As a human being, it is more than likely that you have experience with anxiety. Most of us experience anxiety to varying degrees at different points in our lives. These feelings often come and go, and some anxiety can be normal. However, for many people, anxiety starts to creep into and take over many areas of our lives. If you are or have been an athlete – at the high school, collegiate, or professional level – the types and levels of anxiety you experience may feel debilitating at times. There is a strong link between athletes and anxiety; moreover, the implications of anxiety for athletes can be crippling. As a high school and college athlete myself, someone who has coached high school athletes, and someone who works with high school students on a daily basis, I have felt, can see, and often hear about the anxiety that infiltrates athletes’ lives.

Okay, but What IS anxiety?

We toss the word anxiety around often. So much so that it may start to feel like anxiety is so normal that you feel silly for feeling like you need help or support for yours. According to the National Institute of Health, 31% of adolescents and adults have had or will have an anxiety disorder in their lifetime. That’s nearly  one third of us experiencing anxiety to the degree that fits the criteria for a diagnosable disorder. This does not, however, mean that anxiety is not serious. In fact, this points to the fact that anxiety ios something that SO many of us need help addressing. 

The APA explains that anxiety is “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes like increased blood pressure.” The APA goes on to explain that people often use “anxiety” and “fear” interchangeably, but there are actually significant distinctions between the two. Anxiety is a future-oriented, long-acting response broadly focused on a perceived threat. Fear, on the other hand, is a present-oriented and short-lived response to a clearly identifiable and specific threat.

Anxiety and Athletes: Unraveling the Causes of Anxiety

Anxiety is a natural response to stress, and it can manifest for various reasons and in various ways for athletes.Some common causes of anxiety among high school and college athletes include:

1. Fear of Failure

The pressure to perform at your best can lead you to have an overwhelming fear of failure. When worrying about failure, you may worry about letting yourself, your teammates, your parents, or your coaches down. As a result, this can cause you to focus solely on the game, competition, or meet you have coming up, with a pit in your stomach and tightness in your chest.

2. High Expectations

Athletes often face high expectations from themselves and others. If the expectations to perform take over, they can become overwhelming and create anxiety.

3. Body Image Concerns

As an athlete, you may experience a real, perceived, or internalized pressure to look a certain way or to have your body in a certain condition in order to perform. This can lead to anxiety and a preoccupation with your body and body image

4. Social Pressure

Social anxiety can arise from concerns about fitting in with teammates, making friends, or facing the spotlight during games, competitions, practice. There can also be some social pressure that comes with wondering if you are being accepted by people because of your status as an athlete or because of who you are. This can cause anxiety over what may happen socially if and when your sport(s) is/are no longer a primary part of your identity.

5. Uncertainty

Ambiguity about the future, injuries, or changes in your athletic career may trigger anxiety, as well. Athletes experience uncertainty about making teams, whether or not they will be able to continue playing and performing at the “next level” and what will happen when they no longer are able to play. 

Athletes and Anxiety: Taking Back Control

1. Identify and Acknowledge

The first step in managing anxiety is recognizing its presence. If you are experiencing heightened levels of anxiety as an athlete – at any level and for any reason – identifying this is the first step to developing a healthy coping routine. 

2. Breathing and Relaxation Techniques

Deep breathing exercises and progressive muscle relaxation can help calm the nervous system and reduce anxiety. These can be “in-the-moment” strategies to practice when you feel anxiety taking over.

3. Seek Support

Coaches, teammates, and sports psychologists can provide valuable support and guidance. Having the support of people who are “in it” with you can be comforting and can help alleviate the feelings of isolation that can come with experiencing anxiety.

4. Develop a Routine

Establishing a pre-competition/game routine can create a sense of familiarity and control, which can ease anxiety for some athletes. This could include listening to certain songs, doing a warm-up in a specific order, practicing your breathing or relaxation techniques before a competition, or any other activities that work to help alleviate the anxiety you are experiencing.

5. Professional Help

If anxiety becomes overwhelming and interferes with your daily life, your ability to enjoy your sport or things outside of your sport, seeking help from a qualified mental health professional is essential. 

Anxiety is a natural part of being a human being, but it doesn’t have to be in the driver’s seat of your experience as an athlete. By understanding the root causes of your anxiety, recognizing when it may occur, and adopting coping strategies, you can tackle anxiety head-on and regain control over your thoughts and emotions.

Are You an Athlete Experiencing Anxiety? Wildflower Therapy in Philadelphia, PA is Here to Help You

Remember, it’s not only okay to ask for help when needed, it’s vulnerable and strong to do so, as mental well-being as an athlete is just as vital as physical well-being.Here at Wildflower Therapy, we have qualified and caring professionals who specialize in working with athletes and anxiety. Our team of experienced professionals can provide personalized strategies to help athletes overcome anxiety and achieve their full potential on and off the field. Whether you are a high school athlete, college athlete, professional athlete, or retired athlete, you deserve support in your pursuit of a life not ruled by anxiety. You are not alone, and together, we can build a strong foundation for a successful future in your sport and in life.

By: Erika Muller, Assistant for Wildflower Therapy LLC

All images via Unsplash

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