at just how impactful anxiety is on your performance, factors two and three from above really come into play.

The cognition discussed in the first factor does impact performance, but mainly through the following two factors. That is why it’s best to focus on them.

Mainly the behavioral response contributes to poor performances, though the physical symptoms felt due to autonomic arousal affect your performance as well. So, I want to go into a little more detail as to how the physical symptoms of anxiety and the behavioral response it causes negatively affect your performances.

How the Physical Symptoms Lower Your Performance

After experiencing the cognition due to a perceived threatening event, our bodies will respond with physical symptoms. This occurs leading up to the competition but holds especially true in the midst of your performance.

From my personal experience and through coaching athletes, the main way these physical symptoms impact performance is the distraction they cause.

Now picture being up to bat or taking a shot and having your entire body tremble and becoming a little dizzy. The dizziness then causes your vision to blur. All of a sudden, the chances of succeeding significantly drop.

Not only are the physical skills held back by the experiences, but the mind is completely distracted. Instead of focusing on your execution, your mind will be locked onto these symptoms and how you can get rid of them.

What can happen now is you become anxious of getting anxious. As soon as you start to feel the physical symptoms, you may increase your own anxiety because you know how hurtful they can be.

How the Behavioral Response Lowers Your Performance

With the physical symptoms of performance anxiety, the impact is seen in the moment. The physical symptoms occur and that is what causes a drop in performance.

The act of competing becomes more difficult when dealing with these autonomic changes.

With the behavioral response, the impact occurs later and creates a psychological change.

When your nerves cross over into anxiety, the feelings that you associate with a game or practice are all negative. Your mind is consumed with worries leading up to the performance, during the performance, and after the performance.

This level of anxiety allows for no reprieve from the continual negative thoughts flooding your mind. So, the natural response is avoidance. You make seek to avoid the situation that causes such pain.

The number one behavioral response is avoidance. The question now is, how will you display and act out an avoidance pattern. Being someone who dealt with performance anxiety and sought to avoid the pain, I know how frustrating this is.

Because here’s the truth, just because we want to avoid the anxiety-inducing situation does not mean we want to quit our sport or whatever it is we do. This is where you see the true impact take form as self-sabotage.

Self-sabotage is basically when you take part in an activity to undermine your own success. In an avoidance pattern, this becomes the best way to indirectly avoid anxiety.

And in terms of anxiety impacting your performance, it becomes clear how damaging it is once you adopt self-sabotaging behavior.

There are multiple ways self-sabotaging can occur. Here are a few of the most common forms and how they affect your performance.


As a perfectionist, you will never be satisfied with your performance. When you experience anxiety, it can become normal to overanalyze and second guess yourself. You are so focused on not messing up, that you ironically always find something you did wrong.

Now, this impacts your performance by driving down your confidence by only seeing yourself for your mistakes. This form of self-sabotage takes a toll on your psyche, leaving you unable to achieve success.

You’ve created an unattainable ideal of perfection, one you will never see yourself attain. In doing so, you further lower your performances due to distractions and unneeded pressure.

Negative Self-Talk

When you are dealing with anxiety in sports, it’s easy to adopt negative self-talk. This involves speaking to yourself and thinking in a negative way.

This is a form of self-sabotaging behavior because it limits your ability to compete at a high level.

When you display negative self-talk, your confidence will lower and you will have less motivation to perform as you move forward.

Poor Performances

It goes without saying that poor performances are part of life. But, when you’re caught in an avoidance pattern, performing poorly becomes a way out.

If you subconsciously wish to avoid a game, since it causes you so much anxiety, a safe alternative would be getting benched.

This way, you do not have to quit your sport, but still get the reprieve from the anxiety-producing situation. The worse you perform, the more likely it is you’ll be benched.

By seeking to avoid the anxiety, you partake in all sorts of self-sabotaging behavior. These three, combined with any other ones you may exhibit, seek to undermine your performances. While they can do a good job of helping avoid anxiety, your performances take a drastic hit as a result.

Final Thoughts

While nerves may increase your performance, when they turn into sports performance anxiety, the opposite holds true. It will do nothing but hold you back!

The constant worries that accompany anxiety in sports are detrimental to any athlete. Your game will be impacted by this anxiety due to physical symptoms, along with the behavioral response you will have to the anxiety producing situation.

Now, if you are currently experiencing performance anxiety, you need to begin working on overcoming it.

There are two ways you can do so. You can choose to do so on your own. In that case, I recommend reading this article I wrote on four techniques you can use to overcome sports performance anxiety.

The other option is working with a mental performance coach. I will work one-on-one with you to identify the cause of your anxiety and then use sports psychology tools to work through your anxiety and build more positive mental skills.

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

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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