Pre- performance Anxiety in Sports

Whether it’s the anger-fuelled drive that results in the winning goal or the disgust over a ref’s call that ends in a turnover, emotion is almost always present in sports.


Sport has a unique propensity to ignite passions and stir emotions. High stakes and heightened emotions are characteristic of competitive sport, particularly at the highest level. For those who operate in elite and professional sport the presence of stress seems ubiquitous. Anticipation of an important event, such as a big game, major competition, or selection trials naturally inspire a host of feelings, thoughts, and emotions, ranging from excitement to anxiety and even dread, sometimes simultaneously!


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Your ability to perform consistently is often determined by the consistency of your emotions; as your emotions go, so go your performances. And your ability to respond positively to the inevitable challenges you will face in training and competition are, again, often impacted by your emotional reactions to those challenges.

The unpredictability around sports is the major contributor to athletes’ stress. It can be about the outcome of a particular match, their performance, and their opponents’ capabilities.


This unpredictability can lead to an athlete experiencing what we call it performance anxiety.


As is often said, it is the little things that can often prove to be the difference between success and failure for an athlete. The undoubted talent may have been complemented by the perfect training schedule and preparation, yet when it comes to the big day, the athlete is unable to produce their best. At times it can appear almost inexplicable as to why the combination of all these factors didn’t result in the success that was anticipated, and in some cases the reason comes down to the question of anxiety.



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A touch of anxiety before a big game or match is normal, and even healthy, for athletes. It’s what pumps you up for the game, keeps you focused, and gives you the competitive edge you need to strive for victory. However, anxiety can backfire when it overtakes an athlete's perceived abilities.


Performance anxiety is typically triggered by a fixation or fear of the uncertainty of future events.


This anxiety is like fire alarms. They appear to exist outside of us but, in truth, are projections of what could’ve, should’ve or would’ve happened to us during competition.


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Most anxiety that a player feels is not related to the game itself but what’s going on inside their mind. Here are the most common causes:

  1. Having an audience – Even positive, supportive parents can make athletes self-conscious about the decisions they make. Why? Their presence can make an athlete put pressure on themselves to perform well and avoid disappointing those they most care about.

  2. Thinking too much - When athletes overthink their body mechanics in high-stress physical situations, instead of using muscle memory to do what they’ve practiced, they’re more likely to choke.

  3. High expectations: Every athlete wants to do their best, but when they set expectations to always perform at an optimal level all the time, the pressure can lead to fear of failure, disappointment, guilt, negative self-talk, and even feeling physically sick without a physical cause. It is wise to remember that no one can play the perfect game, or even a good game every time.

  4. Recovering from an injury - After an athlete gets hurt, it can take a long time to restore their confidence.

How can we re-navigate?


Pre event solutions:

  • Recognize that pre-race jitters are normal. Accept, rather than fight, the nervous energy you feel. Don't misinterpret it by thinking that it is fear. That adrenaline rush you feel is normal and it is part of your body's natural preparation for the competition. Notice it, but don't focus on it. Once the race starts, that feeling will subside as it always does.

  • Prepare both mentally and physically. Arrive at the event with plenty of time so you aren't rushed, which only increases your stress. Get a thorough warm-up. Do some easy stretching. Know the course. Dress for conditions.

  • Visualize. In the days leading up to the event, allow a few minutes to practice visualization. During this time, you mentally rehearse, showing yourself doing everything right. Breathe easy, close your eyes, and use mental imagery to visualize yourself performing well. This positive self-talk can change your attitude. While athletes need to be flexible enough to react to the event, you should enter the event with a general strategy of how you want to race. Your strategy can be simple (maintain a steady pace or maintain a steady heart rate) or complex. Visualization is also a great tool to play out different potential scenarios that may occur during the actual event/competition.

Event Day Solutions

  • Focus on the task at hand rather than the outcome. Stay present in the moment and avoid thinking too far into the event or thinking about the finish.​ If you find yourself thinking negative thoughts or negative self-talk, stop and focus only on your breathing. Focusing on your breathing rhythm will automatically pull you back into the present.

  • Imagine a practice day. It may help to look at your event not as a competition or race day, but rather a practice day where you are playing with a friend. For instance, if it is baseball, imagine being in the backyard throwing the ball with a friend. Many times, the competition idea/anxiety takes the fun out of sports, and we just need to remind ourselves of the fun we have when we are just playing.

  • Race like you don't care about the outcome. If you find yourself caught up in negative thoughts and find that you suddenly expect the worst, it will be impossible to perform at your peak. If you begin to race like you don't care about the outcome, you may relax and enjoy the event for what it is - another day in your life. Not the most important thing in your life.

Post Event Solutions

  • Review the race and recall the things you did well. Focus on actions, thoughts, and behaviours that helped you perform.

  • Acknowledge, but quickly dismiss things that hindered your performance. This is the same principle as avoiding an obstacle while driving - look where you want to go, not where you don't. When you focus on the pothole, you invariably hit it. Focusing on the negative aspects of the event will not help you improve in the future. Rather, you want to focus on the times when you 'got it right.' This is a form of mental rehearsal where you practice skills that will be used in the next event.

  • Design a training program that mimics race-like conditions. Teams and clubs often do such training. If you always train alone, consider joining a group so you can do this type of simulation. Practice is most effective if you can mimic the conditions, you will be faced with in competition.

Reference: Elizabeth Quinn


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