Do I Have Performance Anxiety?

Cortnee White, Performance Specialist

Do I Have Performance Anxiety?

Where is it coming from? How do we help?

All athletes at one point in their careers experience performance anxiety. Some athletes experience it all the time or in specific moments of the game.

Performance anxiety is a fear about one’s ability to perform a skill. When the body and mind react to danger or a threat, a person feels physical sensations of anxiety. Our body and nervous system are always assessing for danger and when that is tripped our body starts preparing to fight or flight.

Now, when we talk about sports we really don’t think of it as something to be fearful of or a true danger. The danger athletes feel is most of the time a perceived threat. The thought of failure, disappointment, embarrassment, and the thought of injury. Our thoughts and perception of the game can induce feelings of stress and anxiety that tells our body to prepare for battle or get the heck out of there.

What does Performance Anxiety look like?

Performance anxiety can come in many forms and what one athlete may feel and think will be way different from what another may experience but, here are the most common symptoms.

Performance anxiety physical symptoms may include:
  • Racing pulse and rapid breathing changes
  • Dry mouth and tight throat, and tight chest
  • Trembling hands, knees, lips, and voice
  • Sweaty and cold hands
  • Nausea and an uneasy feeling in your stomach
  • Vision changes or headaches
You may also experience psychological symptoms, such as:
  • A sense of mental numbness or dissociation
  • Memory slips
  • Worrying for weeks (or even months) in advance of a performance
  • Full-blown panic attacks at the mere thought of performing
  • Inability to perform (freeze response or mental block)
  • Jumping to conclusions or assuming failure will happen.

What Athletes Notice About Performance Anxiety

I am going to share a few examples of what performance anxiety can look and feel like from the athlete’s perspective and then I’ll give more insight into what could have caused those symptoms.

Baseball pitcher with Anxiety
The Athlete Mind

A 16-year-old baseball player starts recognizing his pitching is suffering. He really has no idea what’s going on. He recalls feeling nervous before games even the night before, but that is to be expected. He is usually very consistent and can come back from errors but now he can’t. His parents tell him they have seen him sweating more and doing unusual things on the mound like messing with his shoelaces after a walk or error. He really doesn’t notice any of that. He states he has no negative thoughts and can’t even remember anything when he’s on the mound other than feeling angry about a bad inning or hoping he doesn’t get pulled. So, both the baseball player and his parents really can’t figure out why his performance is declining.

After a session, we discover there have been two coaching changes, a highly recruited pitcher moving onto his team as well as him being looked at by colleges. He knows his parents want him to succeed and does not want them to be disappointed. He does have thoughts about not being good enough and tries to always be his best at everything he does. Yeah, there are some performance anxiety symptoms that are being fueled by change, by fearing he will disappoint the people that matter most and possibly not being as good as the pitcher that just moved in. When he steps on the mound that is the place that everything matters in his life. He may not be thinking about being recruited in the moment of game play but he knows every pitch weighs heavier than before.

Gymnast scared to do a skill.
The Athlete Mind

A 12 year old gymnast states she is extremely nervous doing specific skills. She feels sick and jittery before going to the gym, she is thinking about falling and getting hurt as well as balking when attempting the skills. Her mom notices her becoming extremely frustrated with herself and upset after most days in the gym. They both know gymnastics is a scary sport with falling and getting hurt being pretty common. They both recall not really ever worrying about this type of fear or nerves before.

After a session, we discover there has been previous injuries that really scared her and she has seen her best friend fall and break something on the skill she fears the most. Experiencing an injury and watching someone else experience an injury can cause trauma to the body and the mind. She also spoke about the embarrassment and frustration she feels from herself, the coaches, and other girls in the gym. Her wanting to do the skill so bad but not being able to has also caused anxiety to spike. She is worried about getting hurt, being embarrassed, and disappointing those around her.

I could tell story after story and some sound the same and others sound very different but there are common themes when it comes to performance anxiety. Stress, worry, fear, and disappointment always seem to play a huge part in causing it. Sometimes it’s only perceived stress, perceived disappointment but it is real for the athlete. It takes some time, takes talking about, and takes understanding what it is and where it’s coming from. Athletes want to do well, they want to win, they want to perform that scary skill. Sometimes our body and mind will not allow it. No coaching, no pushing, no get over it will be enough. It may cover it up for a while but without proper tools and knowledge it will come back or spread.

I want to listen to you, understand your fears and build a foundation that you can recognize the anxiety and have the tools and knowledge to conquer it.


Bodybuilding: Strong in Body and Mind.

Sometimes we have to un-rack the weight e carry to become stronger.

Cortnee White, LPC-Associate

The fitness world is full of health, hard work, beautiful people and rock hard bodies. There’s a type of rush being in that environment, especially when you are willing to show it all off on a stage under the bright lights. Bodybuilding is an extreme sport that takes a whole other level of commitment, discipline, and strength. I am not talking about muscle strength.

I think bodybuilders have some of the strongest minds out there. Probably because I spent most of my life in fitness. My mom owned a few gyms growing up, we even lived in one for awhile. She trained, I trained, it was in my blood to work out. I eventually found my way into competing. What a rush to train so hard, walk on the stage under the lights and be judged. It was addicting and I got my first taste of the mental strength it took to do the sport.

Bodybuilding (bikini division)
My First show competing in Bikini.

I did it for a couple years and eventually the rush faded for me and maintaining that lifestyle was no longer fun. I still trained a little but you never forget the feeling, the way you looked and the way people were amazed by the way you looked. Stepping away from that lifestyle forces you to rework the way you train, the way you look at your body and your relationship with food.

Mental Muscle

Now that I work in sport psychology and therapy I train bodybuilders in a whole other way. I train their mental muscle, our mind needs a training plan too. No doubt bodybuilders can wake up, hit the gym, count their macros, and constantly push themselves to the limit. But, sometimes they hit a wall or sometimes the wall hits them when the stage lights go out. The sport is about perfection, the perfect symmetry, don’t be too muscular or too soft. Most of the time that perfection is only in the eyes of the judges or the politics behind the show. Food can become the enemy, the person in the mirror is under constant scrutiny, and outside life and pleasures are put on the back burner. This can take a complete toll on the mind and the body.

There are great and amazing things you gain out of bodybuilding other than a rock hard bod but if your running the perfection race you will never be satisfied. I work with athletes on managing expectations, stress, and self-image, we work on the relationship with food and the gym. I want bodybuilders to thrive in their sport under the lights but more so when they step off the stage. That’s where the real mental strength lies.

“Sometimes we have to un-rack the weight we carry to become stronger”


Athletes Are Always One Step Away From Failure

Athletes work so hard to get away from failure and yet feel so close to it at every moment.


Athletes seem to always be one step away from failure. When I ask athletes why they get upset after a bad shot, strikeout, or bad score they usually say “I’m better than that, It doesn’t meet my expectations or others, it’s embarrassing or I don’t know, I hate messing up”. Making errors is apart of the game, shooters miss shots, hitters strikeout, and golfers slice the ball, it happens to everyone every game.

From my experience of both playing and talking with athletes, I have concluded that there is reasoning we tend to overlook and that is the fear of doing it again. That once that bad shot, that sliced ball, and that strikeout happen you are now in a downward spiral. One mistake must mean I am not on my game. I am no longer a robot of perfectionism, that one shot has now determined the rest of the game, and yes, leads to embarrassment and someone being disappointed.

Not only do athletes do this in the middle of play but on their way to the game or in warm-ups. “I had a bad warm-up and now the rest of the day will most likely be bad.” That one mistake or a second mistake has now closed off all possibilities and set the future in stone. It will happen again…

Why are athletes always one step away from failure? Athletes work so hard to get away from failure and yet feel so close to it at every moment. Almost as if they hold their breath and with every good moment, there is a bad one coming. Athletes bring the failure with them, they pack it up and wear it on their shoulders. After that missed shot the failure stands taller and it takes over. But, what did they fail at?

There is no easy or quick fix and a lot of times it is more to do with the ecosystem of the athlete than the game itself but, I ask you to look at your failure, what is it and why do you feel so close to it. Why does that missed shot or one strikeout dictate the rest of your performance? Is it possible to have a great game and not be perfect? YES!


That one missed shot or strikeout has such a huge impact in the mind of an athlete because it invites the reality that it can happen again. Now, you couple that with high expectations, stressors, pressure, and we have a player who is always one step away from failure. This is something coaches, parents, and athletes all need work on collectively. It’s our mindset, expectations, self-worth, the words we use, the thoughts we have, and the perspective we have been given. What if you could change the way you saw the game, the mistake you made, and not turn to failure?

What I want athletes to know at all times is they have power. Power in the belief of possibility, the belief that one, two or three missed shots are just missed shots that will lead to greater shots. The perspective that it is possible you are not one step away from failure but are one step away from success.

“Every at bat or new hole or race is not the same and comes with a new experience, it might be you who is the same. So, I say choose to experience it differently and open the possibility of success!”

Athlete Mindfulness: 3 Tips To Get You Started

Cortnee White, Performance Specialist

Practicing mindfulness as an athlete can actively relieve stress and anxiety. It can improve focus, attention and allow you to better regulate emotions before, during and after competitions.



Mindfulness simply means a person has achieved full awareness on the present moment. While being able to calmly acknowledge thoughts, feelings, and body sensations. Whichever sport you play being able to stay in the moment, actively be in tune with your mind and body can be a powerful tool in performance and overall health.


We mindless eat all the time. We eat out of boredom, or for comfort, or for no other reason than the food is just there to eat. For athletes this is a great tool because nutrition is extremely important to your lifestyle. You eat to fuel your body and enhance your performance.

I would like you to take it a step further. Pay attention to not only what it will do for your body but what it can do for your mind. Engage your senses. Try to pick out flavors or spices as you chew. Are your senses saying you are hungry or is it something else. Set down the phone, turn off the TV and practice eating mindfully for it can bring you a sense of calmness and focus.


We spend majority of our time lost in thought. Some researchers say that roughly 50 percent of our day is spent thinking about something not in our immediate environment. Other research shows that we have thousands of daydreams every single day. That is a lot of time not being in the now. While being lost in thought can absolutely be a wonderful thing, it can also not be so great. Athletes being in the moment is critical for focus, reaction time, but most importantly for their well being.

Athlete Mindfulness: 3 Tips To Get You Started

Let’s say you are in a car on your way to practice. Thinking or imagining what that practice might be like. It started out positive then the what ifs come. You start feeling anxious about the conditioning you will have to do or the skill you have to try. Those thoughts turn to emotions and now you are dreading practice. Then before you can gather yourself you wake up and it’s time to get out. We have all had that moment where we wake up from being lost in thought and go oh wow.. how did I just get here. Kind of scary actually but, it’s a great example of how out of it we can be. So, practicing bringing that attention back to you sitting in that car and in the moment and allowing those thoughts to come and go. Being a now-ist takes conscious effort to say hey brain wake up and come back.


To prevent from drifting away in thought to help wake up the brain and gain some control, bring your attention to what you can see. On your way to practice look at the world around you. Notice the buildings, the colors of the cars passing by, look at a drive you’ve taken a million times in a new way. Look for that wow I never even noticed that was there moment. Take a look at your field, how green the grass is, how the gym floor was pieced together so tightly or notice how high the scoreboard stands.

Being mindful doesn’t mean we never have bad thoughts or anxious feelings, it means we have the ability to say hey thought or hey weird feeling i’d like to know more about you. We can become less caught up in worries about tomorrow or the regrets of yesterday.

“I talk mindfulness with all my athletes as it is a tool they can take with them into every situation in their life”


Use Your 5 Senses To Snap Back Into The Game

Use your 5 Senses To Snap Back Into The Game

Have you ever been in a game where you could only think about the shot you just missed or the strikeout you just had. Maybe you had a college coach in the stands and all you can think about is what they think of you. Your nerves or thoughts get all scrambled and your everywhere but in the moment.


So, how can you snap back into the moment, back into your body and back into what you can control? We can regain some control, find calmness and relieve anxiety just by using our senses.


Playing with or touching something like a ball or play dough can help the nervous system find a sense of calmness. As we know skin is the largest organ, and the calming stimulus registers quickly and appropriately upon contact. So, in the moment of feeling out of control finding something in your environment to touch and really feel can be helpful. Try twisting a ball in your hands and being present with just how it feels. Pointing out those sensations as you feel it.


There are things we see that increase anxiety and things that decrease it, but in the middle of a game, it might be hard to not look at a coach or the cause of our nervousness. What we can do is take a few seconds to choose to look at something more calming or distracting while we try to regroup ourselves. Take a look at the stitching on the baseball, count the light poles in the outfield. We can also imagine something we love to look at that brings you some peace.


You probably use this one before games to pump you up. Hearing is one of the most popular in terms of athletes to get them focused but how can we use this in the middle of the game? Especially when there are tons of stress-inducing sounds going on at once. If you cant listen to music and hearing your best friend or coach talk to you isn’t helping I want you to try hearing your breath. Take 4 deep breaths only concentrating on the sound of the inhale and the sound of the exhale.


Our smell is powerful! We can remember smells, smells from our childhood, perfumes an old crush wore. Smells can also trigger relaxation like using essential oils. They make chap-stick like tubes just for smelling that can help in relaxing you. You can try putting that in your pocket or pick out smells in the air. Some may not be pleasant so let’s not focus on those. If you’re an athlete you know you’ve smelled popcorn in the air. Take a few seconds to take it in, what popcorn tastes like, how close or far, faint or strong the smell is. Just a few seconds of distraction by popcorn might be the trick to get you to a state where you can regain some composure.


Taste is tough one during games but if you are like I was I had gum, seeds, Gatorade and occasionally had my mom run to the concession stand. Try to think of your favorite flavor or chewing gum that is peppermint or spearmint flavor. By recognizing the tastes that help with anxiety, the mind should become conditioned to react with the anxiety-relieving symptoms. You can even say every time I feel nervous or can’t get my head in the game I am going to chew my special gum or sip on my power drink. Silly but don’t knock it till you try it.

You can even combine senses like touching your chest, hearing your breath, and seeing your body move in and out. After that add a positive thought and you are on your way to taking back control, calming your nerves, and crushing your goals.

Using your senses takes some practice and some focus. Keep at it and hopefully the results will be worth it!


Mental Blocks in Gymnasts.

Cortnee White, Mental Performance Specialist
Cortnee White, Mental Performance Specialist

I started tumbling when I was pretty young and loved it! My tumbling quickly turned into hitting the vault and the bars and I was excelling quickly. Coaches took notice and were ready to start my Olympic training untill…

Cortnee White

One day out of nowhere I was rounding off into a back handspring like every day before when I just froze and fell straight on my butt. With this weird feeling of confusion I got back up and tried again, but this time I didn’t fall I didn’t even move. I was frozen.

I had thrown back handsprings all the time without a thought and now I couldn’t. I tried and tried to just do it but, I was stopping every time. I now couldn’t even do it on my trampoline at home. This flip I had done a million times now became scary, frustrating, and frustrating for others. I could see and feel the look of disappointment on my coaches, parents, and peer’s face. I eventually got to the point of being able to do it but only on and off. At some point, I didn’t really care for gymnastics anymore and it became more of a hassle than fun and I moved on to the next sport. The saddest part is that this is the clearest memory of gymnastics I have. My mental block was what I remember.

What is a Mental Block?

Psychological blocking which is also normally called a mental block is the inability to perform a skill that an athlete previously performed with no problems. Athletes report feeling stuck, frozen, blank, or they feel like their brain is fogged.

It can spread! It generalizes backwards within a sequence of skills. So take my story for example, the blocking started on the back handspring, but can quickly spread to the round-off itself.

Why is it Happening?

Sports like gymnastics and diving are completely unnatural for our body to perform and our brain doesn’t like it either. Flying and twisting through the air puts our brain on high alert! Its job is to protect us and look for threats, and there can be a lot of threats. If we are under stress, fearful, worried, anxious, or injured our brain essentially shuts us down. Our brain is telling us, hey, you got a lot going on and I cannot allow you to do something dangerous right now.

A lot of times the athlete is just unable to perform the skill or has moved too fast into a higher-level skill. This can be fear, self-confidence issues, or mechanical issues. Those blocks can usually be resolved by slowing down and going back to basics.


The most common block that I usually see is surrounded by an injury or seeing others be injured. Injuries are trauma both to the body and the mind. I like to put it as we hold onto pain memories. With pain memories we don’t forget what happened when we fell, we over-rotated, or saw someone do the same. As I stated before our brain is now in full protective mode, it does not want you to be hurt again. From those injuries, we also produce stress and anxiety. Our thoughts become consumed with trying to never let it happen again, worrying about every little movement or placement. We might still feel pain and hesitate on going full out, causing the block to have a stronger hold on us. We start to block and freeze because there are a lot of unresolved fears.

Mental blocks can happen on any skill or event.
Mental blocks can happen on any event.

The amygdala (emotional response center) is calling in all the stops to keep you safe.

I am scared but not scared of the skill.

Fear and being scared is a stressful and anxious emotion that ignites our blocks. Most gymnasts explain the fear they have with blocks as “I am scared but not scared of the skill”. We usually assume that if an athlete is blocking it is because they are doing a really hard and complicated skill that scares them. While this can be true it is not always the case. As stated above blocks occur on skills that have been done before, usually skills that were quite easy originally. The fear they feel can be stemming from the thought of injury because they are overthinking and putting too much attention on small mechanics causing disruptions. They can fear not being able to do the skill because of how easy it is and the embarrassment and shame that can happen. They can be scared due to dissociating from themselves and the movement and not having body awareness.

Blocks Happen.

Whether it is stress from outside the gym, inside, or a combination of both, the longer it builds the more the athlete tends to make negative attributions about their ability and about themselves. This can drive avoidance of the movement or sport, shame, anger, and feelings of failure. Mental blocks happen, and they happen a lot. You or your athlete are not alone in the burden a mental block can place on you. With some knowledge and understanding, the block can be defeated!

It is very important not only physically but mentally that we address mental blocks early on and learn appropriate skills that can help ease the process.

Mental blocks can be defeated, with the right tools and some time we can get you back doing what you love.


Mentally Tough Athletes: What Separates The Good From The Great.

Mentally Tough Athletes: What Separates the Good from the Great

Mentally tough athletes are unbothered, unshaken, and perform in clutch situations flawlessly. They aren’t perfect but those imperfections only make them stronger. Becoming mentally tough needs a foundation and that foundation is your emotional intelligence.

Emotional Intelligence

Being an athlete means winning some, losing some, getting injured, being pushed mentally and physically. In order for us to handle tough situations, perform at our best in the clutch moments, and work well with others we have to have some capacity of emotional intelligence. What is this you ask? Emotional intelligence simply put is the ability to identify and manage your emotions and the emotions of others.

When you miss the shot what happens? What do you do, say, and think? When your teammate makes an error how does that affect you? What’s your body language like, do you comfort them, correct them, or say nothing at all? Are you blaming others or making excuses? How do you handle stress and expectations?

Mentally tough athlete training


What do you struggle with? Are you able to admit faults, and accept you are not perfect? Being able to identify errors in your sport, your thinking, and your actions are key in building self-awareness. We have to be able to identify what is going right and what is going wrong to change and grow.


Self-regulation is the ability to control your emotions. The first step is being aware of your emotions and the next step is being able to control them. Staying calm and in control of you when things get tough is sometimes the only thing we have. If we lose the ability to control our emotions our physical ability soon will follow.

Athletes that can self-regulate typically don’t allow themselves to become too angry or upset, and they don’t make rash or careless decisions. They are able to assess the situation, their feelings, and think before they act.
If you are wanting to work on becoming a mentally tough athlete start by self-assessing and self-regulating. The way you think, the way you behave, and the way you feel has a direct influence on your game. There are millions of talented athletes that get beat and get beat because they have gotten in their own way.

“What separates the good from the great comes down to how you let your mind and emotions either enhance or disrupt your physical ability.”


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