Coaching Association of Canada

Helping Athletes Manage Anxiety

Anxiety can be a positive emotion when it reflects excitement or eagerness to perform well because the athlete feels properly prepared and because he or she has coping responses in place to meet the demands of the task. 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.

The coach should seek to help the athlete identify and understand the specific causes of their anxiety and the resulting consequences on performance. Coaches should also provide the opportunity for athletes to learn coping mechanisms that will help them manage their anxiety and therefore improve their performance.

The skills described below, including relaxation exercises, breathing control exercises, and visualization strategies, can help athletes control their anxiety. These may be developed individually and then combined into routines that athletes can expand upon, refine, and implement in practice.


  • Mind-to-Body Control

    • Select a quiet environment.
    • Get into a comfortable position, and close your eyes.
    • Low lighting or a dark area may help you as you perfect this technique.
    • Concentrate fully on taking two or three deep breaths (don’t hyperventilate; breathe under control).
    • Become aware of your breathing. While breathing out, repeat a word or phrase, like a mantra, e.g. “slow, easy, calm, relaxed.” Breathe in . . . out, and repeat; continue for 10 to 20 minutes.
    • Adopt a passive attitude; allow any distractions that enter the mind to pass through. Let thoughts that arise slip through your mind like the credits at the end of a movie. They are there, but you pay little attention to them as they scroll by.
    • Allow relaxation to occur at its own pace.

    Over time, the relaxation response will occur more quickly.

Breathing Control

Managing breathing rate and depth is a prerequisite of relaxation. Relaxation is in turn a prerequisite of visualization, a mental-preparation technique.

  • Kinesthetic Controlled Breathing:

    • Close your eyes.
    • Feel your stomach move out; keep your chest and shoulders steady.
    • Slowly inhale, feeling the air in your chest increase and your shoulders rise.
    • Hold your breath.
    • Slowly exhale, feeling a release in tension as your shoulders and chest drop and your stomach relaxes.
    • Now shift to listening to your breathing.
  • Audio-controlled Breathing

    • Close your eyes.
    • Hear yourself slowly inhale and exhale air as you breathe.
    • Slowly inhale.
    • Hear the air pass through your mouth and nose.
    • Feel the build-up of tension in your chest.
    • Slowly release the air.
    • Hear the sound of air passing through your nose and mouth.

Visualization Exercises

  • Key Points

    • Feeling relaxed is a prerequisite of effective visualization.
    • Begin with a familiar image to help athletes buy in.
    • Visualization and imagery are often used interchangeably. However, there are subtle differences. Visualization generally involves seeing the actual skilled performance or routine. Imagery is more creative and often combines an image such as a graceful swan or a powerful animal or machine with powerful words that in themselves create images.
  • Learning to Visualize

    Stage1: Find a comfortable position, take two or three deep breaths, and say “relax” as you breathe out. Once you feel relaxed, go to Stage 2.

    Stage 2: Visualization exercise for all the senses.

    Now that you are feeing relaxed, imagine a place you might go when you want to get away from it all. A place that was/is special to you either as a child or adult, a place with which you associate good feelings, and one in which you feel peaceful and safe.

    • Imagine the scene in your mind and add as much detail in your mind as you can.
    • Focus on the sounds you might hear in the situation you “see” in your mind.
    • Focus on the sensations you would experience in your body (e.g. touch).
    • Focus on the smells associated with the image in your mind.

    After you finish, take a few moments to write down the factors you found easiest to see, feel, smell, hear, etc., and those that were hardest. These will be the important visualization cues that you can use as you build your images in practice or in skill rehearsal.

Want more information on anxiety management? 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!