Anxiety in Sports

Grace Freiheit

Sport Psychology

Final Paper: Anxiety in Sports

June 8, 2010

           Anxiety in athletes is common, but not regularly discussed and treated. There are many reasons for this. First, most athletes with anxiety about sports either won’t tell anyone, or they don’t understand what they are feeling. Also, many people with social anxiety don’t realize that it affects their participation in athletics. Lastly, sports psychology is still a relatively new field with a lack of historical data, research, and only a recent amount of invested interest. In this paper, I will discuss the fundamentals of sport anxiety, its effects, and also the relationship between social anxiety and sport.

            Anxiety is defined in Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology as “a negative emotional state in which feelings of nervousness, worry, and apprehension are associated with activation or arousal of the body.”  Sport anxiety is similar to social anxiety or generalized anxiety; it just pertains to physical activity. There are two basic types of anxiety: cognitive and somatic. Cognitive anxiety “…concerns the degree to which one worries or has negative thoughts” while somatic anxiety “…concerns the moment-to-moment changes in perceived physiological activation (Weinburg, & Gould, 2007).” Raudsepp states “cognitive anxiety is typified by negative self images and self doubts, while somatic anxiety is typified by increased heart rate, tense muscles, and clammy hands (Raudsepp, 2008).” Sport anxiety encompasses both types of anxiety, and many people can deal with aspects of both somatic and cognitive anxiety.

           There are many aspects of sport anxiety to be considered when observing athletes. Two articles agree and focus on fears: those of failure, poor performance, and negative evaluation (Storch, Barlas, Dent, & Masai, 2002) (Conroy, D., Coatsworth, J., & Kaye, M. 2007). While another relates it to low self confidence caused by negative self image and self doubts (Raudsepp, 2008). Storch, Barlas and Dent also relate it to social phobia. Social phobia is defined as “a marked and persistent fear of one or more social or performance situations in which the person is exposed to unfamiliar people or to possible scrutiny by others.” This leads to the idea that those who have anxiety in sports, would also feel anxiety towards things such as public speaking, parties, meetings, and many other areas of life(Norton, Hope, & Weeks, 2004). There are even suggestions that there is increased anxiety in high contact sports. The fear of injury adds to sport anxiety in many persons (Raudsepp, 2008).

            There are some differences between males and females when it comes to sport anxiety as it relates to social anxiety. There was a study done of fifth and sixth grade children that showed social anxiety having a large impact on the girls and them dealing with sport anxiety, where as the boys had no such trouble with the correlation between social and sport anxiety (Norton, Hope, & Weeks, 2004). Norton, Hope, and Weeks also state quite clearly: “sex differences were noted on the PASAS, with women reporting significantly greater social anxiety in sporting and athletic situations.” Raudsepp also states that females are much more affected by sport anxiety; they have a higher level of social avoidance, and a larger fear of negative evaluation than males do. Females compare themselves to others and they feel very self conscious, I think this makes them more susceptible to social and sport anxiety. Although females may be more susceptible to sport anxiety, males can be affected too.   We should be aware that any person can struggle with anxiety in relationship to anything, even playing a sport, participating with a physical education class, or working out in a gym. We must learn how to recognize the signs of sport anxiety.

            Age is also an important aspect of sport anxiety. It is suggested that age does not matter in sport anxiety (Mellalieu, Neil, & Hanton, 2006). Mellalieu and Hanton suggest that sport anxiety is present in all ages and no less in the older or younger generations. Whereas Norton, Hope, and Weeks focus on children and the sport anxiety they deal with. This implies that sport anxiety starts young, and either continues or fades with age. Though these articles contradict each other, one saying age doesn’t matter and the other saying it begins with children, I believe they are connected through time. Even though anxiety may begin with children, it will stay with many as they grow and eventually, they will be adults dealing with that same sport anxiety. Therefore, young and old deal with anxiety similarly, however, it starts when a person is younger and merely continues with time.

             It is very important that we understand the circumstances of sport anxiety, and how to decrease the commonality of it. There are many possible dangers of sport anxiety: “Given the myriad physical and psychological health consequences on a non-active lifestyle, valid assessment of social anxiety and avoidance in this domain is warranted (Norton, Hope, & Weeks, 2004).” The idea here is that if we don’t identify those who are faced with sport anxiety they will not be healthy as they should be. Those people will avoid the gym, avoid exercise, and live sedentary lifestyles. This will result in heart disease from obesity, diabetes, and many other preventable diseases and conditions.    

            Many people may be surprised to know that professional athletes deal with sport anxiety just as much, if not more, than everyone else. Personally, I would expect them to have more anxiety then others involved in athletic activity. While many elite athletes struggle with sport anxiety, they are better equipped to handle the stress of it all. They are taught relaxation techniques and stress management tools (Mellalieu, Neil, & Hanton, 2006). One would also be led to believe that the anxiety elite athletes face is centered around performance deficits, however, Norton, Hope, and Weeks are quoted saying “…general measures of social anxiety and trait competitive anxiety were not significantly related to perceived performance deficits.” Also, most professional athletics groups or teams have a team psychologist which would help to identify and treat those who have social anxiety. I can only image how much better off young people, and those not involved in professional athletics with money and connections, would be if they had the knowledge and training given to elite athletes about sport anxiety. The entire world of athletic could be changed if given a little more time, effort, and training around sport anxiety. I can only image how many more people would go to the gym and be healthier if they knew how to handle their anxiety around physical activity. The obesity rate could be lowered, the death rate caused by heart disease could be lowered, and maybe fewer children would be inactive and unhealthy in the United States.

            Personally, I understand too much about sport anxiety. Not only do I have a social phobia, but I felt anxiety in sports all growing up. I played sports from basketball to swimming, from ballet and gymnastics, to soccer and softball. I felt anxiety during all of them. In ballet, things are often focused on individuals, which was incredibly hard on me and my nerves. In soccer, I felt so much pressure from teammates that I had anxiety about playing in games. In basketball I always felt like the odd one out, the less talented player. In gymnastics I just didn’t have the needed upper body strength to do everything I wanted to do. I always compared myself to others, I always felt inadequate in some way, and I always struggled to deal with the anxiety caused by those feelings. Having gone through all that growing up without any help is why I feel so strongly about sport anxiety awareness. If my coaches had known what I was going through and knew how to assist me in those struggles, I would have performed much better. I would also have been better prepared for the more intense struggles of life. I feel more people should be aware of the anxiety that is present in sports and athletics and understand how to make a difference.

















Works Cited


1.) Conroy, D., Coatsworth, J., & Kaye, M. (2007). Consistency of Fear of Failure Score Meanings among 8- to 18-Year-Old Female Athletes. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 67(2), 300-310. Retrieved from ERIC database.

2.) Mellalieu, S.D., Neil, R., & Hanton, S. (2006). Self-confidence as a mediator of the relationship between competitive anxiety intensity and interpretation. Research Quarterly For Exercise and Sport, 77(2), 263-270.

3.) Norton, P.J., Hope, D.A., & Weeks, J.W. (Ed.). (2004). The Physical activity and sport anxiety scale (PSAS): scale development and psychometric analysis. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska.

4.) Raudsepp, L. (2008). Confirmatory factor analysis of the revised competitive state anxiety inventory-2 among Estonian athletes. IJSEP, 85(6), 85-95.

5.) Storch, E.A., Barlas, M.E., Dent, H., & Masai, C.L. (2002). Generalizations of social anxiety to sport: an investigation of elementary aged Hispanic children . Child Study Journal, 32(2), 81-90.

6.) Weinburg, R.S., & Gould, D. (2007). Foundations of sport and exercise psychology. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.