How Coaches Can Help Athletes Overcome Performance Anxiety
Max is a 13-year-old baseball player who gearing up for tryouts for the local Little League team. Although he played for this team last season, his Mom has noticed he is becoming more and more anxious closer to tryouts. Although the first day of tryouts went okay, he complained that he was sick to his stomach before the second day. He also had trouble remembering the drills from time to time, which is unlike him. He missed an easy pop fly early in the exhibition game and bobbled each grounder that came his way.
His coach then starts to wonder, “What’s going on?” Performance anxiety is prevalent in sports; in fact, we know that having an appropriate level of stress before a game or a tryout helps an athlete perform better. The important question is: When does performance anxiety in athletes begin to take too much of a toll on their mental well-being?
What Does Performance Anxiety in Athletes Look Like?
Anxiety shows itself differently in sports than they do in everyday life. This makes it a little more challenging to identify, but we can give you some behaviors and cues to keep an eye out for.
Anxiety in sports is broken down into three main categories: Somatic, Worry, and Concentration Disruption. This is based on the Sport Anxiety Scale-2 which has been shown in studies to be effective at identifying anxiety in athletes.
A good way to test to see where your young athlete falls is to ask them the following questions. If an athlete answers yes to any of these questions, follow up by asking, “Does it happen a little, a lot, or all the time?”
*Somatic anxiety refers to the physical symptoms of anxiety experienced by the body.
- Does your body feel tense?
- Does your stomach feel knotted?
- Do your muscles feel shaky?
- Do you feel nauseous?
- Do your muscles feel tight?
Note: The best way to ask these questions is in a private setting and initiate the conversation. Athletes should never feel embarrassed about feeling a little more anxious than their teammates. However, most athletes won’t want to discuss their feelings with others around them.
- Do you worry that you won’t play well?
- Do you worry that you will let others down?
- Do you worry that your teammates will get upset with you?
- Do you worry that you will play badly?
- Do you worry that you will mess up during the game?
- Is it hard to concentrate on the game?
- Is it hard to focus on the task at hand?
- Do you get distracted in the middle of performing a skill?
- Do you have trouble thinking clearly during the game?
- Do you have a hard time following instructions?
How Can Coaches Help Reduce Performance Anxiety in Athletes?
Notice the physical signs
As we just broke down what performance anxiety in athletes looks like, be sure to make a mental note of the physical signs exhibited by your players. You might not get a chance to have a one-on-one discussion with each player asking them the above questions. Therefore, by taking note of the physical signs your players are showing, you can take a proactive approach in hopes that their performance anxiety doesn’t keep spiralling downhill.
Physical signs will include excessive sweating, rapid breathing, clumsiness (i.e, fumbling of the ball or puck), uncoordinated movements, and sluggish movements.
Have an open conversation
Whether an athlete comes to you wanting to chat about their performance anxiety or you take the initiative to start that conversation, always validate their feelings. Ask questions to learn more about the root of their anxiety, acknowledge their emotional experiences and express acceptance, maintain eye contact to show that you are actively listening, and offer a solution (if you don’t have a solution at that exact moment that is okay. Be sure to give it some more thought and come back to it at a later date).
Praise can come both in verbal statements and physical gestures. Praise is beneficial to any athlete as it helps with their confidence, motivation, and enjoyment of a sport. Even if an athlete doesn’t score a record amount of goals during a game, make sure they are praised for their determination and work ethic.
Let’s explore some verbal statements and physical actions you can take to praise your athletes:
- “Great speed while dribbling on the court today”
- “You used your body to protect the puck very well during practice today”
- “I am proud of how you maintained eye contact with the softball all the way through your hit”
- Pat on the back
- Thumbs up
Encourage extra practice sessions
During a regular season’s practice, how can an athlete practice even more? This is made possible through repetition practice. If a player on your team comes to you and states they are not confident in setting the volleyball, encourage them to practice this specific skill repeatedly. Make this as fun as possible. For example, have another player stand on the other side of the net and see how many serves they can return.
Practicing a specific skill repeatedly, without burnout, helps an athlete better retain information (related to technique, speed, and intensity) for a longer period of time.
Conduct performance reflections
Having an open-ended conversation with athletes to better understand their performance anxieties while offering validation is great. However, beyond an initial conversation, coaches can offer additional support by encouraging performance reflections.
During a performance reflection, a coach will have an athlete write down the following to later review one-on-one:
- What challenges have you overcome so far?
- What do you think helped contribute to overcoming these challenges?
- Have your physical symptoms reduced before or during practice?
- Moving forward, what new skills would you like to work on?
- When anxiety does present itself at times, what do you do now to calm those nerves?
Coaches, make sure to check in with your players to ensure they are in the right headspace while offering tips for how they can manage their stress levels. Remember, sports should be a fun experience for all!
To help players feel more confident, be sure to routinely communicate with them what skills they are performing well at and the ones that might need a little extra attention. With SkillShark, coaches can evaluate each player’s performance across a range of skills and then make this information available to their players through detailed and personalized reports.
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