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Dealing With Performance Anxiety

Information provided by Sam Brown and Emily Cisternino. Check out their Performance Anxiety panel for more information 💚

Performance anxiety is a common struggle that many competitive athletes face, studies estimate around 30-60% of athletes experience some type of performance anxiety

Performance anxiety can create different physiological and cognitive symptoms/bodily responses, and experiences vary from person to person.

Anxiety vs Jitters

It is important to understand the distinction between anxiety versus jitters.

Performance jitters can be helpful, and many athletes thrive off of the nervous excitement of pregame jitters. The “jitters” tend to subside once the athlete steps onto the field, court, track, etc., which is what differentiates it from performance anxiety.

Performance anxiety is detrimental to an athlete’s overall quality of performance. Often with performance anxiety, cognitive and physiological symptoms are present leading up to the performance, exacerbated throughout the duration of the performance, and can remain afterward as well.

What is the First Step to Overcoming Performance Anxiety

Cisternino and Brown emphasize the biggest step to overcoming performance anxiety is being aware of it. Being aware of how it presents itself, physiologically, cognitively, or both, as well as triggers. What are specific performances where the anxiety presents itself? What are those fears underlying performance anxiety?

Being aware of your thinking and how it makes you feel, is the biggest first step in overcoming and addressing it. Step 1 is self-awareness and step 2 is self-regulation.

Also, self-confidence! Research has shown that a decrease in self-confidence correlates with an increase in performance anxiety (and vise versa).

It is important to speak with coaches/staff about what you need, and what will help you (they might not understand what you are experiencing if they have not experienced it in the past, or have experienced it in a different way).

Recommendations for Someone to Seek Support For Performance Anxiety

Open up, and normalize conversations about performance anxiety.

Also, utilize resources around you. There are additional resources out there, even if your institution does not have any, it just takes a little research.

Do your own research. If you are uncomfortable reaching out to a sports performance coach or counselor, doing research on performance anxiety itself, how it presents itself, potential causes, strategies for recovery, etc.

There is no one-size approach for every athlete, trial and error is so important to find what works best for you. Whether that be meditation, working on breathing patterns, or journaling to address certain thought patterns, find and do what works best for you.

Performance anxiety can be impacted by your environment, whether that be pressure from a teammate, coach, parent, yourself, etc. Be aware of your environment and how you can work with those around you to help with your performance anxiety.

Building Your Toolbox

After becoming more aware of performance anxiety, it is important to continue to practice being aware of anxious thoughts, implementing thought replacement strategies, etc. More practice with these coping strategies in lower-pressure situations like practice or workouts will help make the process easier during high-pressure situations.

Everyone’s individual coping skills will vary.

“It really does come down to the tools that you have in your toolbox. For example, I have a toolbox at my house and inside I have my drill, screwdriver, hammer, etc. and that’s all well and good, but not all the tasks I need my toolbox for, require every one of my tools,” said Brown. “The same applies to mental skills training. When it comes to performance anxiety, there are many skills out there that when learned and practiced can help you learn what works best for you in those situations. The right tool will vary from person to person.”

A tool that Brown and Cisternino recommend is mindfulness. Mindfulness encompasses having present-moment awareness, noticing all of the things happening around us, and being aware, but accepting them for what they are, and moving on to the next thing.

Another recommended tool is deliberate breathing techniques. Diaphragmatic breathing, and being intentional with breathing can be an effective and calming strategy for performance anxiety, and help decrease “fight or flight”.

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