It’s the night of your big game. You’ve trained and practiced for months, and now everyone — your coach, your team, your audience — is watching you. A win or a loss could come down to a single, split-second reflex. Your heart starts racing, and you can’t stop thinking about how everyone will react if you choke.
Sports performance anxiety, also called sports anxiety or competitive anxiety, is incredibly common. Estimates suggest anywhere from
Of course, knowing you’re in good company might come as cold comfort when trying to move past those overwhelming feelings of nervousness and tension.
But we’ve got some good news: You can take steps to handle and even prevent sports anxiety. What’s more, knowing why it happens can make a difference.
Read on to get the details on sports performance anxiety, along with a few tips to overcome it so you can get your head back where you want it — in the game.
Researchers often divide the signs of sports performance anxiety into mental and physical categories.
Common physical signs of sports anxiety include:
- Tremors. Maybe your hands shake when you’re holding a tennis racket, or your foot twitches when you need to stand still.
- Racing heart. Hormones like adrenaline and cortisol can make your heart beat faster.
- Hyperventilation. You might feel as if you’re choking or can’t catch your breath.
- Muscle tension. Your muscles may feel so tight they become painful, and you might also notice tension and pain in your head.
- Bathroom troubles. When you go into fight-or-flight mode, your body may rush through digestion so it can focus all its resources on survival. You might notice cramping and a sudden, strong urge to visit the toilet.
Common mental signs of sports anxiety include:
- Intense fear of failure. When you imagine losing, your mind may leap to the worst-case scenario. You might worry about letting your team down or others laughing at you.
- Disrupted focus. You might have trouble concentrating on the game, instead getting absorbed in how others react to your performance.
- Overthinking. You may temporarily “forget” how to do actions you used to do automatically, like swinging a baseball bat or catching a ball.
- Reduced self-confidence. You could start doubting your abilities and wonder whether you can really win.
Sports anxiety can eventually lead to:
- Self-sabotage. You may unconsciously set yourself up to fail by skipping breakfast or going to bed late the night before. Self-sabotage, in short, provides an “excuse” for a bad performance so you don’t lose face. Of course, a lack of preparation can also worsen your anxiety.
- Lashing out. Sometimes people express their worries through anger, shouting at teammates, or getting physical with opponents. According to a 2019 report, this is especially likely if your coach yells at you a lot.
- Poor performance. If you feel distracted and discouraged, chances are you won’t bring your A-game to the competition.
Experts have come up with a few
The Yerkes-Dodson law explains how stress and anxiety can affect performance. In a nutshell, your performance will likely suffer if your arousal levels are too low or too high. Your stress levels need to stay in a limited range in order for you to perform well.
- Low arousal. This means you find the sport boring, so you might not put forth your full effort.
- Optimal arousal. This means you feel engaged enough in the sport to push yourself a bit harder than usual.
- High arousal. This means the sport feels so stressful you may panic or freeze as a result. In this situation, you might experience sports anxiety.
This law can apply to any kind of performing task, from a stage rehearsal to a boxing match.
Keep in mind: Everyone has a different ideal level of stress. A match your teammate finds boring could feel overwhelming for you, in other words.
Smith and Smoll model
According to this model, multiple dimensions of anxiety can feed into one another.
- First, the mental element. You may anticipate how tough your upcoming match will be and wonder whether you can win. You could also start worrying about any consequences of losing.
- Next, the physical symptoms. As you become more anxious, your body’s fight-or-flight response might kick in. This response can lead to physical symptoms like sweating and shaking.
- Then, the in-the-moment impact. Physical and mental anxiety symptoms could easily distract you from the game and affect your ability to play. As your performance declines, you may feel increasingly worried. Anxiety about losing, then, can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Sports anxiety may affect some people more than others. You might have a higher chance of experiencing other types of anxiety if you already live with an anxiety disorder, for example.
Other potential risk factors include:
- Being an athlete. If doing well at sports makes up a big part of your identity, then a loss could serve a large blow to your self-esteem. After all, the outcome of a game may matter more to you than to someone who plays for fun.
- Age. A 2018 review of 59 studies found adolescent competitors are more likely to have sports anxiety than adults. They also tend to experience physical symptoms more often.
- Experience. Someone attending their first competition may have a higher chance of experiencing sports anxiety than a longtime competitor. The level of competition, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to play a part. In other words, junior varsity players are just as likely to experience it as college players.
- Gender. A
2019 reviewfound that girls tend to report sports anxiety more frequently, though experts aren’t entirely sure why. Girls might have a higher risk of anxiety in general, or they could simply face less stigma around expressing emotions.
Even if you don’t identify with any of these traits, you can still have sports performance anxiety. Certain factors can increase the risk for anyone:
- An important game. Big games often yield big rewards. A finals match could win you a medal, prize money, or even a scholarship. This can create a lot of pressure.
- Social expectations. When a whole stadium comes to watch you play, it’s easy to feel like a single game will make or break your reputation. This is especially true in communities that consider sports a big deal.
- Helicopter parents. In child sports, parents can contribute to plenty of anxiety.It can feel mortifying to witness your parent screaming at the referee every time the opposing team scores. Even if your parent behaves well in public, you may worry about them criticizing your performance in private.
- Past failure. If you’ve messed up in the past, those mistakes could loom large in your head. You might feel obligated to “redeem” yourself with a better performance this time around.
- Solo competition. When you compete by yourself, you don’t have any teammates to cover for your mistakes. Victory depends on you and you alone.
You can take a few different steps to navigate sports anxiety, both in the moment and ahead of the event.
Self-talk is exactly what it sounds like: a conversation you have with yourself.
Saying things like “I’m not prepared at all” or “I’m doomed to lose,” can easily derail your mood, not to mention your self-confidence. But you can consciously stop those thoughts and replace them with more encouraging messages, such as “Let’s do what I practiced” or “I can play a great game and win this.”
A 2019 study on 117 junior athletes found self-talk can help athletes in a wide variety of sports. Athletes who practiced positive self-talk tended to notice:
- more self-confidence
- fewer physical anxiety symptoms
- improved athletic performance
When you feel anxious before a big match, consider putting in some earbuds and listening to some calming tunes. Music can help reduce anxiety for athletes and nonathletes alike.
Studies disagree on whether the kind of music makes a difference.
Part of the difference in results may relate, in part, to how each study measured anxiety. The 2014 study mostly measured subjective anxiety through questionnaires, while the 2017 study considered physical anxiety responses.
Research suggests meditation can decrease sports anxiety.
When it comes to meditation, you have plenty of types to choose from. One quick method you can try right now is focused attention meditation.
To give it a try:
- Grab a nearby object. This can be anything, even a sock.
- Focus your entire mind on the sock. Examine the color, texture, even its smell (if you’re brave enough).
- Aim to keep your attention on the sock and the sock alone. This might prove more challenging than it sounds, since anxious minds can easily wander.
- If you catch your thoughts drifting, don’t give yourself a hard time. Just gently shift your thoughts back to the sock.
When your mind tries to jump ahead into an anxious future, this approach can help reset your focus and return your mind to a calm present. To put it another way: Where worries once flooded your mind, now there is only sock.
A 2017 study suggests focused attention meditation can be especially helpful if you compete in solo sports without time pressure, like gymnastics or archery. That said, you may want to do your meditation before the big match, rather than trying to meditate and compete at the same time.
Plenty of people feel anxious now and then, but extreme sports anxiety can eventually have a negative impact on your mental health without treatment.
It’s generally time to consider professional support if:
- You begin to have panic attacks, which can involve more extreme symptoms like muscle weakness and chest pain.
- Your heart rate stays high even during rest.
- You start noticing sudden, frequent changes in mood.
- You find yourself wishing you would get seriously injured or sick so you don’t have to play anymore.
Remember, therapy is confidential, so you don’t have to tell your coach or teammates about getting support unless you want to. It never hurts to open up about what you find helpful, though.
Many therapists offer specialized support in sports psychology, so support is out there.
To get started, you might try doing a Google search or visiting a therapist directory to search for professionals with training in sports psychology.
Get more tips on finding the right therapist.
Sports performance anxiety is incredibly common, even among elite athletes. When your emotions run high enough, your performance may take a hit.
Worried about making a major mistake during a game? It can help to try the relaxation techniques above. If your anxiety doesn’t improve and begins to affect your performance, a trained therapist can offer more personalized guidance and coping support.
Emily Swaim is a freelance health writer and editor who specializes in psychology. She has a BA in English from Kenyon College and an MFA in writing from California College of the Arts. In 2021, she received her Board of Editors in Life Sciences (BELS) certification. You can find more of her work on GoodTherapy, Verywell, Investopedia, Vox, and Insider. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.