Anxiety in sport (A Comprehensive Guide)

Anxiety can be said as both a physiological and psychological phenomenon that is basically related to emotions like fear and negative thoughts like not falling behind or not able to cope.

The physiological aspect of anxiety might include not sleeping, headaches, feeling tense, sweating, problems with digestive functions, and raised blood pressure.

Here, in this article we will discuss anxiety and how anxiety in sports can affect one’s performance.

What is Anxiety?

Anxiety has been defined by Barlow as an unpleasant inner state which is basically expecting or anticipating something bad or dreadful to happen to us that is basically not entirely predictable based on our actual situation or circumstances.

Anxiety is therefore taken as a complex blend of behavioral, cognitive, and physiological components.

Some of the common characteristics of anxiety-like a high degree of bodily arousal, physical tension, and persistent feelings of worry are not something that can be taken as accidental symptoms but are in fact due to the result of our fight mechanism or flight mechanism within our body.

All of these symptoms are basically important and crucial indicators that can help us to prepare for either ‘flight’ or ‘fight’.

Despite the fact that there is a lack of a threat to survive at sports, the flight or fight mechanism works in the same way, although the threat is more directed towards your self-concept.

Here, in this article we will discuss anxiety and how anxiety in sports can affect one’s performance.

Anxiety can be taken as a useful motivator for a person which can be both maladaptive and adaptive.

As a little anxiety can in fact motivate you, encourage you, and might bring positive change in your effort whereas similarly high levels of anxiety can result in disaster and can discourage your engagements in sports on the basis of fear, hence becoming maladaptive.

Here, in this article we will discuss anxiety and how anxiety in sports can affect one’s performance.

The line which differentiates between anxiety and worry/fear is uncertain.

Anxiety is a little more difficult as compared with fear as it is difficult to specify the exact form of danger as it is because of a more generalized type of worry or fear or apprehension.

Whereas fear is more because of a specific reason or an identifiable source of danger which can be obvious in most cases i.e. either an object, situation, or a person.

Here, in this article we will discuss anxiety and how anxiety in sports can affect one’s performance.

The state of ‘worry’ can be referred to as a cognitive element in anxiety and might also include the perspective of the person whether they have enough resources to cope with their current situation or they are lacking some.

Whereas on the other hand the state of ‘emotionality’ is referred to as the amount of physiological response that is shown by the individual to anxiety such as sweating and headaches.

Here, in this article we will discuss anxiety and how anxiety in sports can affect one’s performance.

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Main Types of Anxiety

There are mainly two main types of anxiety, state, and trait anxiety.

State anxiety is also known as the short term anxiety that is basically the state of emotional arousal that can be in response to perceiving a threat or any other specific or particular circumstances or reason and might link to the flight or fight reaction.

It can be said that state anxiety is a temporary condition that can occur in response to some perceived threat by the individual in relation to some action, like anxiety before speaking to a large gathering in public.

Trait anxiety is also termed as long term anxiety and basically means that anxiety is a personal trait for that individual.

This anxiety refers to the differences in the response of the individual in situations with state anxiety that means the productions of an arousal response.

For instance, individuals having higher trait anxiety are more likely to be aroused in specific situations than other individuals around them.

In terms of sports, low level or moderate levels of anxiety (Anxiety in sports) can be encouraging for the athletes making them well prepared for performance in the event whereas higher levels of anxiety can end up in causing athletes to perform below their usual level of performance or their usual standard of performance.

One of the obvious examples of such a situation is the penalty shoot out in a soccer game, during a major soccer competition the burden of the whole team rests on the player that is chosen to carry out the penalties often might lead to some spectacular misses as they might not be able to handle the pressure.

The general terminology when the player under extreme symptoms of anxiety (Anxiety in sports) focuses too much on the execution of the skills rather than just allowing it to flow automatically without any specific effort put into it, is known as ‘Choking’ and is well known throughout the sporting world.

However, if you are able to accept anxiety as a normal psychological reaction in terms of sports, it is highly likely that your performance will be less affected due to it. 

The symptoms for performance anxiety or anxiety in sports are often presented within the athletes and can be identified easily.

While under anxiety, some of the players are fired and pumped up during the ongoing competition but if they are interpreted during this rush of adrenaline, there is a high chance that negative thoughts might take over which will further interfere with their performance and their ability to perform well. 

Performance Anxiety and Sports Psychology (Anxiety in sports)

Individuals having social anxiety disorder (SAD) usually sufferers from the fear of performance and social situations.

The most common fear of these is the public speaking one, however, there are other types of performance fears including the athletic and musical ones which might lead to anxiety. 

The division of psychology that is aimed at preparing the mind of athletes for the competition and to make it better and better with time is known as sport psychology.

Many sports psychologists work with different athletes to help them overcome the anxiety issues related to their performance in big events and competitions.

In the worst-case scenario, this type of anxiety in sport is diagnosed as a social anxiety disorder (SAD).

Players may also suffer from Ladder anxiety before a big competition.

Performance Anxiety and Athletic Performance (Anxiety in sports)

Anxiety in sports during or right before an athletic event or competition can interfere with your ability to perform during the competition as an athlete.

It becomes extremely difficult to carry out the coordinated movements that are required by the athletic events when your body is tense and stiff.

While anxiety at a low level or small levels of physical arousal can be beneficial and motivational during the preparation for the sports competition but these levels when are at a greater level they might seriously be harmful to you and might interfere much with your ability to perform and compete at athletic events.

If there is a huge difference between your performance when you practice and when in an actual competition that anxiety might be the reason behind your performance and might be affecting your ability to perform well in events.

How Some Athletes Thrive Under Pressure (Anxiety in sports)

There might be some questions related to how some of the athletes are able to outperform everyone else when faced with tough competition in athletic events?

Research carried out by different researchers have shown that the most important factor that makes the difference in such cases is your self-confidence and how you utilize it to respond back to anxiety at the sport.

If you have full confidence in your ability then there is a high chance that you will have a more positive reaction and will be fired up and thriving in the event and giving out your best performance in the competition. 

Elite athletes are mostly so focused on their own behavior that they commonly take up arousal as excitement for the event rather than anxiety and make full use of it.

In general, if you believe in your own ability and feel that you are prepared for the event and competition then your self-confidence is usually at the highest point.

Whereas on the other hand if your confidence is strong there will be less to no worry in your mind as both are basically the two ends of the same spectrum.

How to Manage Performance Anxiety Symptoms (Anxiety in sports)

There are a number of different strategies that can help you relax and manage your anxiety related to athletic performance in competitions including progressive muscle relaxation and visualization.

Relaxation training

This training revolves around the relaxation of the body and is basically to teach the individuals and athletes a wide range of different routines that can help their body to relax and support it.

The main purpose of this training is to make the athlete feel relaxed not only in body but also in mind.

The feeling of relaxation can help the individual to become more focused on his performance and to carry it out effectively.

There are basically two types of relaxation training that is carried out for the athletes.

One type is the one that is related to practices beyond the competition settings and training pitch which can be in the form of participating in yoga classes or listening to music.

The other type of relaxation is related to changing the environment of the changing room which can induce positivity in them before the event, it can be by listening to some soothing music or using calming breathing techniques.

Deep breathing

Deep breathing is another way to relax one’s mind and is a strategy that has to be practiced a lot before it can become effective.

The main purpose of this exercise is to let an individual focus not only on his own breathing but also on different parts of his body during breathing in and out.

This will help them in tuning their whole body as a one-unit along with their breathing and it can help them relax especially the part of the body where they are tense. 

Goal setting

This is one of the simplest but also a useful technique that allows the individuals to set up goals and focus on the tasks at hand, moving towards a purposeful direction.

Individuals using this technique should not only set outcome goals but should also set up process related smaller goals which can help them in attaining their main goal.

Goal setting is technically a mechanism that can be used by individuals to develop small processes that can be used to achieve their set goals or targets. 

Positive self-talk

One other way to help you calm yourself through anxiety in sport is to do self-talking and should practice it on a regular basis.

Positive self-talk can help in supporting the cognitive abilities within our minds and a mind with a positive attitude will be more stable, balanced, and will provide you with a better chance of succeeding in the event. 

FAQ about anxiety in sports

Why do sports give me anxiety?

As an amateur athlete, it is highly likely to experience anxiety at a sport that might interfere with your performance during a sporting event.

As you are still new to the scene, you are lacking not only experience in competition but also how you can manage your aroused feelings of pumped up during the competition.

What helps with performance anxiety?

Some of the things that can be done to treat or utilize performance anxiety in a positive way are:

Always be prepared for the event: practice, practice, practice.

Limit the use of sugar and caffeine intake on the day of the performance.

Do not focus at all on the things you can do wrong
Shift the focus from your fear and yourself to the feeling of enjoyment you are gonna provide to the spectators.

Avoid any thoughts that might end up in producing self-doubts.


Gobinder Gill (2019): “ How to Deal with Anxiety in Sports”

Arlin Cuncic (2020): “Coping With Pre-Competition Nervousness”

Catherine Robertson (n.d.): “WHAT IS ANXIETY?”