700 Children's Blog

Sports Performance Anxiety: Preparing Your Child for Optimal Play

Sep 12, 2019
Athlete sitting on locker room bench, looking at their phone

Performance anxiety is a real issue that affects many athletes. Some athletes may thrive under pressure, while others can let negative thoughts affect their game.

There are many signs and symptoms of performance anxiety and no one athlete will experience the same exact things. Signs of performance anxiety include feelings of weakness, “butterflies” in the stomach, elevated heart rate, fast breathing, muscle tension, frustration, paralyzing terror, cold sweat, clammy hands and negative self-talk.

Pre-event anxiety is normal. Athletes can decrease this by practicing to prepare physically and mentally for the competition. For instance, during the event, centering their mind on the task at hand rather than what the outcome will be, accepting the nervous energy, but trying not to focus on it and reminding themselves why they play the game. Odds are it is because they love it and enjoy competing.

There are several coping techniques used to help athletes manage their game day anxiety and get their nerves under control.

Be Prepared

Athletes may want to arrive early to the event, become acquainted with their surroundings, take time to go through their pre-event routine and warm-up properly. This also helps them avoid being rushed or stressed prior to the event.

Visualization

Before a competition, athletes can visualize themselves being successful. For example, a volleyball athlete who always misses their serve, may want to close their eyes and see themselves in that exact situation, making their serve over the net.

During visualization, focusing on breathing and staying calm is a helpful technique; thinking of game-like situations that cause them the most stress and seeing themselves being successful in that moment. Commonly, this could be the feeling of everyone watching them, distractions from the crowd roaring or the normal pressure from what the real atmosphere will feel like.

Meditation and Breathing

Meditation is a mindfulness practice that can increase self-awareness, enhance attention and emotional regulation. It has been proven to increase focus and decision making skills, as well as lessen feelings of fear and stress. There are many ways to meditate. Meditation phone apps may be useful for athletes, as they can guide them through a session and help them focus on their thoughts, feelings and breathing.   

Smile and Laugh

Break the negative thought chain by forcing a smile. Smiling alone can help improve mood. This is not a long-term answer, but it can help with acute stressors or in the moment of pressure.

One of the most important and possibly difficult things for an athlete to do is to be mindful. It’s okay for athletes to recognize and process their thoughts of apprehension and tension. When they are aware of these feelings, they can utilize the above tools to help process them.

If an athlete is going through sport-related rehab from an injury, they may also suffer from performance anxiety. It is common for an athlete to lack the confidence to play the way they used to pre-injury. They may be hesitant to give 100 percent due to worry and fear of re-injury. Researchers also argue that there is risk for re-injury or a secondary injury for athletes who have anxiety returning to sport after an injury.

As always, getting plenty of sleep, eating a healthy diet and staying hydrated is important. If self-help strategies do not improve anxiety symptoms, be sure to seek advice from a physician or a medical professional to discuss your concerns.

For more information about Sports Medicine at Nationwide Children's Hospital, click here.

Featured Expert

Nationwide Children's Hospital Medical Professional
Sara Breidigan, MS, AT, ATC
Sports Medicine

Sara Breidigan, MS, AT, ATC is a certified athletic trainer for Functional Rehab at Nationwide Children's Hospital Sports Medicine. Sara has 8 years background working with collegiate, high school and youth athletes with injury prevention, rehabilitation and sports performance.

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700 Children’s features the most current pediatric health care information and research from our pediatric experts – physicians and specialists who have seen it all. Many of them are parents and bring a special understanding to what our patients and families experience. If you have a child – or care for a child – 700 Children’s was created especially for you.