Anxiety in Sport

Anxiety in sport is commonly experienced by athletes at all levels – for some, it can either help or hinder their athletic performance.

It is therefore important to understand what it is, what causes it, how we can measure it and how athletes can manage it. In this article, we’ll cover just that.

Definition of Anxiety in Sport

Sports anxiety is a complex, multi-dimensional construct, which is defined as a negative emotional state associated with activation or arousal of the body. Even though anxiety is a negative emotional state, its effect on athletic performance can either be positive, negative or for some, have no impact depending on factors related to the athlete and the task.

Let’s look at what anxiety is in a bit more detail…

Anxiety is made up of cognitive and somatic components. It can manifest itself in different ways, this can be through state or trait anxiety. Below we will explore what this means along with examples…

Definition of Cognitive Anxiety in Sport

Cognitive anxiety is the mental/emotional component of anxiety which relates to the athlete’s psychological processes and thoughts. These can include worry, apprehension, negative thoughts and focusing on irrelevant information or tasks.

Example of Cognitive Anxiety in Sport

Let’s take a footballer who is about to take a penalty as an example. They may be having negative thoughts such as “I can’t do this” or “I’m not good enough.” They may also have poor concentration, be irritable towards the referee and unable to make up their mind when selecting their target.

Definition of Somatic Anxiety in Sport

This is the physical component of anxiety which relates to the physical symptoms.

Example of Somatic Anxiety in Sport

For example, our footballer taking the penalty may experience an increase in their heart rate, shaking, chest pains, hot flushes or sudden chills, tension in their neck muscles and butterflies in their stomach.

Definition of Trait Anxiety in Sport

Trait anxiety refers to an innate part of an athlete’s personality characteristic, which represents a predisposition to perceive situations as threatening and respond with an increase in state anxiety.

Example of Trait Anxiety in Sport

For example, no matter the situation the footballer is in (i.e. when taking a penalty, passing, tackling etc), they are more likely to have a high level of anxiety throughout most of the game.

Definition of State Anxiety in Sport

State anxiety is a temporary response to a specific situation.

Example of State Anxiety in Sport

For our footballer, the feelings of anxiety will only be when they are taking the penalty..

*In reality, it’s impossible to separate the extent that an athlete’s anxiety may be innate or due to the situation. However, it is helpful to consider that not all athletes will or should show the same baseline of anxiety for a given situation.

What Causes Anxiety in Sport?

We mentioned at the very start of this article, that anxiety can have a positive, negative or indifferent effect on athletic performance depending on two factors:

  • The athlete
  • The task

We’re going to delve into these two factors now…

The Athlete

Every athlete possesses an optimal range of anxiety that is most beneficial for their performance. This optimal range is known as their Individual Zone of Optimal Functioning (IZOF).

Some athletes may perform at their best when they have a low level of anxiety (athlete A in the image below) whereas other athletes may perform at their best when they have a moderate level of anxiety (athlete B) or a high level of anxiety (athlete C). If the athlete’s anxiety level falls outside of their optimum zone, then it may have a negative effect on their performance.

For athletes, coaches and support staff, it is important to determine the athlete’s optimal zone for performance. One way to do this, is by measuring the athlete’s anxiety levels (how we can do this will be covered later in this article) and how they performed in a range of conditions. From these measurements, it provides an opportunity for the athlete, coach and/or support team to reflect and have discussions on how the athlete performed in these conditions and the level of anxiety the athlete had (low, moderate or high) when they performed at their best.

It’s important to note here that there are many other theoretical models (including the Inverted-U Hypothesis, Drive Theory, Multi-Dimensional Anxiety Theory and Catastrophe Theory) which have been developed to explain athlete’s optimum anxiety levels and its relationship to performance. You can see a brief description of each in the table below:

TheoryDescription
Inverted U-HypothesisIncreased arousal improves performance up to a certain point, after which further increases impairs performance.
Drive TheoryThere is a linear relationship between anxiety and performance – higher anxiety leads to better performance.
Multi-Dimensional Anxiety TheoryHigh cognitive anxiety decreases performance (negative relationship), whereas somatic anxiety increases performance up to a certain point, after which performance decreases (inverted-u relationship).
Catastrophe TheoryWhen cognitive anxiety is high and somatic anxiety is low, anxiety has an inverted-u relationship with performance. But, when both cognitive and somatic anxiety is high, there is a dramatic and sudden decrease in performance.
Theoretical models of anxiety in sport

The Task

The environment or task demands associated with a competition or game can be a stressor for some athletes. According to the Transactional Model of Stress and Coping, if an athlete firstly interprets a stressor as a threat or harmful and secondly that they don’t perceive themselves to have sufficient resources to cope with the stressor, then it results in stress and thus, anxiety.

In other words, when there is a substantial imbalance between the athlete’s perception of their ability and a stressor such as their perception of the situational demands and importance of the situation then anxiety occurs. Let’s break this down a little and go back to our footballer in two different scenarios for our example…

Our footballer performs at their best when they have an “average” level of anxiety. In an optimal scenario, our footballer is two steps behind the ball preparing to take the penalty and decide they will aim for the bottom left corner. They perceive the demands and importance of the penalty as a challenge rather than a threat. They take a deep breath, and believe that they can score, they use positive self-talk to tell themselves “I can do it” “bottom left”. They plant their foot next to the ball and have a controlled feeling of excitement with nervousness and an increase in heart rate. They kick the ball towards the bottom left corner, goal!

In contrast, in this second scenario, our footballer perceives the demands (e.g., feeling pressure from their teammates and the crowd watching) and importance (e.g., “if I miss this, we lose the game”) of the situation as a threat. Their perception of their ability to score is low (e.g., “I’m rubbish at this, Beth would do a better job than me”). Together, these act as a stressor and our footballer’s anxiety level increases above their optimum zone of functioning. They plant their foot next to the ball and change their mind at the last moment to now aim in the top left corner. At the same time, our footballer also experiences an increase in heart rate, tightness in their shoulders and butterflies in their stomach. They have no coping resources to change their response. They kick the ball, and it rockets above the crossbar, they miss.

How Can We Measure Anxiety in Sport?

The two main ways we can measure anxiety, is through observations and questionnaires. In this next section, I’m going to discuss these methods and their advantages and disadvantages.

Observations

For this, we can watch the athlete perform during a game or competition. This can be done either live or through video analysis.

The advantages of these observations are that they will provide a true and realistic picture of the athlete, their behaviour and their anxiety in their sport specific environment throughout the game or competition. However, the athlete’s anxiety levels may be increased if they know they are being watched and it will be a subjective evaluation of how the athlete responds.

Questionnaires

There are three questionnaires we can use to measure anxiety in sport, these include the State Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI), Competitive State Anxiety Inventory-2 (CSAI-2) and the Sport Competition Anxiety Test (SCAT). The table below provides a brief description of each questionnaire:

QuestionnaireDescription
State Trait Anxiety Inventory (Spielberger et al., 1983)– Consists of 20 statements for state anxiety and 20 statements for trait anxiety.

– Athletes must rate how nervous they feel in both general and in specific situations.

– Provides an indication of the athlete’s state and trait anxiety.

– A score of 0-9 indicates normal or no anxiety, 10-18 indicates mild to moderate anxiety, 19-29 indicates moderate to severe anxiety and 30-63 indicates severe anxiety.
Competitive State Anxiety Inventory-2 (Martens et al., 1990)– Consists of 26 statements.

– The athlete must indicate how they feeling that moment on a 4-point Likert scale.

– Provides an indication of the intensity, direction and frequency of the athletes cognitive and somatic anxiety, as well as their self-confidence.

– A lower score indicates low anxiety and high self-confidence whereas a higher score indicates high anxiety and low self-confidence.
Sport Competition Anxiety Test (Martens et al., 1977)– Consists of 15 statements.

– The athlete must indicate if they rarely, sometimes or often feel a specific way prior to a competition or game.

– Provides an indicate of the athletes level of competition trait anxiety with a score of 17 or below low competition trait anxiety, a score of 17-24 indicates average and a score of 24 and above indicates high level of competition trait anxiety.
Name and description of questionnaires used to measure anxiety in sport

You may use this table to help inform you of which questionnaire you wish to use depending on your situation. The advantages of these questionnaires are that they are quick and easy to complete and are relatively cheap. However, the disadvantages are that it only provides a short ad hoc snapshot of the athlete’s cognition and some athletes tend to provide socially acceptable answers and/or may misunderstand some questions.

We can even use a combination of observations and questionnaires as initial tools to evaluate an athlete’s anxiety. Both are useful tools to use to open up a conversation with the athlete and be used again to help monitor an athlete’s level of anxiety over time following an intervention. This leads us on nicely to how we can help an athlete manage anxiety in sport…

How Can You Manage Anxiety in Sport?

If our athlete is experiencing anxiety that is having a negative impact on their performance, it’s important that we provide them with coping recourses through psychological skills training to help the athlete cope with stressors and be in their optimum zone for performance. These coping recourses include:

  • Self-talk
  • Emotion regulation
  • Relaxation
  • Cognitive re-appraisal

If you would like to learn more about these coping recourses, check out our article on 6 mental skills all athletes should develop here.

Summarising Anxiety in Sport

As athletes, we all want to perform at our best. It’s important we understand what our optimal level of anxiety is for us to perform at our best, what stressors might affect that and what coping resources we can use to manage it.

Try out some of our psychological skills training tips to enhance your coping resources and you may find it helps your anxiety levels stay in your optimum zone for performance. Be sure to let us know how you get on!

Further Reading

Ford et al. (2017) Sport-related anxiety: Current insights

Reference

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Note: Photo by Jeffrey F Lin on Unsplash

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Emily, co-founder of Sport Science Insider, graduated from the University of Leeds in 2020 and went on to become an accredited S&C coach with the UKSCA in 2022. A former athlete herself, Emily has since gone on to deliver S&C coaching for the Southern Academy of Sport, GB Rowing, GB Taekwondo and works currently as a full-time S&C coach at the University of Leeds.