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  • Writer's pictureCoach Cathy Barry

Performance Anxiety - A Silent Killer

Written by Coach Cathy Barry - Head Coach of the Eclipse Track and Field Club.

Performance anxiety in our youth today is very real. The problem with performance anxiety is when it causes athlete to disconnect from the sport they once really enjoyed. Let’s face it, anxiety is in all of us and its part of our DNA and emotional character. It's how we process anxiety that makes us all a little different.

Anxiety has long been regarded as an "unpleasant" feeling, and anyone suffering from anxiety had something wrong with them. Until we can recognize that anxiety is actually one of our many fundamental necessary emotions and recognize that is has a part in our individuality, we can’t truly understand how to deal with it.

Performance Anxiety before and during athletic competition can drastically affect and interfere with an athlete’s performance, especially is anxiety is connected to negative thought patters and expectations of failure and ridicule can bring about the self-fulling prophecies in the athlete’s mind.

The good news is that research shows that self-confidence plays a vital role in how athletes respond to symptoms of anxiety during athletic performances. If an athlete is confident in their abilities, they are more likely to have a positive reaction to being "pumped up" and will thrive on the challenge of competition. Studies have shown that Elite athletes are often so focused on their behavior that they interpret the “arousal of feelings” as excitement rather than anxiety.

How to Identify Performance Anxiety in Athletes:

For many athletes, they fear the feelings of anxiety. This also means that they probably won’t be able to communicate what they are nervous about initially. Some may not even realize that they are anxious; however, they might show signs of irritability or have trouble sleeping. There may be talk about wanting to quit a sport or activity. In some cases, they may pretend to be sick or injured to avoid participating, or even develop some physical symptoms; such as a stomach ache, that in actuality stems from anxiety. They may begin to feel light headed, report headaches, heart palpitations, sweating, frequent urination or diarrhea and even shortness of breath.

So how can coaches and parents figure out what's going on?

Sometimes it helps to approach the subject obliquely. You might tell your athlete about your own experience feeling nervous before a competition or event. Or you can also invoke the example of an athletic hero: "Do you think Steph Curry ever gets scared before a big game?" Prompts like these can help athletes understand and name their feelings. Try to help your athlete name the specifics of their worries. Are they worried about forgetting what to do? Letting down the team? Making a mistake? Getting hurt? Once you know, you can help reassure your athlete, and/or ask their coach to do the same. You can also problem-solve with them, suggesting some of the techniques below. In some cases, having a professional talk with your athlete can really help.

How Athletes Can Cope with Performance Anxiety:

There are a number of strategies that athletes can employ to reduce performance anxiety symptoms:

1. Reduce negative thought patternsthat contribute to anxiety through cognitive restructuring (self-help books on cognitive-behavioral therapy will help with this)

2. Learn how to interpret “excitement/anxiety” during competition as positive or acceptable rather than negative

3. Ensure that you have practiced enoughso that you are confident during competition

4. Visualization- visualizehimself/herself performing well at practices and at competitions

5. Set goals. Talk to your athlete about what they hope to achieve at their next performance or game. Help them come up with an aim that is a stretch, but not unreachable. Instead of taking first place, maybe they want to beat a certain time or nail a particular skill. Focusing on that may take some of the pressure off of the overall event.

6. Breathe deep.Deep or diaphragmatic breathing can reduce anxiety and help athletes feel more relaxed. They can practice at home, on the way to games or meets, in the locker room or on the sidelines.

What Coaches and Parents Can Do When Athletes Feel Anxious:

Aside from coaching your athlete through the techniques above, you can also help by setting the stage for a lower-stress experience.

1. Offer reassurance and unconditional love.Not every athlete will believe or accept your words of reassurance, but some will. You can remind your athlete of how well they have done at past events, how much practice time they have put in, how much faith you and their coaches have in them, and most importantly, that you care for them very much no matter what happens. You can also remind them that some things are just out of everyone's control: the weather, for example, or a judge's whims. But never discount or brush off your athlete's worries.

2. Do your part. Calm worries by making sure your athlete gets enough sleep and eats healthy foods. Most athlete should be responsible for their own sports equipment, uniforms, water bottles, and so on. But you can make sure everything is packed early and allow enough travel time to get to events. Rushing to a game or competition in a panic is a rough way to start out.

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