A phobia is a type of anxiety disorder that is experienced as a persistent, excessive, unrealistic fear of an object, person, animal, activity or situation. A person with a phobia either tries to avoid the thing that triggers the fear, or endures it with great anxiety and distress. Some phobias that athletes deal with are very specific and limited. For example, a baseball player might fear getting hit by a pitch, but the person lives relatively free of anxiety when not in the batters box facing a pitcher. Other phobias cause cause athletes to struggle in a wider variety of places or situations. For example, symptoms of “stage fright” (performance anxiety) can be triggered by simply seeing a picture of a stadium full of sports fans. Athletes who battle phobias may need to alter their lives drastically in order to escape dealing with the related anxiety. In extreme cases, the phobia may dictate the length of an athlete’s career, and shorten the career dramatically.
Types of phobias
- Specific phobia. People may fear specific people (i.e. dentists), or situations (i.e. flying in a plane). For athletes, phobias can develop around specific people (i.e. a wild pitcher in baseball, or a hard-hitting football player), or situations (i.e. big crowds and/or specific games of importance).
- Social phobia. People with social anxiety disorder fear social situations where they may be humiliated, embarrassed or judged by others. They become particularly anxious when unfamiliar people are involved. Some athletes, including former NFL player Rickey Williams, have struggled with social phobia when pressed for interviews and/or other public appearances.
In addition to specific and social phobias, agoraphobia is a third phobia recognized by psychologists and is known as a fear of being in public places where it would be difficult or embarrassing to make a sudden exit. Regardless of the type of phobia one experiences, all phobias can be stressful, limiting, and a compromising factor relating to human performance.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy can help people control (and eventually extinguish) symptoms relating to a phobia, especially when using desensitization therapy or exposure therapy. These techniques involve various exposure patterns that present the anxiety-causing stimulus either direct and immediate (i.e. flooding), or gradually over time combined with relaxation strategies (i.e. systematic desensitization). With these approaches individuals are taught to master their fear through relaxation, breathing control, self talk, and other anxiety-reducing strategies.
Remember, a phobia is based on having an irrational fear toward something, meaning that you have learned to respond with fear and anxiety to specific things/conditions. The good news is that just as you learned to trigger anxiety when you came into contact with the phobia, you can also unlearn the old way you responded and re-learn a new way for handling the thing/condition in the future.
Sports phobias can lead to a host of problems, including performance anxiety. The good news is that athletes who seek professional treatment for their phobias generally see improvement, and the results from treatment can last indefinitely so long as the athlete continues to use the anxiety-reducing techniques he or she learned in treatment. Conversely, athletes who ignore help for their phobia(s) run the risk of experiencing ongoing anxiety, as well as potentially seeing their sports career end prematurely.