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.
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.
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.Cort