Waiting for the gun to go off at the starting line is always an adrenaline-, anxiety-, and anticipation-filled moment. This fall, as I lined up on the starting line for my first cross country race in two years, these feelings were amplified.
The pandemic cancelled athletic competitions from a professional to recreational level. Regardless of where you were in March 2020—prepping for the Olympic trials or for your first 5K—the return to competition, after over a year off, can be an anxiety-filled experience. Here’s what to know about athletic performance anxiety and how to deal with it.
A lost routine
From seasonal triathlons to recreational soccer on Saturday mornings, most of us were in some sort of community-based athletic routine. The pandemic, however, forced many of us to seek other ways to satisfy our competitiveness (from within or perhaps on Peloton leaderboards.)
This fall, there is finally a return to normalcy in the competitive sports world. NCAA sports schedules are back to their regular seasons. We just wrapped up the 2021 Olympics, and thousands of professional and recreational races are on the calendar.
With this full fall schedule creeping up and your first post-pandemic competition on the horizon, you likely have doubts bouncing through your brain. How will you compare to your peers? Are you mentally strong enough to sustain an entire race? Will your competitive energy still be there after a year of training alone?
Don’t worry, we’ve been asking the same questions.
Athletic performance anxiety
Performance anxiety is something that can emerge in all areas of life. From math tests to the Olympic finals, it is an arousal that can either enhance or debilitate one’s performance depending on how the individual manages it.
Being underloaded or overloaded going into a situation that tests physical and/or mental toughness can be detrimental. Identifying how you naturally respond to a demanding environment is the first step in learning how to optimize your performance.
Not all instances of performance anxiety are rooted in a disorder. Scott Goldman, the director of clinical and sport psychology at the University of Arizona’s athletic department, explained that addressing emotions early on—especially with amateur level athletes—is important.
“It is important to note that emotions are not disorders. Emotional experiences fall on a quantitative spectrum (low to high intensity) as well as a qualitative spectrum (healthy to unhealthy),” Goldman explained. “When an emotional experience is too frequent, too intense, lasts too long, or is too disruptive, it can become transformed into a disorder.”
Sometimes athletes cope with competition stress by shutting down and feeling sleepy. Others experience a high-arousal that contributes to a panic. After the COVID-19 pause, we can feel anxious about competing again or mildly apathetic to comparing ourselves to others.
Finding the sweet spot between the two allows for optimal performance (although it’s not an easy place to find).
Reframing the competition
Thankfully, there are many ways for athletes to manage their anxious tendencies before they evolve into a disordered pattern.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist Dr. Maddie E. Barron works in Northwestern’s sports psychology department and regularly meets with teams and athletes who are struggling with performance anxiety.
She presented a meaningful phrase to the Northwestern Women’s Cross Country team to navigate pre-competition nerves: get your butterflies in formation. The idea comes from having “butterflies in your stomach” but channeling that energy to a productive effort.
The women’s team embraced this notion by wearing butterfly tattoos at their first XC race back after the pandemic.
Practicing gratitude is another method to regulate performance anxiety. Seeing each race or competition after the pandemic as a long-awaited opportunity rather than a burden will help transform apathy to gratitude and anxiety to excitement.
Self-talk: You’ve got this!
Perhaps the strongest voice that can help calm your pre-performance nerves is your own. Personally, practicing positive self-talk can sound almost mocking when I’m at a race or competition. A cheesy, “you’re so strong” or “you’ve got this” makes me believe it even less.
However, doing this in a less-stressful environment and on a more regular basis makes it much more convincing. Writing down or repeating affirmations before a workout or “test run” helps it feel more natural when it really counts.