Experiencing anxiety before a big sports event is normal, but what happens when this anxiety prohibits optimal sports performance?
After a winter hiatus and with spring sports just around the corner, many children develop sports performance anxiety. This usually happens before or during a tryout or event, but can possibly occur even after an event. The purpose of this article is to help coaches, trainers, and parents do the following:
- Understand what sports performance anxiety is
- Identify the symptoms
- Understand the reasons it might occur
- Aid youth athletes in coping with this anxiety
Types of Anxiety
According to sports psychologist Catherine McCanny, anxiety is a state of psychological and physical symptoms brought about by a sense of apprehension of a perceived threat. Psychologists generally differentiate between two types of anxiety, trait anxiety and state anxiety:
- Trait anxiety refers to an aspect of personality in which nervousness is considered a personality trait.
- State anxiety refers to temporary feelings of anxiety in a particular situation.
“Adult expectations, especially if the pressure to win at all costs is emphasized, may become excessive and overwhelm young athletes.”
We all experience anxiety in different ways, dependent upon the situation. How anxiety manifests itself and how a person deals with anxiety is individually driven. A person with a trait anxiety may find many everyday situations stressful and is more prone to experiencing state anxiety, as well.
Performance Anxiety Broken Down
Knowing and understanding the general psychological terms of anxiety, let’s now apply them to sports performance anxiety. In Jason Kelly’s article Performance Anxiety, he draws largely on the research and studies conducted by psychology professor Sian Beilock. Beilock specializes in cognitive psychology and explores how our minds can trick us in high stress situations. More specifically, her work applies to athletes in high stress sports situations.
Beilock’s research indicates that certain types of physical expertise, such as fielding a ground ball, are best performed outside our conscious awareness. This is especially true under stressful conditions. In the example of fielding a ground ball, she asserts athletes perform best when they rely on their training – when the actions of fielding a ground ball are part of their procedural memory. While the implied and complex motor skills to field that ground ball are difficult for the youth to verbalize, his or her procedural memory can execute the actions necessary. In a physical training sense, this is known as muscle memory.
“The quality and level of coaching and/or quality of supervision may trigger sports performance anxiety, as well.”
High stress sports situations or events can compromise procedural memory. This scenario is more commonly referred to as “choking under pressure.” Under stress, youth athletes tend to think about the mechanics of their actions to try to control the situation, but that conscious thought process actually diminishes their performance.
The Manifestation of Anxiety
A solution might be easy arrived at if the youth athlete could verbally identify his or her sports performance anxiety, but chances are the athlete cannot recognize it. Instead, the anxiety manifests in a variety of ways.
Dr. Jeremy Pettit, a psychologist specializing in anxiety, identified some symptoms:
- A sudden reluctance to play or participate in the sport
- No longer being interested in a sport that was previously enjoyed
- Complaints of headaches and stomachaches
- A fear of playing sports
- Sleep disturbances, extreme fatigue, or depression
External stresses can also contribute to youth sports performance anxiety. Adult expectations, especially if the pressure to win at all costs is emphasized, may become excessive and overwhelm young athletes. The quality and level of coaching and/or quality of supervision may trigger sports performance anxiety, as well.
“Under stress, youth athletes tend to think about the mechanics of their actions to try to control the situation, but that conscious thought process actually diminishes their performance.”
Craig Sigl, known world wide as a “Mental Toughness Trainer” for youth athletes, asserts that other factors, such as the behavior of parents, may add to a child’s sports performance anxiety. He asks parents to be aware of the following behaviors:
- Do you offer unsolicited advice about how to perform better?
- Do you communicate disappointment verbally or non-verbally?
- Do you show affection to celebrate good performance and withhold affection after poor performance?
- Do you praise or encourage only after good performances?
Getting Past the Anxiety
It is never to late to help young athletes cope with sports performance anxiety. Once the coach, trainer, or parent identifies the symptoms, there are ways to teach the youth athlete to deal with and conquer that anxiety.
Sports Medicine expert, Dr. Elizabeth Quinn offers these suggestions to help youth athletes control and conquer sports performance anxiety:
- Recognize that pre-event anxiety is normal
- Prepare mentally and physically for the event
- Visualize your entire performance
During the event:
- Focus on the task at hand, rather than the outcome
- Force a smile if you are struggling with negative thoughts. This simple action will change your attitude in a split second
- Race/play like you don’t care about the outcome. Enjoy the event!
- Review the event and recall the things you did well
- Acknowledge, review, and then dismiss the actions that hindered your performance
- Design a training program that mimics event-like conditions
Supporting Our Youth Athletes
Anxiety is normal before a big event. The issue is when anxiety prohibits optimal performance and holds a young athlete back. With coaches, trainers, and parents understanding what sports performance anxiety is and why it occurs, as well as how to identify the symptoms of those suffering from it, they can help a youth athlete conquer the anxiety and continue to enjoy their sport.
Read more about youth athletics:
- Understanding the Off-Season for Youth Athletes
- 7 Ways to Build Self-Esteem in Youth Athletes
- Foundational Training for Youth Athletes: Are You Doing It?
- What’s New on Breaking Muscle Today
1. “Allowing Youth Sports to be Child’s Play.” Nationwide Children’s Hospital. Accessed February 8, 2015.
2. Catherine McCanny, “Anxiety Within Sport.” The Sport in Mind, 2014. Accessed February 8, 2015.
3. Craig Sigl, “Parents’ Role in their Kid’s Sports Performance Anxiety.” Accessed February 8, 2015
4. Elizabeth Quinn, Dr., “Overcoming Performance Anxiety with Sports Psychology.” Accessed February 8, 2015.
5. Jason Kelly, “Performance Anxiety.” University of Chicago Magazine. Nov-Dec 2011.
Accessed February 8, 2015.
6. Patrick Cohn, “Helping Young Athletes Who Suffer From Anxiety.” April 9, 2014. Accessed February 8, 2015.
Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.