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How to axe athlete anxiety

athlete anxiety Sep 16, 2014

Can your team handle the pressure?

Athlete Anxiety is one of the primary causes of performance mishaps, especially when the game is on the line. Regardless of what sport you coach, once the competition begins, it is up to the athletes. You’ve spent months, maybe years training them. They are physically ready but can they make the big play when the chips are down? Unfortunately, most athletes aren't ready to handle the game winning shot or save the day. Why? Because they haven’t acclimated to the pressure of big moments.

"Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterward." - Vernon Law

Imagine for a second that you are a softball coach. Your team has performed up and down most of the season but has really turned it on lately, beating some teams you had previously lost to. Somehow you and your program find yourselves in the conference championship game. Early in the game, your team got up early, but your opponent, a veteran team that makes the tournament every year battled back and, by the 7th inning, your previous large lead had diminished to one run. A few errors and missed opportunities on both sides managed to keep the score from moving. With one more out, you and your team go on to the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history.

With one more base hit, you go home and your season ends. These are the moments that make up a sports career: moments that contain both the possibility of the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat. And everyone knows it—you know it, the fans know it and most importantly, the players on the field know it.

  • So how is your pitcher going to respond?
  • How is your shortstop going to keep her cool?
  • How is your 1st baseman going to focus and see the ball going into her glove?

It all depends on what they’ve done before this moment. By practicing how to manage arousal states and confidence, you can axe athlete anxiety.

What is athlete anxiety?

How athlete anxiety presents itself can be broken into two primary categories: mental and physical.

  1. Mental: Mental anxiety is that which we feel when we begin to look ahead to the future, to the potential stressors or scenarios in front of us, and question our ability to meet the demands we perceive.  This type of thinking can spiral quickly and result in becoming concerned about long-term consequences that could result from a failed performance.  Such negative thinking will surely translate to a negative performance.
  2. Physical: Physical anxiety is how our interpretation of stressors and intensive scenarios is shown through our bodies (e.g., butterflies, sweaty palms, increased heart rate, muscle tension).  This can be distracting or worrisome if athletes are unfamiliar, unprepared, or unskilled at managing how they interpret these physical manifestations of anxiety (e.g., ‘what’s wrong with me?’ or ‘I’m freaking out’).

Both types of anxiety can be managed for optimal performance and be perceived as cues from which to cultivate confidence! [Tweet "Practice makes perfect. Practice your #confidence to win the big game!]

Who are your athletes?

Let’s dive in a little deeper into the softball game you are coaching and focus on the pitcher. While there are myriad of possible responses to this situation, let’s talk about the worst and best by looking at two different players’ reactions: Confident Carey and Anxious Andy. Situation Recap:

  • Championship game
  • Pitcher has had difficulty with the present hitter
  • There is nowhere to put the hitter as the bases are loaded
  • Your team needs only 1 out to win
  • The other team needs only 1 base hit to win

Anxious AndyAndy has Athlete Anxiety


Confident CareyConfidence without Athlete Anxiety

What we see is that given the same circumstances, Confident Carey is able to cultivate confidence because of the necessary preparation and mindset that she has practiced ahead of time. It’s not that she didn’t feel the rush of negativity and pressure, it’s that she had the tools to deal with them.

Anxious Andy, on the other hand, was rattled by the circumstances, which led to a lack of confidence in her ability. She didn’t have the necessary routines and tools in place to deal with the flood of thoughts and emotions.

The difference between Confident Carey and Anxious Andy

While it could be argued that some of their differences are due to innate tendencies, relatively recent advances in our understanding of the brain shows us that preparation leads to preparedness. Which, as a coach, is no doubt a concept you are familiar with. In other words, the difference is that Carey has done the mental work ahead of time to respond in the most productive way during the most intensive circumstances. In training, she’s felt that negative thought loop start and been able to PRACTICE bringing herself back to a positive mindset.

[Tweet "Preparation leads to preparedness #athletes  #anxiety"]



3 Ways to prepare your athletes for peak performance.

The circumstances are neutral. We place the value on them and we assess our ability to meet the demands, therefore our mentality is a choice.  We need to practice positive thinking. Having prepared for intensive situations by engaging in cognitive practices and attending to physical arousal will cultivate your athletes’ confidence going into and during competitions. This is partly why physical practice is so important- the feeling of being prepared is real. The flip side of that is you can practice until you are blue in the face but if you don’t go into competition with the mindset that you are prepared, that preparation was all for nothing. So, what can be done to ensure your athletes have the tools they need to execute when the pressure is on?  

#1. Pay attention: Determine optimal arousal

Athletes should identify their optimum level of arousal—where physical arousal is at an ideal level and their thoughts are positive and focused on the present.  This will differ for every athlete as a golfers’ optimal physical arousal is likely different from a defensive lineman in football.  What is important is that the athlete feels energized for their competition and their thoughts are positive and focused.  This takes practice. Paying specific attention to one’s thoughts and physical signs before practices, matches, and any other time circumstances lead to heightened arousal, is essential to determining optimal arousal.

  • Identify the Right Energy Level: Be wary of having too much nervous energy for the situation (over-arousal), or feeling too relaxed or even feeling bored (under-arousal).  Over-arousal can result in a big drop in feeling energized for competition from which it can be very difficult to bounce back.  Therefore, employing strategies to stay at an appropriate level of arousal is important (e.g., visualization, measured breathing, pre-performance routines, music).
  • Make Arousal a Process: Athletes must learn to get to the appropriate arousal level regardless of the competition and circumstances. The most common example is a team looking and feeling flat when they play against a team that is perceived to be inferior or an individual being overly pumped when they race in ‘big’ meets against a superior competitor or in front of big crowds, etc. Focus on the fundamentals, the task at hand. Stay present.  Sometimes a code word or mantra that only your team knows the meaning of can be useful to SNAP players from unhelpful thinking, back to the task at hand.
  • Make Mistakes In Practice: Over-arousal should be felt during training. Too many athletes ONLY feel fear before competition. The mindset of competition should be simulated in training by using certain competitive drills, visualization exercises, having outside people observe practice, creating pressure situations, or mixing up training so your athletes get used to things being unpredictable to some degree.

#2. Develop super highways of positive thinking

As we develop, the more we use the pathways in our brains, the more our brain tries to make their use more efficient. Our brain is wired with pathways that fire faster and faster with repetition (also known as neuroplasticity). Therefore, engaging in cognitive strategies to make positive thoughts and positive thinking readily available can be an effective way to stop anxious and negative thinking before, but especially during competition.  This can be done by establishing a list of:

  • Positive affirmations, e.g., “My preparation was on point. Execute.”
  • Go to commands. The brain can only think of one thing at a time so if you take it up by thinking about a command, it literally cannot think about something negative, e.g., “Stay low on this next ball. Move your feet. Reach, shoulder forward. Rhythm.”
  • Athletic attributes to bolster positive thinking and confidence, e.g., "I have excellent accuracy.  I am dangerously fast.  My power is undeniable.”
  • Previous successes that can be drawn on for positivity, e.g., "I am a state champion.  I am a two-time MVP.  I have made three game-winning shots."
  • Deep breathing techniques (practice them as well). Generally the chest tightening and decreased oxygen intake is one of the first physical sign of stress.
  • Mantras or reset words to center yourself and go forward with positive thoughts, e.g., “Clear the Mechanism.”, “Get Out, Get Now.” (Get out of your head, Get back to the present.), “Back in the game. Back in the zone.”, “New possession. Every possession.  Fight.”

By establishing these sources of positivity, picking a few to recite regularly, day in and day out—and especially before going into and during practices and smaller competitions—you can access positive thinking faster and more easily and break the cycle of negative thinking suffered by Anxious Andy. Note: The principle of brain development and the Super Highways that come from repeated use of thoughts also applies to behaviors and emotions.  Therefore how you practice, physically and mentally, will be likely to translate to how you play. 

3)      Reframe the situation

Remember it’s our perception of our ability to meet the demands of a situation that causes our anxiety. So then, by changing the perceived gravity of the situation, the demands will seem lessened, which will lead to feeling more capable of meeting those demands.  Potential types of reframing statements could include:

  • Questioning if this is life or death. – “At the end of the day, is making this pitch a matter of life or death?”
  • You can’t control the universe, identify that which is in your control. – “I’ve done the preparation and I have done the training—now I just need to execute.”
  • The end of the world? – “No matter what happens here today, tomorrow will come, the sun will rise and the sun will set and it will all happen again.”
  • Relative thinking – “This isn’t a real war. It’s not life or death, it’s not the end of the world—just have some fun and execute.”
  • Put it in perspective: “This is fun, it’s a sport. I’ve been doing it my whole life.”


By engaging in these strategies, athletes will be able to identify their optimal arousal level both mentally and physically and then have the tools to deal with the stressors that will inevitably arise. No athlete will need to utilize every single tool we suggested but all athletes can benefit from implementing some of the following into their existing routines.

  • Manage Arousal: Becoming attuned to what is optimal for each athlete will empower them to manage their arousal when that arousal is too high or too low.
  • Positive Thinking: Practicing positive thinking will serve to buffer athletes from feeling anxiety because they will have cultivated greater access to positivity in the face of challenge and therefore they will have cultivated confidence!
  • Reframe Situations: Finally, if challenging circumstances arise, as they inevitably do, being able to reframe situations to reduce the gravity of their demands frees athletes to embrace a lighter, more positive mindset, and refocus on the task at hand.

Both anxiety and confidence are perceptions. Be intentional about employing strategies to cultivate confidence and axe anxiety today so that your athletes are fully prepared, mentally and physically, for the ‘game-winning pitch’ of tomorrow.


What kind of athlete anxiety issues are you dealing with?

Add in your comments below and we will provide suggestions and advice.



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