Sports anxiety is a very real thing for athletes, but the origin of where sports anxiety develops isn’t very real, ironically. I realize that’s a confusing statement, but here’s what I mean by it — any athlete that deals with anxiety knows it is a very real experience that often consists of stomach butterflies, tight muscles, distorted thinking, rapid heart rate, and shallow breathing. While those are very real symptoms, what initiates and drives anxiety isn’t very real at all. Interestingly, it is our irrational thinking that triggers sports anxiety in the vast majority of cases, and until athletes overcome their irrational thoughts there will always be a risk for experiencing sports anxiety.
Examining irrational fear that triggers sports anxiety
When we examine the origin of choking (or failing to compete in games to the level you do in practice), it’s important to dissect human fear. When we view situations as threatening, regardless of whether there is validity to our thinking, our bodies react and respond accordingly. Using a non-sport example you might think of how you respond while watching a scary movie — while you know it’s just a movie, it’s not unusual to react by experiencing anxiety, tense muscles, and even covering your eyes to avert what’s coming up next. An analogy can be made here to what athletes often experience with their own unique irrational fears. More specifically, when athletes fail to perform as they know they can, more times than not it is because of irrational fear (meaning there is no real harm or threat in the sense of physical pain and suffering). For example, all of the examples below have been found to trigger anxiety, yet in every case the anxiety is experienced solely due to irrational thinking:
- What if I mess up and people see it?
- What if I fail to live up to expectations?
- What if I let my team/coach down again?
- What if I don’t break my slump today?
- What if I have another bad day today?
How to beat irrational thinking
While it is normal to have irrational thoughts, athletes need to work through this kind of thinking in order to beat sports anxiety and overcome choking. When athletes fail to overcome irrational thinking they become far more exposed and vulnerable to self-doubt, a common precursor to anxiety and the host of physiological symptoms that follow.
So what should you do if you currently engage in irrational thinking that routinely holds you back from playing your best? Using a cognitive approach you might go back to the original prompts listed above and have a rational conversation with yourself:
- What if I mess up and people see it? The truth is you might mess up today, just like how everyone else does — rather than get hung up on embarrassment, why not learn from the experience?
- What if I fail to live up to expectations? Anyone who has ever reached greatness has had to overcome stress and adversity, so I probably will have to as well if my goal is to be the best player I can be.
- What if I let my team/coach down again? I can’t control anyone else’s thinking but my own, so why should I worry about things I can’t control?
- What if I don’t break my slump today? The sun will still come up tomorrow, and if I keep working hard I can overcome bad days.
- What if I have another bad day today? It’s possible, but it’s just one day, and I can always learn from my mistakes and become even stronger as a result.
Chances are, if you’re an athlete you have experienced irrational thoughts, sports anxiety, and choking. In fact, it has been my experience that the #1 reason why athletes fail to reach their full potential is because of this very exact reason — they beat themselves through their own irrational thinking. If this sounds like you, take a moment to think about the validity of your thinking, and make it a point to work through anxiety by using rational, valid thinking that will include the fact that you are human and will sometimes fail in life. Sports are tough enough, make sure it’s the opponent who beats you, not you beating yourself.