Why Do Athletes Experience Sports Anxiety? How To Minimize Stress Before A Game

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated June 13, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

If you’ve ever given a speech, played a concert, taken an important exam, or led a presentation, it’s likely that you experienced some form of performance anxiety before or during the event. Similarly, if you’ve ever participated in a team or individual sport, you might have noticed some level of sports performance anxiety.

Sports performance anxiety, also called sports anxiety or competitive anxiety, can be a common yet uncomfortable experience that occurs in an estimated 30% to 60% of people

Additionally, research by the NCAA shows that nearly 85% of certified athletic trainers believe anxiety is currently an issue for the student athletes with whom they work. If you or someone you know is experiencing anxiety related to athletic performance, there can be many ways to manage it, including preparation, positive self-talk, and meditation. You may also find it helpful to work with a licensed therapist in person or online.

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Does the sport you once loved now fill you with dread?

What is sports anxiety?

According to the Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine, anxiety can be defined as “an unpleasant psychological state in reaction to perceived stress concerning the performance of a task under pressure.” In the context of sports, someone may experience sports anxiety before a game or athletic event, potentially leading to feelings of stress, fear, or even panic. 

Sports anxiety can also lead to “choking” during the event, resulting in poor athletic performance due to the pressure to perform well.

Symptoms of sports anxiety

Sports anxiety can look different for everyone. However, common physical and mental symptoms might include the following:

Physical symptoms

  • Sweat: Sweat unrelated to one’s temperature or physical activity when thinking about an upcoming sporting event can be a sign of sports anxiety.
  • Tremors: Shaking, weakened grip, or unstable standing before or during athletic performance can all be symptoms of sports anxiety.
  • Increased heart rate: A racing heart, especially while inactive, can be a sign of increased stress levels regarding sports.
  • Muscle tension: Tight muscles or a clenched jaw can signal stress resulting from sports anxiety.
  • Stomach problems: Feeling “butterflies” in your stomach or experiencing symptoms of nausea can result from increased levels of sports anxiety.

Mental symptoms

  • Stress: Whether or not physical symptoms of stress are present, the mental symptom of stress leading up to or during a sporting event can be a sign of sports anxiety.
  • Panic: Feelings of panic or panic attacks can occur before or during athletic events due to sports anxiety.
  • Intense fear of failure: While it can be common to find failure undesirable, an intense or crippling fear of failure before or during an athletic event can be a sign of sports anxiety.
  • Anger: Anger at yourself, a teammate, a referee, or an opposing team member might stem from sports anxiety.
  • Freezing or “choking”: Being unable to perform well or at all during an athletic event can be due to a mental block caused by sports anxiety.

What causes sports anxiety?

Although sports anxiety can be a natural experience for athletes of any level, there are several factors that may contribute to the intensity and frequency of this state.


Doubting your own abilities can contribute to sports anxiety. Self-doubt may stem from an athlete’s age or experience level, as younger athletes or those less experienced in the sport may not have self-confidence in their ability to perform well. However, someone very experienced and with proven abilities may still experience self-doubt at times. Another contributing factor to self-doubt could be an anxiety disorder, such as social anxiety or generalized anxiety disorder.


A person’s desire to perform perfectly can directly affect their stress levels related to their performance. According to a 2022 study on perfectionism in Hungarian athletes, those who set excessive expectations for themselves and were highly critical of their own performance usually experienced more frustration and higher levels of anxiety than a typical athlete.

High stakes

Sports can often seem like high-stakes events. One’s performance could influence the outcome of a championship game, a college scholarship, or a personal goal. The stress athletes feel regarding their performance can be heightened by these circumstances, increasing the intensity of the sports anxiety they might experience.

Pressure from others

Parents, coaches, teammates, peers, and fans might all be invested in the outcome of the sporting event, thereby also being invested in athletes’ performances. The increased desire to meet others’ expectations – and the fear of backlash and guilt if they don’t – can create additional pressure for athletes, intensifying ones experience of sports anxiety.

Past mistakes

Making mistakes is often part of being human, but those involved in public performances like sports may focus more intensely on their own mistakes so as not to make them again. For example, if a soccer player misses a game-winning goal, they may experience more intense levels of sports anxiety the next time they have the opportunity to score.

Yerkes-Dodson Law

The Yerkes-Dodson Law generally identifies a correlation between perceived stress – called arousal level – and quality of performance. When someone feels little to no stress regarding performance, it can result in boredom or apathy, decreasing performance quality. In contrast, extremely high levels of stress can negatively affect performance quality as well. According to this law, the optimal level of stress for peak performance is likely somewhere in the middle.

Impacts of sports anxiety

Sports anxiety can affect athletes in many ways. 

Mental health conditions

Frequent or intense sports anxiety can contribute to a number of mental health conditions, including anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder or social and evaluation anxiety, panic disorder or panic attacks, and depression. These mental health impacts can affect an athlete both within their sport and in their day-to-day life and relationships.

Poor performance

Sports anxiety can be a vicious cycle that leads to poor performance, which can further intensify the experience of sports anxiety in the future. Having negative thoughts about your own abilities can often be a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the fear of underperforming can lead to physical and mental symptoms that make it difficult to perform at your best. By learning to manage anxiety surrounding athletics, many might experience better performance as a result.


In addition to its effects on an athlete’s performance, a 2017 study found that increased levels of sports anxiety can also increase the risk of injury and lengthen the time it takes for an athlete to rehabilitate after an injury. These findings also suggest an increased chance of re-injury during or after the rehabilitation process.

A woman in a grey shirt smiles and raises her arms in victory while holding a tennis racket and standing on a tennis court.

How to manage sports performance anxiety

If you are experiencing performance anxiety related to an athletic event, there are several coping mechanisms that can help you manage it and set yourself up for success.

  • Preparation: Ensuring you’ve had sufficient practice and training, as well as nutritious food, a good night’s sleep, and ample hydration, can have both physical and psychological benefits on your performance.
  • Meditation: Whether you engage in traditional meditation and mindfulness practices or simply listen to soothing music while taking deep breaths, these activities can ease symptoms of sports anxiety and help you give your best performance.
  • Giving yourself grace: Engaging in positive self-talk and forgiving yourself for any mistakes you might make can reduce any intense emotions and physical symptoms you might experience related to sports anxiety.

Helping student athletes manage their sports anxiety

If you recognize signs indicating your child or a student athlete in your life may be experiencing sports anxiety, the following strategies may be beneficial in helping them manage those perceptions and feelings.

  • Talk to them: Once you’ve identified symptoms of sports anxiety in a young athlete, it can be helpful to listen to their concerns and talk them through any counterproductive thoughts and strong emotions they may be experiencing.
  • Encourage them: Being encouraging without pressuring them to perform to a certain level can help reduce any stress they may feel regarding the expectations of others. You might remind them that you will still love and support them no matter how the event plays out.
  • Help them prepare: Ensuring your student athlete is eating well, sleeping well, staying hydrated, and practicing sufficiently can give them the mental and physical preparedness they might need to perform their best.

Managing sports anxiety with online therapy

If you’re experiencing frequent or intense sports anxiety, one way you might manage and reduce anxiety related to your performance is by working with a therapist. However, between practices, training, and traveling, those participating in sports often have busy schedules, which can make it difficult to meet with a therapist regularly in person. 

Does the sport you once loved now fill you with dread?

Benefits of online therapy

If it’s challenging for you to attend in-person therapy appointments, online therapy can be a beneficial alternative, as athletes can meet with a licensed therapist from anywhere they have an internet connection, including while on the road.

Effectiveness of online therapy

A recent study observed how internet-delivered cognitive behavioral therapy (ICBT) affected a group of university students experiencing symptoms of anxiety. The results showed “a significant effect of ICBT in reducing anxiety symptoms/disorders among university students compared with control groups.” Additionally, ICBT can help individuals overcome barriers to treatment, such as lack of therapist availability, so they can more easily receive “timely, effective therapy.”


Sports performance anxiety can be a common sensation experienced by athletes of all ages and skill levels. The physical and mental health symptoms resulting from sports anxiety can contribute to mental health conditions, poor performance, and even injury. However, there are various ways to manage and reduce sports anxiety in both yourself and the athletes in your life, such as preparation, meditation, and positive self-talk. One method that can reduce sports anxiety and rekindle your love for your sport is online therapy, which can be flexible enough to fit into a busy athlete’s schedule.
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