Manage Social Anxiety in Sports

With social anxiety, social interactions cause feelings of anxiety, fear, self-consciousness, and embarrassment. And sports are all about social interactions.

Making it tough for athletes with social anxiety to thrive and enjoy themselves.

Tough, but not impossible.

By learning how to manage your social anxiety using sport psychology tools and techniques, you reclaim the love for the game and compete the way you know you’re capable of.

In this article, you’ll learn why social anxiety can be so hurtful to you as an athlete, and three tips you can apply to manage the social anxiety you experience within sports.

How Social Anxiety Holds Athletes Back

At the root of social anxiety is the fear of being judged.

This fear of judgment causes hyper self-consciousness. Where you’re almost watching yourself go through the motions during games instead of being in the moment.

It can feel like you’re on the outside looking in and there’s a barrier between you and the situation you’re in.

The barrier is the fear of being judged.

Talking about social anxiety in sports is something that hits home for me. Not just because I work with athletes who are struggling with social anxiety, but also because I have dealt with social anxiety my entire life.

And that feeling of being on the outside looking in and being hyper self-conscious while playing…that was an exact description of how I used to feel.

Social anxiety thrives on social interactions. If you’re alone, there’s nothing to be anxious about. But when there are people around or people watching, now all of a sudden there’s something to fear.

It’s because of that fear that we see the main way social anxiety holds athletes back.

The Fear of Embarrassment

Nobody wants to embarrass themselves…at least no one I’ve talked to. Especially not during a game.

Because to embarrass yourself during a game means you made a mistake or you performed poorly.

But are people really judging you to the point where you should feel embarrassed?

To be honest, we can never really know.

It wouldn’t matter even if we could. Embarrassment isn’t about other people. It’s all about the way we are thinking about ourselves and how we are thinking other people are judging us.

With social anxiety in sports, it’s not even the act that you feel embarrassed about that’s the most challenging part. It’s the fear of the embarrassment itself.

When you experience that fear, it alters the way you play. Because to avoid embarrassment, you need to avoid mistakes. And wanting to avoid mistakes causes you to play tight and timidly.

That’s the major reason social anxiety holds athletes back: your fear and self-consciousness causes you to play tight and timidly.

When you play tight and timidly, you hold yourself back. Instead of letting yourself perform freely, it’s as though you have your foot on the brake and you’re hesitating to go all out.

But why is this timidness and tightness there? Why are they the natural response to fear?

Well, there are a couple reasons.

One reason is because of the goal to avoid mistakes. Since mistakes are a leading way for us to embarrass ourselves while playing, if we don’t want to embarrass ourselves we need to not make any mistakes.

So now we’re playing to avoid mistakes instead of playing to win.

The other reason timidness is present is because of that feeling of being outside of ourselves due to the hyper self-consciousness we’re experiencing.

I can remember being so worried about how I looked and what I would do my next at bat, that while on the on-deck circle I couldn’t focus on the pitcher.

Then, as I stepped up to the plate, my mind was racing with all sorts of worries and concerns about myself and about the at bat.

This type of self-consciousness leads to hesitation and makes us extremely insecure in the moment.

Insecurity and peak performance don’t match.

The more insecure I was, the more timid I played.

All due to the fear of embarrassment that was at the root of my, and many athlete’s, social anxiety.

Struggling to Connect With Teammates 

Social interactions in sports go beyond the game itself. Yes, the game is a large interaction where you are performing in front of others and this can trigger a strong feeling of fear and worry.

But there are also many small social interactions you experience as an athlete. With one of the main ones being the interactions you have with your teammates.

As an athlete with social anxiety, it can be difficult to connect with your teammates, especially when you’re in a group setting.

Something I’ve noticed a lot in athletes with social anxiety, as well as with myself, is that they often have strong connections with a few people.

These will be the teammates or friends you feel close to and are comfortable opening up around.

But talking in a group setting or speaking up in front of the team can be difficult.

Experiencing this disconnect adds to the feeling of being on the outside looking in that is so common among athletes with social anxiety.

Strategy to Manage Social Anxiety in Sports

Now let’s get to the good stuff. What you can do to finally manage your social anxiety!

It’s important for me to begin by stating that nothing I am about to explain is a quick fix. None of it is magic and none of it works unless you do.

You must put in the work and the effort to manage your social anxiety.

I wish I could give you a magic pill…I really do!

That’s just not the reality of it. Managing any form of anxiety, and especially social anxiety, takes time and it takes effort.

What I can state with confidence is that I have seen the tips outlined below have a positive impact on managing social anxiety in athletes I’ve worked with as well as my own social anxiety.

So if you’re ready and willing to put in the necessary effort, let’s get to it!

Tip #1: Be Present

Anxiety is linked to attention.

It’s not always easy to be aware of where our attention is at the moment, especially during competition, but if you’re feeling anxious your attention is on that which is driving further feelings of anxiety.

Social anxiety is both caused by and a cause of the fear of being judged.

Fear of judgment is at the root of social anxiety.

Now, if you fear judgment, where is your attention?

On the judgment, how you will feel if you get judged, what can cause you to be judged (making a mistake)…pretty much on anything and everything that has to do with being judged.

And being judged will take place in the future.

So we know that your attention, when anxious, is not fully and completely in the present moment.

Truth be told, our attention is rarely completely in the present moment. But when we know how much social anxiety causes us to worry about the future and think about what we don’t want to have happen and how much we don’t want to be judged, we see the importance and necessity of working to bring our attention back into the present moment.

The more present you are, the less you worry. The less you worry, the less anxious you feel.

Knowing how important it is to be present, but also how tough it is to be present, we want to use tools to help guide our attention into the present moment.

There are two tools you can use: breathing and objectives.

Using Your Breath to Help With Social Anxiety

There’s no coincidence that many forms of meditation focus on breathing.

Breathing helps you relax, physically and mentally. But breathing, or focusing on your breathing I should say, also centers your attention in the present moment.

And being completely present is the aim of meditation. Your mind calms, racing thoughts settle, and your attention is free to just be in the moment that is.

We can use this same core principle of having breath center your attention when wanting to manage social anxiety.

The more present you are with your attention, the less you worry about the judgment of others. And so the less anxious you feel.

There are two ways I recommend using your breath to manage social anxiety.

One is starting a mindfulness meditation practice. This is a fantastic exercise to begin using and one I have all the athletes I work with in mental performance coaching do.

Here’s an article that goes into detail on how you can begin your own mindfulness meditation practice as an athlete.

The second way is to use count breathing during practices and games.

Count breathing is a way to leverage your breath to manage social anxiety in the moment when it’s taking over.

What you do is breathe in for a certain count and breathe out for a certain count.

This is similar to box breathing. However, I am not a big fan of breath retention when you’re anxious, as I find that it makes the tension even worse.

What we’re after is nice rhythmic breathing that settles your mind and calms your nerves.

Here are a few different counts to choose from:

  • In for 5, out for 5.
  • In for 5, out for 10.
  • In for 4, out for 4.
  • In for 4, out for 8.

Setting Objectives to Settle Social Anxiety

In addition to focusing on your breath, you also want a way to simplify your thinking.

Being present involves being present with your attention. And your attention is directly linked to your thinking. Whatever you are thinking about at the moment determines where your attention is.

For example, if you’re thinking about your friends in the stands and what they will think of how you play, your attention is on them and more specifically, on the future…how they will think you played.

Instead of thinking about your friends in the stands, you need to be fully focused on the game and what you need to be doing to play your best.

After all, playing your best is how you get them to think highly of you. And to play your best, your attention needs to be on what you’re doing at the moment.

That is where objectives come in handy.

Objectives are cues or targets that are part of the process of your game and 100% within your control.

A good objective answers the question, “What do I need to focus on that will give me the best chance of performing well today?”

Answer that question and you have your objective.

Now all you need to do is focus on that objective and let yourself play!

Tip #2: Get Confidence From Within

Why do you want other people to think you’re a good player? Why do you want them to not think badly of you?

Is it because if they think highly of you, you feel good about your game? And if they think you’re not a good player this takes a huge hit on your confidence?

This is one of the main reasons I’ve seen athletes struggle with worrying about what other people think.

They look to others for their confidence.

That is a very dangerous habit.

It leaves you vulnerable to the emotions and opinions of others. It causes you to create stories in your mind and imagine what they might be thinking of you…even if that’s not what they actually think.

This is an easy habit to adopt and it’s one I am all too familiar with personally.

Since I am so familiar with it, I know how much it fuels social anxiety.

When you rely on other people for your confidence, it only makes sense to worry about what they think.

And it makes even more sense to not want to embarrass yourself. Since embarrassing yourself by playing badly will only cause them to think less of you and your confidence to drop.

But as we covered above, playing to not embarrass yourself does nothing but hold you back.

And to let go of this fear, you have to work on getting confidence from within yourself.

There are two steps you can take to begin doing so: pay attention to your thoughts and evaluate your game for yourself.

Pay Attention to Your Thoughts

The thought-feeling cycle explains how your thinking drives feelings, and those feelings fuel similar types of thoughts.

When this cycle is negative (focused on fear or embarrassment, for example), it holds you back.

But when the cycle is positive, it is incredible to experience and has a positive impact on your game.

It’s tough to play well with negative thoughts. Such thoughts lead to fear, doubt, frustration, and embarrassment. These are the thoughts that are at the core of social anxiety.

They force you to look outside of yourself for validation and approval, since the words you’re hearing inside your head are not giving you any such approval.

This leaves you vulnerable to the opinions of others and only worsens social anxiety.

If the thoughts are positive, confident, and helpful, it’s a completely different story.

A story you want to live in as an athlete.

So pay attention to the types of thoughts you have. Speak to yourself in a positive way and think thoughts that feed your confidence instead of tear down your confidence.

Evaluate Your Game for Yourself

If we’re so afraid of what others will think of us, doesn’t it make sense to say we are allowing other people to evaluate our game?

Now of course, other people will naturally evaluate your game. Whether it’s your coach, another team, a family member, people in the crowd…they will all likely look at stats and have an opinion about how you did.

But none of their opinions should matter more than your own. You need to know what it means for you to play well, and you need to have a way to evaluate your game for yourself.

Otherwise your worries only get worse.

So how do you take the attention off other people and how they thought you played?

It begins by using a post game evaluation process.

After every game, go through and think about what you did well and what you can learn from the game.

I recommend you even do this for practice.

By going through a simple exercise where you think for yourself about what you did well and what you can learn (or work on), you train yourself to look for approval within yourself instead of outside of yourself.

Staying consistent with an evaluation process like this ensures you are spending time each day thinking about what you did well, feeding your confidence and allowing it to grow.

But you’re also examining mistakes and thinking about how you can learn and improve from the game. Over time, this reduces the fear surrounding mistakes because you grow to see mistakes as ways to learn and improve as a player.

Tip #3: Focus on Enjoying Yourself

I know, it’s annoying.

Of course you want to enjoy yourself…but it’s impossible with how anxious you get.

Anxiety isn’t fun. So how can you focus on enjoying yourself while playing if you experience so much social anxiety? And how can I recommend it as the final tip??

Because anxiety is all about attention.

When I work with athletes who are dealing with anxiety, one of the first tools we discuss is acceptance.

Acceptance as a tool involves accepting that you are anxious in the moment.

But why would you want to accept the fact that you’re anxious? Aren’t we working to reduce your social anxiety?


And to do that you must first accept that you’re anxious right now. Otherwise you will be resisting the anxiety. And what you resist persists. Because when you resist something, your attention is still on the thing which you are resisting.

And anxiety is all about attention.

The reason you are anxious in the first place is because of the worries you have and fears you have about embarrassing yourself and getting judged by others.

Your attention is focused on fearful and worrisome outcomes.

If you were completely focused in the moment (like we discussed in tip #1), the anxiety wouldn’t be as strong.

We are taking a similar approach with the idea of acceptance, and the subsequent fun you focus on afterwards.

So first, accept that you’re anxious. Tell yourself it’s okay. You don’t need to fight your anxiety. You just need to change your attention.

And a great way to change your attention is to focus on what you enjoy.

Focusing on what you enjoy is different from feeling like you’re having a ton of fun.

One involves creating joy through your thinking, while the other involves you waiting around for the environment to make you feel like you’re having fun.

Unfortunately, if you’re experiencing social anxiety while playing, the environment is working against you feeling like you’re having fun.

Therefore, we can only rely on working to create a sense of enjoyment through your thinking and attention.

This isn’t easy. But if you keep working at it, it’ll have a tremendous impact on managing social anxiety.

What you do is work to spend time thinking about what you enjoy. That’s it. You can make a list of what you love about your sport, and then read that over and over again before practices and games.

During practices and during games (even when you feel anxious) keep reminding yourself to focus on what you enjoy.

The more you do this, the more focusing on what you enjoy instead of focusing on what you’re afraid of will become a habit.

Final Thoughts

Social anxiety can quickly turn a game you love into a miserable experience.

Sports are a social environment and their very nature means you are being watched and judged by others…a terrifying thing for someone with social anxiety.

But you can still thrive as a player even if you feel anxious in social situations. Especially if you begin taking steps to change your attention and manage the anxiety you feel.

Give the three tips outlined above a try, focus on being present, get your confidence from within, and focus on having fun – and keep working to manage your social anxiety and love the game like you want to.

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

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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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