Know the Signs
Michael is a sophomore left-handed pitcher, who was given the starting position at the beginning of the year. As the season progressed, he started struggling on the mound. It began with his pitch count rising, then the number of walks. In the dugout, he appeared restless and had a hard time staying focused on the game. During bullpen, he often got distracted by what his teammates were doing in other areas of the field. When his coach approached him, he stated that he was having trouble sleeping, his grades were slipping, and that he felt nervous and worried all the time. He knew this was affecting his performance in baseball, but he didn’t know how to fix it.
Does Michael’s experience of anxiety sound at all familiar to you? Maybe you are experiencing anxiety related to one specific task (like a high-stakes game or an interview for an internship) or possibly during a series of life events or circumstances. Sometimes you may know the cause, and sometimes you may feel like you can’t quite put your finger on it. If you’re unsure of where your anxiety is coming from, that’s okay, because with some self-awareness and reflection, you can get to the bottom of it.
Common symptoms can include:
- Excessive worry or fear;
- Having trouble falling or staying asleep;
- Changes in your eating habits (increase or decrease);
- Having feelings that can range from uneasiness to feeling like you can’t move forward or backward;
- Uncontrollable sweating, having a rapid heartbeat, or displaying bodily shaking;
- Inability to focus and concentrate;
- Feeling like you have little control over things in your life.
Experiencing anxiety as a student-athlete can lead to feelings of powerlessness, helplessness, and hopelessness. If you are struggling with these emotions and recognize some warning signs of anxiety within yourself, don’t be disheartened! There are a number of simple strategies that you can try, in order to change your thinking and/or lifestyle to overcome anxiety. With these minor daily changes, you will be more effective in addressing any anxiety in both sport and academics.
Why Do I Feel This Way?
Research shows that there may be a link between anxiety and genetics (Thompson & Trattner-Sherman, 2018). For example, does anyone in your family also experience anxiety? This could increase the likelihood that you also will experience anxiety. Don’t’ be alarmed though! It doesn’t mean that you will, just that you could be at an increased risk.
Brain chemistry also can play a role in the development of anxiety. Our brains release hormones that help stabilize our mood. When someone suffers from anxiety, their brain may not be sending these signals as efficiently as they need in order to cope.
Your personality can be another variable. Are you a perfectionist? Do you often feel as if you need to have control over every aspect of your life (or situations)? Do you have trouble accepting feedback from your coach about your performance? If so, don’t panic! All of these situations are normal for college athletes to experience, and they don’t always lead to anxiety. Still, it’s important to reflect upon your unique personality to determine if certain ways of being are causing you anxiety.
Finally, life circumstances – living through and adjusting to a global pandemic, for example – can be another variable. Everyone experiences challenges and changes in their lives – some come naturally, like moving from high school to college, while others are out of your control, like the death of a loved one. Your bucket can contain only so much. If you wake up each day with a bucket that is nearly filled with the effects of life circumstances, your bucket is eventually going to overflow, which can lead to some pretty unwelcome outcomes, emotionally and physically.
How Does This Affect My Athletic Performance?
Anxiety often is confused with stress. Everyone experiences stress, as it’s a part of life and can increase or decrease due to life changes and/or responsibilities. In fact, not all stress is negative; good stress is called “eustress” and can have a productive effect.
The difference between anxiety and stress is that there is typically an ending point with stress, because it’s often associated with an event. When you experience anxiety, however, you may feel as if it will never go away and that your life stressors will always get the best of you. While stress differs from anxiety, stress can worsen anxiety if it is not managed in a healthy way (Thompson & Trattner-Sherman, 2018).
Just as not all stress is negative, not all anxiety is a bad thing either. Having reasonable amounts can help you to achieve higher levels of performance during competition, as it can increase your attention to the task and help you to maintain focus and concentration. Still, it can be an unpleasant and overwhelming experience.
You may feel as though anxiety is having a negative impact on your concentration and on your ability to control negative emotions, especially during a competition. Prior to your game, you may worry about how well you’ll play. After the game, you may dwell on the mistakes that you made (Thompson & Trattner-Sherman, 2018). You may feel emotionally drained or physically exhausted or both. If your anxiety levels feel overwhelming, know that you’re not the only one! Many athletes report similar thoughts and feelings and ask for help to deal with them.
Experiencing anxiety can sometimes feel like there’s an 800-pound gorilla sitting on your chest. Even though you may experience moments when it feels like it’s hard to breathe, there are some easy strategies to use to help lessen the impact of anxiety.
9 Tools for Addressing Anxiety
Increase Your Social Connections: Friends and family know and love us. They “get” when we’re happy and know how to pick us up when we’re feeling down. Meet up with your friends or family regularly and talk about your worries to relieve stress.
Limit Technology Use: Is your phone an extension of your body? Some estimates put technology use at over 13 hours a day! Put technology away for at least a few hours each day. It can help to reduce feelings of FOMO (fear of missing out) and reduce the constant cycle of troubling thoughts
Go Green: Student athletes get a lot of physical activity – whether you’re in season or out. Instead of risking injury by adding more exercise to your training schedule, simply try taking walks outside or sitting in nature and appreciating the “green” around you instead. Observing the beautiful wonders of nature can help you feel at peace.
Take Care of Your Physical Needs: When you feel physically drained, your performance suffers, so it’s important to remember to eat well and get an adequate amount of sleep. If an injury is creating anxiety for you, make time to get regular treatments in the training room with one of the physical therapists or athletic trainers. You need BOTH your mind and your body to perform optimally.
Laugh About It: Having perspective and a sense of humor can help to diffuse even the most stressful of situations. Exercise your funny bone.
Be Grateful for the Small Stuff: Practice gratitude and reflect on all of your small achievements – not just the big ones.
Spend Time with a Furry Buddy: Your furry friends can help to lower your heart rate and to calm you down. Pets love you unconditionally and won’t share anything that you tell them with anyone else!
Practice Mindfulness: Mindfulness can lower your heart rate, bring in more oxygen to your brain so that you can think more clearly, and increase the “feel good” hormones in the brain like serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins that put you in a happy mood.
Seek Professional Help: If you feel as if you can’t control your anxiety effectively, make an appointment to see a mental health counselor. They can help you to process the emotions you’re feeling and to create a plan that you can use daily to manage your symptoms better.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Anxiety disorders. In Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.).
DuBois, A. L. & Mistretta, M. A. (2020). Overcoming burnout and compassion fatigue in schools. Routledge.
Thompson, R. A., & Trattner-Sherman, R. (2018). Managing student-athletes’ mental health issues. NCAA. http://s3.amazonaws.com/ncaa.org/documents/2021/1/18/2007_managing_mental_health_0.pdf