Anxiety doesn’t feel very good. It’s normal, but knowing it’s normal might not necessarily make it feel better. When I asked one of my athlete-clients to describe her anxiety recently, she said, “My heart beats faster, I sweat, I get nervous, and my stomach hurts….and usually when I’m anxious, I can’t stop talking.” Sound familiar?
I work with a lot of athletes who struggle with anxiety. Anxiety can feel incredibly uncomfortable, and lead to bad decisions, disrupted sleep, poor recovery, overtraining, decreased performance, and/or illness and injury. Typically, an athlete contacts me when he or she realizes anxiety is impeding performance, training, and overall quality of life.
Researchers have been exploring how specific psychological variables – like anxiety – influence performance and other sport outcomes. The main argument is that individuals with high anxiety see situations as more stressful and consequently experience an elevated stress response, which may in turn predispose them to poor performance and injury. Decades of research reveal evidence for a strong relationship between anxiety and undesirable sport performance outcomes. Meaning, the higher your anxiety levels, the lower your performance and the greater your risk of illness or injury.
We all experience stress and anxiety, so why do some people prosper and some people fall? Think of it this way: stress is a state a person enters when certain demands require some sort of coping behaviors; arousal is a physiological signal that a state of stress has been entered (e.g., enlarged pupils, increased heart rate); and anxiety is the result of a person doubting his or her abilities to cope with the stressful situation. Thanks to evolution, we are armed with a fight-or-flight response that remains incredibly intact. So even though we’re no longer being chased by tigers, whenever our brain registers a stressor, we “turn on.” While we all “turn on” differently (i.e. uniquely experience stress, arousal, and anxiety), what we know is that within the sport arena, people who experience pre-competition “jitters” (anxiety) suffer a decrease in performance. Alternately, people who experience a pre-competition “pump up” (arousal) experience performance enhancement. This simple illustration depicts the stress-performance-injury relationship.
So what are some solutions to anxiety? Common management strategies include talk therapy, medication, meditation, and exercise. I coach my clients on using mental skills for effective anxiety management. Mental skills for optimal performance include cognitive reframing, positive self-talk, goal setting, focus strategies, and emotion management strategies, for instance. If you can use mental skills to view athletic situations as more challenging and less threatening, you can result with a useful stress response and therefore, increase your performance and decrease injury risk. Like all skills, these require learning and practice. And they work.
To read more about the concept of mental skills for sport performance, check out these resources:
Mental Skills for Sport
It’s Not About the Bike by Lance Armstrong & Sally Jenkins
Born to Run by Christopher McDougall
Sport Psychology Library: Triathlon by Joe Baker and Whitney Sedgwick