Coaching Association of Canada

Overcome Performance Anxiety and Stress to Enhance Performance

Emotions can provide the athlete with the energy that triggers the joy and ecstasy of performance, or they can shift drastically toward despair and hopelessness when things go wrong or expectations are not met.

Intensifying emotions requires a stimulus (or trigger); once the trigger is removed, the performer can usually return to a more normal emotional state. Athletes need to understand the causes and consequences of their dominant emotions and moods, and they need to know how to control them effectively.

The ideal emotional state (IES) is the condition in which the athlete experiences appropriate feelings and maintains them at optimum levels of intensity and functioning in a way that enhances performance.

To help achieve the ideal emotional state, let’s take a closer look at anxiety and stress, and how you can advise your athletes on gaining emotional control.

  • What is anxiety?

    Anxiety can be a positive emotion when it reflects excitement or eagerness to perform well, but anxiety can be a negative emotion if it reflects feelings of apprehension; such feelings usually occur because the athlete does not feel well prepared.

    Types of Anxiety

    Somatic or physical anxiety is a positive or negative set of physiological responses to performance usually experienced immediately before the start of the competition. This anxiety takes the form of feelings of excitement, increased heart, increased breathing rate, etc.

    Cognitive or mental anxiety is a positive or negative response that indicates excitement or worry, depending on how the athlete perceives the demands of the task. For example, the athlete may feel uncertain or apprehensive, worry, or experience self-doubt regarding the performance process or outcome.

    Trait anxiety is a tendency to respond to a threatening situation, person, or event with high or low levels of anxiety. It is a personal character trait to be more or less anxious (apprehensive or excited).

    State anxiety is the feeling of apprehension or excitement that an athlete perceives in the here and now, i.e. at this precise moment in time and given the present situation.

  • What is Stress?

    Stress is “a substantial imbalance between demand [physical and/or psychological] and response capability, under conditions where failure to meet that demand has important consequences” (McGrath, 1970, p. 20). An athlete experiencing stress does therefore (1) recognizing a challenge and (2) perceive that he or she may not meet the challenge.

    The following is the manifestation of stress into four stages, with anxiety in Stage 3:

  • How to gain emotional control 

    Phase 1: Get into a comfortable position. Take three deep breaths. Now, focus on feeling and listening to your breathing every two or three breaths.

    Phase 2: Use the mind-to-body approach to invoke the relaxation response:

    Focus on controlling your breathing.
    Focus on your relaxation words, e.g. “calm, easy, relaxed.”
    Focus on repeating your “mantra”.

    Phase 3: When you are feeling relaxed and calm, imagine yourself performing your sport. You may be performing a particular move or a sequence of moves. You may be practising or performing in a competition. You may be scoring a point or a goal, making that perfect save, or saving tackle.

    As you perform:

    Focus on the image of your performance. Carefully add detail to the performance. Focus externally as if watching your body perform.
    Focus on the sounds you might hear as you perform.
    Focus internally on getting the feeling as you perform the skill.
    Run through your successful performance several times until you can see and feel it.
    Shift your focus to an important external cue in the environment, e.g. the basketball rim, bull’s-eye, the opponent’s leg, the catcher’s mitt, a baseball approaching, a corner of the soccer net.

    Phase 4: As you perform the skill in your mind’s eye, use a positive phrase or power word to describe the performance as you see and feel yourself perform successfully.

    Phase 5: Run through the skill a number of times, seeing yourself perform successfully. As you perform successfully, notice the contrast in energy level between the first and last part of this exercise.

    Debrief: Skills of emotional and attentional control are mutually dependent. In other words, to relax, you have to focus, and it is important to relax if you want to focus. Similarly, to visualize, you need to focus, and it is a great asset to be able to visualize well if you want to focus on excellent performance.

Want more information on emotional control? The Basic Mental Skills module, part of the National Coaching Certification Program (NCCP) Multi-sport module series for coaches, will provide you with additional knowledge! Contact your Provincial or Territorial Coaching Representative for more details!