Managing Performance Anxiety
Posted by: Katie Pagel | Director of Mental Performance
Nearly every week I have emails in my inbox from caregivers and coaches seeking mental performance support for an athlete. An overwhelming majority of them read something like this:
“One thing I’ve noticed is that [Athlete] gets very nervous before ‘big’ games; games late in a tournament, with more pressure to win, or games against rival teams. They have mentioned knowing they were off, feeling nervous and tense all day, having a stomach ache, etc., but not knowing how to get rid of those feelings. I’m reaching out because I want to be able to help them (so they can play better, but more importantly have more fun!), but I don’t know what to do. Can you help?”
This message describes one of, if not the, most common struggle experienced by young athletes: Performance Anxiety (PA). Seeing as generalized anxiety is one of the most common mental health concerns for children and adolescents, the prevalence of PA is – though upsetting – rather unsurprising.
Given this pervasiveness, and the negative impact PA has on athlete performance and enjoyment, arming ourselves with the knowledge to understand and identify PA and the tools and strategies to help manage it, is of great practical benefit to caregivers, coaches, and athletes alike.
Understanding Performance Anxiety
General anxiety is an emotion characterized by worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome. Performance Anxiety, then, is such extreme nervousness taking place before or during participation in an activity, generally in front of an audience (like a soccer game!).
The first key to understanding PA is to know that it is actually quite normal, and can – to a point – be beneficial. A low level of PA appropriately signals to our mind and body that it is time to perform, thereby activating our sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight response). Functioning like a gas pedal in a car, this response provides us a boost of adrenaline, causing a cascade of physiological effects that allow us to “GO!” This energizing event has clear benefits for athletes. To healthily sustain performance, our body should then ease up on the gas pedal, or even hit the brake a bit (parasympathetic nervous system). For individuals that struggle with PA, the gas pedal stays stuck to the floor, leading to a host of unpleasant mental and physical symptoms.
So. Why are so many youth athletes – who arguably should be more focused on fun and growth than elite performance and results – unable to take their foot off the gas? While this question doesn’t have a straightforward answer, we do know that PA increases substantially once athletes become actively aware of evaluation, judgment, and comparison. Understandably, upon realizing that their play may be/is being evaluated by coaches, caregivers, fans, or teammates, the worry and nerves characteristic of PA skyrocket. Developmentally, this awareness is generally present by age 12. That said, it is no longer uncommon to see the stirrings of PA at younger ages.
While this rising incidence and earlier onset of PA can be partially attributed to decreased stigma and increased reporting, there are a number of global factors likely contributing as well. The ongoing professionalization of youth sport, steepening pay-to-play model, and perceived pressure to specialize early are factors specifically impacting athletes. This high-stakes youth sport culture poses a particular threat to today’s youth, who, having grown up in the iPhone age of instant gratification and information access, often lack fundamental problem solving and coping skills. Compounded with the widespread use of social media (which introduces children earlier and more starkly to the comparison, judgement, and evaluation that often trigger anxiety), and set against the backdrop of a global pandemic, it is no wonder that PA is impacting more youth athletes than ever before.
Identifying Performance Anxiety
Though PA is often distressing, there are a number of actions individuals can take to mitigate its symptoms. A prerequisite to taking appropriate action, though, is recognizing when an athlete is struggling with PA. For some athletes, this is nearly automatic; they are instantly willing and able to acknowledge and share that they are experiencing anxiety. Unfortunately, due to a lack of self-awareness, a lack of vocabulary, or feelings of embarrassment, many youth athletes do not report PA. Because of this, it is beneficial for people beyond the athlete themself – chiefly, coaches and caregivers – to be able to identify signs of PA and provide the athlete (or direct them toward) appropriate support.
Though feelings of worry and nervousness are primary PA symptoms, PA presents differently person-to-person; caregivers and coaches should also be on the lookout for physical and behavioral symptoms of PA, including (but not limited to) those listed below.
- Feelings of worry, nervousness, fear, or dread
- Difficulty controlling said feelings
- Loss of confidence, motivation
- Difficulty concentrating
- Defeatist self-talk
Physical Symptoms (These physical symptoms of PA often present as primary in young athletes.)
- Stomach aches / nausea
- Muscle tension or pain
- Increased sweating
- Increased heart rate
- Shortness of breath
- Changes in sleep patterns
- Irritability or restlessness
- Poor posture
- Avoidance of eye contact
- Avoidance of anxiety-provoking situations
Note that not all of the listed symptoms are directly observable. Because of this (and PA’s inherent subjectivity), coaches and caregivers should be prepared to do more than “be on the lookout” for signs of PA. One of the best things we can to do support a potentially struggling athlete is talk to them. Lead with curiosity and empathy to create a non-judgmental space where athletes feel safe, ask them how they’re feeling (mentally and physically), listen, and normalize their feelings.
For more direction with these conversations, and additional information on what PA may look like in soccer, check out this fact sheet.
Managing Performance Anxiety
Once an athlete acknowledges their PA, it’s time to equip them with tools to manage this common challenge. Because PA’s ultimate source, presentation, and degree and nature of impact varies, there is no “right” way to manage PA. For some, mitigating PA is an easy fix; apply a mental skill or two, and voila, you’ve done it! For others, managing PA will be a lifelong to-do. Regardless, all athletes can benefit from staring with these fundamental steps:
- Name It: “I’m feeling anxious.” Research shows that the simple act of labeling our emotions (anxiety, nervousness, fear, etc.), lessen their power over and impact on us.
- Normalize It: Athletes who view their PA as singular and shameful will face particular struggle overcoming it. Assuring athletes that PA is normal (and even beneficial!) – that it is something even professional athletes deal with – often lessens the severity of their PA.
- Find the Root of It: It’s easy to assume why athletes are anxious. In reality, PA can stem from a number of sources. While some athletes naturally run a bit anxious, many experience PA as a product of specific environmental factors (fear of judgment/disappointment from parents, coaches, or teammates, fear of ostracism, perfectionism, etc.). Prompt athletes to reflect on the root cause of their PA:
- What situations make you nervous?
- What specific aspects of those situations make you nervous?
- Why do those aspects create worry?
After an athlete has made an effort to name, normalize, and find the root of their PA, they are in a position to implement specific tools to manage its symptoms. Athletes can apply some of these strategies prior to entering a PA-inducing situation, and utilize others within acute bouts of PA.
- Address the Root. Athletes able to identify the source of their PA can take direct action toward it. If a parent’s pre-game pep talk creates nerves, communicate that to your parent. If a coach’s sideline behavior triggers PA, bring that up with your coach. If competition induces stress, work to reshape your opinion of and relationship with competition.
- Externalize the Anxiety. Though challenging, it is important to remember that we are not our anxiety. Young athletes can benefit greatly from externalizing the thoughts and feelings produced by PA to a PA “monster” that they can choose to ignore or actively quiet.
- Prepare. No matter its source, doing all that is within our control to thoroughly prepare for a PA-inducing situation will lessen feelings of PA. Engage in deliberate practice. Get enough sleep. Eat a healthy meal. Hydrate.
- Visualize. Envisioning yourself performing well on the field – physically and mentally (i.e., maintaining a positive mindset, coping well with PA, responding well to adversity) – can serve to directly decrease PA and maximize the likelihood of on-field success.
- Build Confidence. High self-confidence can buffer the impact of PA. Beyond preparation and visualization, build confidence by:
- Basing confidence on skill and training over performance and outcomes.
- Writing down three soccer-related actions you did well every day. Soon, you will have compiled a journal of evidence as to why you should feel confident on the field.
In the Moment
- Recognize It. Know your PA “tells”, so you can respond to it as quickly as possible. What is your first sign of PA? Stomach ache? Clammy hands? Worried thoughts?
- Get Grounded. PA is damaging to performance and enjoyment because it pulls us from the present moment; staying present takes the winds out of PA’s sails. Push your cleats into the grass. Tune into what you see, smell, or feel around you. Be where your feet are.
- Breathe. Remember how PA occurs when our body’s “gas pedal” is stuck to the floor? A simple way to tell your body to ease up on the gas is to breathe. Inhale through your nose, pushing the air into your belly, and exhale slowly out your mouth. This also serves as a grounding technique!
- Practice Helpful Self-Talk. What we say to ourselves matters. Craft a few statements you can say to yourself when feeling anxious. These can be simple cues (“Deep breath”, “Where my feet are”), or more complex reminders of advance work you have done (“I’m stronger than my PA monster”, “I am confident that I have the skills to perform in this situation”).
- Break it Down. In the moment, PA can overwhelm us. Every on-field task can suddenly seem too challenging, too pressure-filled. Pick something small to focus on for a few minutes of the game (first touch, striking the ball well) to lessen the likelihood that your PA overtakes you.
Ironically, it can be easy to get overwhelmed when reading through these lists. Remember: Athletes do not have to do all of these things! In fact, for most, attempting to do so would be counterproductive. Share these lists with your athlete, encourage them to try out a few tools that resonate for a week or two, and see what happens; if they aren’t helpful, give some others a chance.
Tip: Unsure of where to start? The simplicity and outright power of belly breathing is truly unmatched!
The changes in teams, coaches, and competitive level characteristic of start-of-season sets the stage for a slight spike in PA. Retaining and applying some of the information in this blog will prepare us to manage this uptick. As you return to the field, keep an eye out for signs of PA in athletes; also, know that it is not your responsibility to identify and treat all instances of PA! Do what you feel is appropriate given your role, but do not take on more than you are comfortable with. And, remember: You always have a resource in me!
I look forward to seeing all of you on the sidelines, soon.