#68: Performance Anxiety in Athletes: What It Is & How to Help

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Elite Athletes use performance anxiety to their advantage!

A lot of moms are stating their girls are having trouble with performance anxiety, whether it’s overthinking, not performing at their best, hesitating, or just having that overpowering feeling. of being nervous. Performance anxiety can be seen as a problem, but it can also be used to the athletes advantage. 

Elite athletes have pre-programmed methods to use these feelings to their advantage. On the other hand, the average athlete may only hope that the sensation will pass.

So, if you’re one of the moms who’s worried about performance anxiety, then this is the episode for you.

We’re going to talk about what performance anxiety is and how you can help right away. 

Performance Anxiety vs Nerves

All athletes can relate to that feeling of nervousness and NOT wanting to do the game at the moment even though they love the sport. It’s very common to have those nerves and anxiety before a game starts. And based on experience, the feeling stays in every competition you take part in. 

Part of that feeling is actually normal for athletes.

Oftentimes, what people mistake for performance anxiety is really athletes’ natural nervousness. Because feelings of nervousness are our body’s way of preparing us for the task at hand. It’s a natural reaction to something important to us.

It’s natural for human bodies to react to something that matters in front of us.

We get these feelings every time we face certain types of situations:

  • Butterflies
  • Uneasiness
  • Dry mouth
  • Sweaty hands, and other symptoms

These are all normal for an athlete and even a non-athlete to feel.

Your athletes might feel tummy troubles before the game, and that’s because their blood is flowing to the brain and to the heart. That’s an indicator that their body is prepared to fight and that they’re ready.

And so when your athlete starts to talk about butterflies in their stomach, dry mouth, sweaty palms, fast-beating heart– it’s a sign that they’re READY to go. 

Many times, athletes feel nervous and think there is something wrong. They categorize it as anxiety because they are unsure of what their body is doing.

And that’s how athletes mistake natural nerves for anxiety. To an extent, some athletes feel more than just butterflies, they get a little bit of nausea and they vomit, but part of it can still be categorized as normal. 

“I’m feeling anxious” vs “I have anxiety”

The first step in helping your athlete is knowing the difference between nerves and anxiety. So simply saying that what they feel is just a signal that they’re ready to play, is a rapid mindset shift that might benefit them.

And our bodies don’t even realize it senses worry and excitement in the same way. It’s as if that’s just a different way of expressing the same emotion.

As a result, we label the sensation in the wrong way. The nerves would start to affect negatively when your athlete starts to think that she’s getting “anxiety”. And then she’s going to go into a spiral of negative thinking. When she labels it negatively and focuses on the negative side, the negative effect expands. She might even think she’s not up for success.

But if she relabeled THAT SENSATION as her body’s way of saying she’s ready and she’s excited, then we can go into more of a positive mindset. And she’ll be pumped to play because she knows her body is excited.

These are some more signals that our bodies are preparing us for something big:

  • Appetite goes away
  • Inability to focus
  • “Dropping” feeling in the stomach
  • “Jitters” 
  • Nausea/vomiting

All these body signals go away once your athlete starts to play.

But when does it become excessive? Now, if your athlete experiences:

  • Debilitating thoughts
  • She’s stuck in a loop
  • Overthinks everything
  • She can’t sleep
  • She’s not eating days before the game

That’s much more debilitating and not going to be helpful for her. She needs to learn and redirect her mind so that her skills become automatic.

The Right Balance

The right amount of pregame nervousness and anxiety actually enhances an athlete’s performance. Athletes need it. But if she goes out there and she’s constantly focusing on her excessive anxious thoughts, she’s not going to play her best.

In order to strike the balance, athletes need:

  • To know their optimal zone. Athletes who go through The Elite Competitor Program learn their optimal zone is. We call this their “hype number”. They learn to be self-aware of where they need to be and what it feels like to be prepared to play their best.
  • A routine to get them there. Athletes should learn to have a routine that helps them play their best consistently. She has to find out a routine that gets her to that place where she’s at her best. We teach a night before and a pre-performance routine leading up to the event.
  • Strategies for when they feel themselves below or above their optimal zone. The key though is athletes have to be aware of where they need to be and awareness of when they’re thrown out of the zone.

If they don’t have a routine to ground them and strategies to get to their ideal state, they’ll revert to their previous state. They must be alert, follow a routine, and use tactics to reclaim their balance.

And if we wait for athletes to get in these situations where they are super nervous and then throw a new routine idea at them thinking they’ll figure it out… they won’t!

They need to have strategies before they get into those situations where they are nervous and they’re experiencing anxiety.

To sum it up, it takes self-awareness to make an athlete’s pre-game nerves work for them.

  • Pre-game nerves can actually help an athlete perform better to some level, as long as she reframes it to make sure it’s working to her advantage. It is normal for an athlete to feel it and it’s a sign that she’s ready to go.

To strike a good balance of their pre-game nerves, and to avoid excessive anxiety;

  • First, they need to know what their optimism is. They have to know their hype number. 
  • Second, they have to have a routine to get them there and it has to be consistent. So we teach athletes in the program, a routine that they do the night before, and then also a routine that they do leading up to their competition. 
  • Third, they need to have strategies to maintain the right amount of hype that works best for them.

These things have to be preloaded. 

Athletes are experiencing pregame anxiety as a result of the pressures they’re putting on themselves. It might be those expectations that they believe their parents or coaches place on them.

And they have to do the work to uncover some of these things inside them. They need to have the skill to notice their OWN nervousness and what they’re projecting. 

What you can do to support as a mom is to have a routine yourself so that you’re providing the space she needs. No reminders, no asking a bunch of questions. You can just ask her what she needs from you instead and what kind of support she prefers.

There are some strategies she can use such as;

  • Box breathing.
  • Visualization.
  • Something distracting (singing, highlight-reel cards, etc).

We all teach those techniques at the Elite Competitor Program and we hone our athletes to be more self-aware. You can give them the opportunity to learn these skills and also- gain support from your fellow sports moms in our community.

Your daughter can have everything it takes to be her BEST, she just needs to learn how.


Helpful Links

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