Living with Anxiety

by Sarah Farris, LCPC

The stress and pressures of practice, the start of a new season, and the anticipation of a big event can make most athletes feel nervous. Being an athlete with an anxiety disorder can feel like an extra challenge to battle beyond training and competing. Many athletes will experience tension, excitement, and jitters at practice or before games. In some cases, this can enhance an athlete’s focus and readiness to perform. 

However, anxiety disorders include a variety of symptoms that can interfere with one’s ability to perform optimally. Some common symptoms include excessive fear, worry, and doubt, uncomfortable body sensations, difficulty focusing or sleeping, avoidance, and obsessions or compulsions. These symptoms typically occur most days and can last several hours. Symptoms can often interfere with school, work, competition, relationships, or other areas of life. Athletes experiencing these symptoms may also find it more difficult to feel confident. Exhausted male athlete taking a break from sports training anxiety in athletes

Since doubt and avoidance are often associated with anxiety, talking about it with others may seem frightening at first. Getting support from trusted groups and individuals can make a big difference. It can help to start out small by talking to one trusted and understanding person, whether that be a parent, friend, teammate, partner, teacher, mentor, or coach. Finding a therapist, psychiatrist, or support group that has a special focus in your areas of concern can make a lasting impact on reducing anxiety symptoms. Seeking helpful resources, knowing your needs and limits, and building skills to cope with anxiety are good starting points.

Focusing on living

 Though having anxiety may feel overwhelming, it does not have to take away from one’s life. Change, stress, or major events may be typical reasons one might worry. Choosing to engage in important events and activities and pursue meaningful goals allows one to experience more than just anxiety. Missing out on life events due to fear often strengthens anxiety symptoms. Allowing discomfort to be present while participating in important life moments can build resiliency and even confidence. Noticing anxiety without running from it while simultaneously emphasizing other observations can help one shift the focus. Building this into training and competing can help athletes better manage their anxiety. 

The following may be helpful practices for athletes to consider.

Work with a professional

 Seeing a professional for therapy, medication, or sports psychology can help address specific concerns. There are many professionals that are trained in treating anxiety, OCD, BDD, and related concerns. A professional may develop a treatment plan to help strengthen skills or assist in reducing symptoms. Meeting with someone regularly can also help you stay on track with goals and provide a confidential space to address concerns. The following topics may also be addressed in therapy.


Living with anxiety can mean living in alignment with the things one values most. Anxiety often pulls one’s attention towards feared outcomes, making it more difficult to consider or appreciate other possibilities. Clearly identifying and reflecting on values allows one to potentially be more willing to tolerate distress. 

Consider this example. A soccer player writes down her values and looks at them every day. She values her friendships, the enjoyment she gets when playing games, and the excitement she feels when her team works together towards a shared goal. She also values her family, her health and wellbeing, and personal ambitions. By emphasizing these values, she may recognize that avoidance or rumination may come and go, so she chooses to participate, regardless of her mood or worries.


Anxiety may be accompanied by self-criticism and worrying about making mistakes. By focusing on what not to do, it becomes harder to remain focused on the skills one is able to complete with accuracy. Athletes can benefit from paying attention to their self-talk and practice strategies to build more flexibility. 

For example, an athlete worrying about letting his team down may feel afraid to seize opportunities or take risks. Practicing self-talk that encourages the athlete may be beneficial. For example, they may practice phrases like, “I am becoming more confident because I show up and practice drills with my team,” or “I am willing to go after an opportunity, even though I can’t predict the outcome.”

Focused attention

Feeling distracted by worry or elevated awareness of physical sensations may make it harder for athletes to stay focused. One may begin fearing uncomfortable body sensations, which can interfere with performance. Learning strategies that help with focus and attention can help an athlete shift away from the anxiety and tune towards a technical cue. 

For example, a long-distance runner that fears having a panic attack in the middle of a run several miles away from home may fear they can only run within a short radius, close to home. They may begin to search for a tingly feeling in their hands as they get ready for their run. In this situation, their anxiety plays a role in how they decide to train. However, if they are willing to work through the worry, they may instead decide a route that will help them build their endurance and speed. They may also shift their focus towards their running technique, instead of searching for a sensation they’re afraid of having. They may think about how they are pacing their strides, how the arms are moving rhythmically, or recall a cue from their coach like, “high cadence.” 


 Imagining worst case scenarios or worrying about what could go wrong is common with anxiety. Visualization exercises can help athletes practice imagining themselves successfully executing a technique, maintaining focus, or accomplishing their goals. Imagining the technique and focus the athlete wants to achieve can help mentally practice. 

For example, a baseball player may visualize when they steps up to bat. they may imagine a wave of tension or pressure beginning to rise as they walk to the plate. They may then imagine themselves turning their focus towards a swing cue they have been practicing as they ready themselves for the pitch and making contact with the ball.


 After practices and games may be a common time for athletes to go over what happened. An athlete with anxiety may get stuck focusing on the things that did not go favorably and may doubt themselves. Using a writing prompt to reflect on what went well, what parts were challenging, and identifying a plan for the next practice or game can help the athlete see a bigger picture. 

For example, a Powerlifter worries that their drills are not just right. Their compulsions to over-correct by practicing drills for hours elevate their stress and anxiety and put them at risk for injury. They choose to use a self-reflection exercise after each practice to help reduce rumination and compulsions. They write down that they did well on their set up and the tempo of each lift. They note challenges with lockouts on one main lift. They decide that in her next training sessions, they would like to ask their coach for specific drills to improve lockouts.

Building a routine

Routines can help athletes balance their many responsibilities and may help with anxiety management. Following a routine that has no flexibility can make it harder for athletes to adjust when something unexpected occurs. Like the many things people face throughout life, anxiety can fluctuate, and athletes may benefit from preparing for changes. Making time for rest, recovery, and fun is one way to start developing a routine. Other aspects of a routine can include planning for time limitations, setting achievable goals, following a consistent strategy, and aiming for a simple versus complicated routine.

Putting it together

The start of a new season can be a useful time to create an anxiety management plan. To begin, consider what resources are available. Consider meeting with a mentor, coach, or counselor to build a connection with someone to turn to when needed. Taking time to write down goals and values can also provide an opportunity to explore what’s important to an athlete. Understanding how anxiety may develop for an athlete and recognizing symptoms will also be important. Skills to help reduce avoidance, rumination, and overthinking can then be utilized before, during, and after practice. When working with a therapist, athletes may participate in developing a treatment plan that will monitor symptoms, build skills, and reduce distress. When a season comes to an end, athletes can practice self-reflection that can inspire another season to come or explore new interests to pursue.

Black male runner about to start a race.
Thomas Smalley Stretching an Athlete
Soccer players kicking a ball