Resources for Games and Competitions

Navigating Anxiety/OCD/BDD as an Athlete Before, During, and After Competition

by Danielle King

If you are an athlete living with an anxiety disorder you are well aware of the mental battle in your head before, during, and after competition. It feels draining, and often interferes with your ability to perform your skills. Read on for tricks and tips to ease your anxiety during these difficult times.

Before competition

Progressive relaxation — This is a technique which involves tensing and relaxing specific muscles throughout the body. The purpose of this method is to increase self awareness of when you feel tense and when you lack tension. Start in your hand; squeeze and create a fist for 5–10 seconds. Then, in that same hand, let the fist go and relax for 5–10 seconds. Maintain your focus only on the hand and fist. Repeat each fist two times and then move on to another body part. You may do as many body parts as you wish; however, I recommend you stick to 2–3 when first beginning this technique. Practice this technique before competition in order to create physical relaxation which in turn alleviates mental tension.

Imagery — This technique is used to prepare yourself mentally for performance by using memory recall from past experiences/plays/successes. It can also be used by imagining new events/plays/successes. The best way for imagery to be effective is to use as many senses as possible when picturing your situation. Sit down for 2–3 minutes before your competition. Start by picking which sense is most dominant in your scenario (auditory, visual, tactile, olfactory, and kinesthetic). Then, from a first person perspective start to describe your scenario, keeping in mind the senses involved. Visualize the scenario using every sense. Remember, you are imagining something that should enhance your performance, so be specific with the scene you create in your head. The goal is to feel motivated, empowered, and in control of your emotions after you finish these 2–3 minutes.

OCD specific — Remember, other obsessive thoughts may come up during your imagery session. That is okay. Allow the obsessive thought space in your imagery, but continue your scenario. It is okay for that uncontrolled obsessive thought to pop in. Do not suppress your thoughts as that will distract you from creating positive emotions and motivation to compete.

During competition

If you are an athlete, you may have performance anxiety. If you have an anxiety disorder your performance anxiety may be exasperated. What is performance anxiety? It’s the pressure to be the best, the belief that you cannot fail, and the emotions that come along with this debilitating feeling. How can you combat it? If you have OCD, do your compulsions get in the way of your performance? If you have BDD, are you constantly thinking about what you look like while you play?

Breath work — This physically oriented relaxation technique is an efficient and effective way to control anxiety during games and competition. The simple thing to remember is that when you breathe in you increase muscle tension, and when you breathe out you decrease muscle tension.

What is the proper way to breathe?

The chest wall is meant to help us breathe when our body is in fight-or-flight mode, but when we want to truly relax we have to access the big muscle that sits at the base of the lungs — the diaphragm. Breathing through the diaphragm helps fill up your lungs more efficiently because the contraction of the diaphragm creates a vacuum which pulls air into the lungs. It also engages your intercostal, abdominal, and pelvic floor muscles.

When do I breathe?

The goal is to breathe in for a shorter amount of time than you breathe out. Try for a 1:2 ratio. Breathe in for two seconds and breathe out for four seconds. The best time to use this 1:2 ratio breathing is during a time out or break in the action. The slow and deliberate inhalation and exhalation will help you re-gain or maintain composure over your anxiety during a competition. Try actually touching your diaphragm when you do the breaths. This muscle can be felt by placing your hands just below your ribs when breathing. Remember, start with two seconds inhaling and then four seconds exhaling. Adjust as needed for you. 

For those with generalized anxiety during competition, this is a great way to avoid reacting to things that frustrate you. Whether it is a teammate, your own mistake, or the other team, these are scenarios that increase uncomfortable emotions and cause you to react. The goal with breath work is to stay calm and manage uncomfortable emotions. For those with OCD and BDD, this also applies; however, I would also recommend using cognitive reframing before and after breath work.

Cognitive reframing — The purpose of cognitive reframing is to help athletes realize that distorted thoughts are not contributing positively to performance. Those with OCD and BDD tend to hyper focus on one or two thoughts that can inhibit progress and shift focus away from the skills needed to perform.

How do I reframe my thoughts?

First off, remember that your OCD or BDD thoughts don’t define you, and they definitely don’t define your skill level. The only thing they do is distract you from these two things. Start by addressing the thought. For example, those with BDD may think, “I just feel like I will look so fat after this match, so I can’t eat anything or drink much water or I will be bloated.” Second, acknowledge and give compassion to the thought. “It is okay that I think I will feel fat after this match.” Third, ask yourself if this is a realistic thought or if it is magnified. For some, this self-awareness about the thought will be enough to move forward, but for others more steps may need to be completed. Fourth, challenge the thought. “Am I basing my thoughts on facts I know about bloating? Do I know exactly what causes bloating? How much weight can be gained with water retention?” Fifth, alter the thought. “I may feel a little bloated after the game, but I know hydration is good for me as I am sweating a lot.”

Remember, cognitive reframing takes a lot of practice. I recommend using this technique in everyday life as well. This will increase the likelihood of you using this technique during a game. The key to cognitive reframing is challenging the validity of the thought. More likely than not, the thought is distorted, focuses only on the negative, jumps to conclusions, or is blaming in nature. That is why we challenge our own thoughts. Remember, if the thought will not positively affect your performance, why hang onto it longer than needed? This applies to all athletes with or without anxiety disorders.

After competition

Self-assessment — After competition is a great time to self-assess your reactions to your anxiety during the game. Whether you had a win or a loss, try to recall how many times you gave in to your anxiety, and how many times you overcame your anxiety.

How do I keep track? 

Trying using the 3, 2, 1 approach. Write down (or rehearse in your mind) three things/plays/actions you did well. Write down two things you could work on for the next game. Be as specific as possible as this will help you when you are getting ready for the next game. Your items (whether you did them well or need improvement) could be anxiety-reduction techniques, such as breathing, or it could be skill related to your sport. Your skills are important to remember when you are stuck in a mental trap which is why we want to highlight both skills and mental techniques when addressing parts  two and three of this exercise. 

Last, identify one thing from the game that was fun for you. It is important to remember that you are playing your sport for enjoyment. This applies to generalized anxiety, OCD, and BDD. Regardless of what disorder you face, you still should be having fun! Hopefully this elicits positive thoughts of what you love about your sport. Try to be grateful and proud of this moment that you choose. When the negative thoughts try to take over your mind, gratitude can remind our brains of the good things that are present.

In summary, you are an athlete first and foremost. The mental chatter that comes along with your anxiety, OCD, or BDD is not what defines your athletic ability. The anxiety you carry is there to help you tap into your physical and mental strength. You become a better version of yourself each time you overcome a situation that is mentally tough. It paves the way for you to unlock your best athletic potential!

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