Sports Performance Anxiety

Sports performance anxiety is one of the most common mental blocks athletes face. Learn what sport performance anxiety is

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 face.

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

And so, in this article, I’m going to discuss what sports performance anxiety is, how it hurts your game, techniques you can use to reduce anxiety, and some bonus pregame exercises that will manage anxiety before games.

Sports Performance Anxiety Defined

Sports performance anxiety 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 sports performance anxiety go hand in hand.

When you become 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.

Signs & Symptoms of Sports Performance Anxiety

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

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

Have you ever experienced any of these symptoms?

I was working with a basketball player who experienced many of these symptoms, especially trembling legs. So much so, that he told me it felt as though he didn’t have any control over his legs while playing.

Now playing basketball without feeling like you have control over your legs seems pretty tough, and it was! In fact, it was so hurtful to his game that the anxiety became something he feared.

As soon as he noticed himself becoming anxious, he grew worried about the fact he was anxious. This led to even more anxiety.

The example of the basketball player begins to reveal the power thoughts have in relation to anxiety. In fact, at the core of your anxiety will be a certain pattern of thinking.

Three Factors of Sports Performance Anxiety

To better understand sports performance anxiety, let’s take a look at the three main factors: cognition, autonomic arousal, and the behavioral response.


The first factor of sports performance anxiety is cognition.

Cognition involves your thoughts.

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.

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.

You may also have more specific anxiety, in which case the cognition will be centered around a specific situation.

Or, like the basketball player example I gave a second ago, the cognition may surround the fact you’re feeling anxious, once those symptoms are felt.

In that case, the initial thoughts leading to the initial feeling of anxiety are overtaken by the new thoughts surrounding the anxiety itself.

Autonomic Arousal

Following cognition is the body’s reaction to the thoughts: autonomic arousal. 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 our mind’s natural reaction is going to be to avoid the situation causing the 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 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.

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 sports performance anxiety in the first place?

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 happening in the moment, it has traveled onto what you don’t want to have happen.

Let’s go back to the basketball player I mentioned earlier who was dealing with a lot of sports performance anxiety. His anxiety was caused by the thoughts he had before 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.

How it Impacts Your Game

A major reason anxiety hurts your game is because of the physical symptoms it causes. Playing with shaky legs or hands is tough. So is trying to focus and perform your best when your heart is racing.

The physical symptoms are only one reason that anxiety holds you back during games. Another reason involves the tension caused by your worries.

Going back to what causes sports performance anxiety in the first place, outcome-oriented thinking, we can see these types of worries lead to tension and stress while playing.

When you think about what might happen, do you tend to think more about how much you want a positive outcome or how much you hope you don’t get a negative outcome?

For the most part, it’s going to be a negative outcome. The main reason being, if you fully trusted you were going to play well, there would be no need to worry. The worry in and of itself stems from a lack of trust.

Focusing on and worrying about what you don’t want to have happen will lead to tension and tightness while playing.

A third reason anxiety holds you back during games is that anxiety can actually cause you to hide.

I met with a younger athlete’s parents, talking to them about the possibility of me working with their son.

He’s a soccer player and wasn’t playing as well in games as he was in practice. Mainly because he was holding himself back.

His parents mentioned how it seemed like he was hiding out there.

Now why would he be hiding, especially if he wants to play well? Because of the anxiety he felt and the worry he had surrounding making mistakes.

One of the main behavioral responses to sports performance anxiety is avoidance. During games, the best way to avoid is by hiding. What this hiding really means is you hold yourself back.

For the soccer player it meant not going to the ball and trying to get into the action. The same may also be true for basketball players.

The bottom line is, when you play with anxiety, this worry can easily cause you to hold yourself back due to fear.

Put simply, there are three main reasons anxiety will hurt your performance:

  • The physical symptoms of the anxiety
  • Playing tight and tense
  • Hiding and holding yourself back

Techniques to Manage Sports Performance Anxiety

Once you recognize that you’re dealing with anxiety, the next step is to work on managing the anxiety.

Now managing anxiety takes work. It is not something that will likely go away on its own, since it involves a pattern of thinking you’ve developed.

But through conscious effort, you can reduce the physical symptoms of your anxiety, and change your focus to reduce anxiety long-term.

I’ve outlined four techniques you can use to manage your anxiety. To learn more about each technique, I’ve written a more in-depth article on the techniques to overcome sports performance anxiety, so I encourage you to check that out if you’d like.

  • Technique #1: Acceptance: before you can redirect your focus, you must accept the fact you’re feeling anxious. When you try to resist your anxiety, you only make it worse.
  • Technique #2: Prepare: the more prepared you are to compete, the more confidence you will have. And the more confident you are, the less anxiety you will feel. This preparation involves mental preparation along with physical preparation.
  • Technique #3: Visualization: there are two visualization techniques you can use to reduce anxiety – visualization for relaxation and visualization for confidence.
  • Techniques #4: Let Go of Expectations: demands regarding the outcome are a strong driver for anxiety. The more you think about what you expect yourself to do during the game, the greater your chances are of experiencing anxiety. Focus instead on the small steps that are part of the process of your game.

Pregame Exercise to Reduce Anxiety

The four techniques outlined above are a great way for you to begin managing the anxiety you feel. But there are also additional exercises you can do right before the game begins if you notice yourself becoming anxious.

Once again, I’ve written a more in-depth article on these 6 pregame exercises for anxiety, but have also outlined them below.

  • Exercise #1: Remember past successes: right before the game begins, fill your mind with past times you’ve played well. This will work to increase your confidence and the belief you have you can go out there and play well again.
  • Exercise #2: Create a self-talk routine: since anxiety is driven by your thoughts, if you can take control of your thoughts before a game, this will reduce the worries you have. A self-talk routine is a great way to not only take control of your thinking, but make sure you are thinking in a way that will calm you down and increase confidence.
  • Exercise #3: Set a clear definition of success: this definition needs to be based on controllable aspects of your game. For example, instead of saying you need to score fifteen points, set the goal of moving without the ball and making quick decisions.
  • Exercise #4: Focus on your breathing: when you’re anxious, your breathing will be shallow. To calm yourself down, you want to take deep breaths. You can also use count breathing, where you count in for 5, for example, and out for 10. This not only calms you down, but begins to center your attention in the present moment.
  • Exercise #5: Practice gratitude: the more grateful you are, the less anxiety you will feel. When you remind yourself of all that you’re grateful for, automatically many of the worries you were experiencing will go away.
  • Exercise #6: Focus on having fun: focusing on enjoying yourself while playing can be a great remedy for anxiety. When you focus on having fun, you’re in the moment, instead of worrying about what will happen by the end of the play or end of the game.

Mental Coaching for 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.

A great way to begin making this change is through one-on-one mental performance coaching.

With mental performance coaching, I will work with you to identify 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. But through work, you can reduce the anxiety you feel during games. 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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The Mentally Tough Kid course will teach your young athlete tools & techniques to increase self-confidence, improve focus, manage mistakes, increase motivation, and build mental toughness.

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