There are butterflies in your stomach and you feel weightless. Weak. Your legs feel numb and you don’t feel like moving. Your hands sweat and you give up on wiping them off on your jersey. Your heart races. Your muscles tighten. You start to wonder about what is going on and if it will ever stop. Your focus is off the road and you have already forgotten the game plan.
Extremely uncomfortable right? Now, what if I told you that you could be the best player on the team not despite these feelings, but because of them? What if I told you that they could affect your play in a positive way? Would you take them? Would you elect to have all of these symptoms in order to be the best on your team? The best in your conference? According to social and sport psychologist Yuri Hanin (2010), research actually shows that functionally high anxiety, especially in top-level sport, is beneficial for athletic performance.
Most would just say that these feelings are normal and that you can’t do anything about it. But they would be wrong, at least partially. All of the above symptoms are signs of performance anxiety and performance anxiety is indeed very normal. However, plenty can be done to manage its symptoms. All of these signs are telling you that your body is gearing up for competition. It is getting ready. Your body is moving into a fight-or-flight response and your adrenaline is pumping. Performance anxiety is a very normal bodily function and it can actually be extremely beneficial. The reason there is a bad rap around it is because people do not know how to “tame” or “control” it per se. Those who can control their performance anxiety normally see increases in performance.
There are many things that can lead to performance anxiety in athletes. Yes, it is normal for the body to enter fight-or-flight mode, but there are many variables that can contribute to the amount of performance anxiety an athlete experiences. Ohuruogu, Jonathan, and Ikenchekwu (2016) believe that performance anxieties can arise from three origins: the personal, the motivational, and the environmental. Personal characteristics seem to play the largest role because performance anxiety is happening within ourselves. There are a number of personal factors that can play into anxiety levels. For example, an introvert may have a tougher time heading into a performance because they may tend to be more shy and secluded. The same can occur if an extrovert were to be doing a task that is very intimate or quiet. Sports with this style would be those such as golf, tennis, or darts.
There are also a number of environmental factors that play into performance anxiety. One’s lifestyle can also be a factor. Homelife and your support system can play a significant role in performance anxiety. Having a home life where your family does not support your choice of sport can be very difficult. Going into a competition knowing your family doesn’t necessarily agree puts a lot of pressure on you to perform and perform well. Having your family behind you is extremely important, but so is a support system outside of them. If your support system isn’t really a support system, it is hard to channel any outside energy to use for your performance. Your support system could even be your team. If your team has cliques and/or groups that ignore the others, it is hard to go into a competition knowing everyone is on the same page and will perform their jobs correctly. This situation can play into the performance anxiety you may already have because not only do you have to do your best, you are wondering whether or not your team will bring their best.
Motivation can also be a huge problem for performance anxiety. Being too motivated could cause arousal levels that are too high, resulting in poor performance. Poor performance could also be linked to not enough arousal due to low motivation levels. With low motivation, it is hard to perform at a high level. Due to feelings of failure and anxiety before competitions, it may be hard to find an optimal motivation level. The Yerkes-Dodson Law states that increased levels of arousal will increase performance. However, this is only until the optimal level is reached. Each person can have their own Yerkes-Dodson Law graph because not everyone performs at a high level at the same motivational level.
Sport psychology tells us that confidence may be environmental if it relates to a venue you perform well at. However, confidence is internal more than anything. Confidence is something that may be hard to find if there is a slump in performance, but that doesn’t mean confidence can’t be found. Some people are naturally more confident than others and there is nothing wrong with that. Confidence can come both internally or externally (i.e. from your team). It can help with performance anxiety because with it comes a sense of control in order to reduce anxiety. Having that “swagger” about yourself is something that is looked upon as very admirable for those who handle it in the right way. It is also important to know that there is no correct level for motivation, focus, or confidence. Everyone has their own optimal level of arousal. Having control over these three along with a few other characteristics is going to be very beneficial.
Hanin (2010) created a chain that explains why athletes may not be able to perform at their highest level.
1. Instability of technique and failure to deliver consistently expected results
2. Sudden breakdown or loss of skill
3. Habitual performance errors under competitive stress
With this chain, he is saying that in order to improve all of them, deliberately improving the first one will allow the others to fall in line. He says that the biggest component would be to influence the chain and enhance awareness of how it affects other components. Hanin (2010) talks about the ICC (Identification, Control, and Correction) model that plays a key role in helping with performance. Identifying the situation for what it is, controlling the things only you can control, and then correct what you may have done wrong in the past. A breakdown in any three of these areas could contribute to your level of anxiety. For example, a sudden loss of the ability to make solid contact (on a golf club) can leave you worried about that instead of focusing on routine and picking a small target to aim at. It is also going to be hard to perform at a high level when a negative habit has been developed due to stressors from the first two sections of the chain.
As amateurs, most people think that professional athletes do not have issues like performance anxiety. However, professional athletes are human just as we are and are subject to the same doubts, insecurities, and anxieties. US Olympic skier Mikaela Shiffrin found herself struggling with performance anxiety for some time and was able to rid herself of it in time by switching up her playlist. Yes, music was her escape. All she did was switch up her song choice which put her in what she called the “dark place in my mind, where I’m really aggressive.” Some cases are resolved as simply as that. Others are more complicated.
Professional golfer Graham DeLaet was struggling so nervously with his chipping and pitching before the 2016 Masters that he actually withdrew. He wasn’t a rookie at this point by any means; he was a seven year veteran. The Masters is also one of the most coveted tournaments in the sport, so withdrawing had to be tough. DeLaet had been playing golf for 22 years and never experienced anxiety this intense. He started to work with a sports psychologist and has since seen a great increase in his confidence levels. He also remains optimistic by saying, “I know that it might just take one good shot under pressure to know that it’s in there and kind of change that confidence level.” DeLaet is on a slow climb to get his game back to where he wants it, but understands it is a process.
Mikaela Shiffrin and Graham DaLaet show that there is no right or wrong answer to how performance anxiety should be dealt with. For people like Mikaela, it could be as simple as a song. For someone like Graham, it might take longer to gain confidence back on a certain task, specifically his chipping game. Gaining confidence will help Graham combat the anxiety that bubbles up when he has to hit a chip shot. He can use his newfound confidence to essentially override the self-doubt that anxiety can foster. Either way, it is important to note that it is a process and believing in something or someone may be all it takes. Reaching out to a sports psychologist does not show a sign of weakness, it shows that you have the strength to recognize a weakness that you want to turn into a strength.
Overcoming performance anxiety is a very interesting topic because there is no certain way to do it. We wish it were that easy, but nothing worth having is easy. If that something is worth it, then going out and doing the work for it should be an adventure in itself. Trial and error may be one of the best ways to overcome performance anxiety. Finding something that works directly for you is what is important.
Butterflies come to life in your stomach and the world starts to feel weightless. Your legs start to feel a little numb and you don’t feel like moving. Your hands slowly start to sweat and it is a lost cause to continue whipping them off on your uniform/jersey. You start to feel like your stomach just flipped and like you might need to hurl. Your heart is beating very rapidly. You feel your muscles tightening up as game time gets closer and closer. You start to wonder about what is going on and if it will ever stop. Your focus is off the road and you already forgot what the game plan was. More importantly, these physiological actions affect your play and…
This time you recognize all of these physiological happenings, and you welcome them. You realize that they are normal and that pre-performance anxiety happens to even some of the most elite athletes in the world. You understand that the body is gearing up for competition and actually preparing you to perform at a high level. Knowing that this is normal, you are more relaxed and correctly focused. Because you have been working on your confidence, you know you can use it to combat the anxiety you feel maybe building. Due to building confidence, it is helping you with your motivation levels. Now that you are motivated you are excited to compete, as opposed to shying away from the high of competition.
Were you uncomfortable and anxious a bit ago? More than likely. You probably are still a little uncomfortable now, but are you excited? Now that there is a little understanding of pre-performance physiological symptoms it poses the following question. Do you have performance anxiety or performance excitement?
A renowned sports psychologist by the name of Dr. Bob Rotella was once quoted saying, “If you want to feel ordinary, stay home.”
Ohuruogu, B., Ugwuayi, J., Ikechukwu, U. (2016). Psychological Preparation for Peak Performance in Sports Competition. Journal of Education and Practice, 7(12), 47-50.
Hanin, Y. (2010). Coping with Anxiety in Sport. Coping in Sport: Concepts, Issues, and Related Constructs. (159-175). Nova Science Publishers, Inc.
Krucoff, C. (1996, May 14). OVERCOMING SPORTS PERFORMANCE ANXIETY. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/wellness/1996/05/14/overcoming- sports-performance-anxiety/b7df5cb9-d687-4a72-a23e-117d22457152/?utm_term=.880fd6cfe85f>
Cohn, P. (n.d.). Blog Home. Retrieved from http://www.peaksports.com/sports-psychology-blog/performance-anxiety-in-sports/
Layden, T. (2018, January 29). How Mikaela Shiffrin conquered her anxiety on slopes. Retrieved from https://www.si.com/olympics/2018/01/29/mikaela-shiffrin-winter-olympics-2018-pyeongchang