Common physical and behavioral symptoms of performance anxiety
Wondering if you (or your athlete) is experience performance anxiety? Read below for a list of common symptoms.
Common Physical Symptoms include:
Loss of appetite
Not wanting to eat anything before competition.
Especially hours before, when you haven’t eaten much and you know you should be hungry.
When many people get nervous, they get a light tingling sensation in their stomach, almost as if there are a bunch of butterflies fluttering around in their belly.
This is because the body is diverting blood & oxygen away from organs involved in digestion, so that muscles in the arms and legs that can aid in ‘fight or flight’ get more energy. The stomach senses this lack of blood & oxygen, and then uses it’s sensory nerves to create a fluttering feeling as a way to complain and attract attention.
So a little bit of butterflies are certainly normal, and can even be helpful…
Feeling like you’re gonna throw up
Or perhaps actually throwing up before or during your competition.
(Don’t worry, I won’t actually show you a gif of that).
When you’re anxious, your muscles tend to tighten up. When your muscles are tight, it makes it very difficult to perform both fine and gross motor skills properly. Your movements become jerky, so you don’t have the precision and fluidity you need to control a ball, puck, javelin, etc.
Even when you’re not trying to precisely control another object (like in the 100m dash), tight muscles will restrict your range of motion, shorten your stride length and slow you down.
Beyond the direct physical limitations, you may also feel your chest tightening – almost as if someone is stepping on it.
When you breathe, you inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. If you are anxious and breath too rapidly or deeply, this can lead to low levels of carbon dioxide in your blood which can cause you to feel dizzy or lightheaded, and have a shortness of breath.
In order to stop hyperventilating, you should take controlled, slow breaths (especially slow exhales). According to WebMD, you may even want to close your mouth and try breathing through just 1 nostril.
In more extreme cases: panic attacks
As per the Mayo Clinic: A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause.
If you have panic attack symptoms, seek professional medical help as soon as possible. Panic attacks, while intensely uncomfortable, are not dangerous. But panic attacks are hard to manage on your own, and they may get worse without treatment.
Panic attack symptoms can also resemble symptoms of other serious health problems, such as a heart attack, so it’s important to get evaluated by your primary care provider if you aren’t sure what’s causing your symptoms.
After suffering from a panic attack mid-game, NBA star Kevin Love has helped to remove the stigma around anxiety in sports by sharing his experience and struggles.
It’s pretty standard to sweat after exercising. The body begins to overheat from exertion, so it produces moisture to cool itself off.
High-fiving a sweaty teammate who just made a good play = worth the 2 seconds it takes to wipe off the sweat on your shorts.
But have you ever shaken the ‘clammy’ hand of someone really nervous, and been totally grossed-out by how wet, yet chilly their hand is? The sweat is cooling them down, but they weren’t that hot to begin with, so it makes for an icky-combination.
If you find that your palms are sweaty and clammy just from anticipating your competition (i.e. before the warm up), this could a sign of performance anxiety.
One of the other things your fight or flight response can divert energy from is your salivary glands. This can cause your mouth to feel super dry, like when you wake up in the middle of the night or morning dehydrated.
It can result in your looking like a dog licking peanut butter off the roof of it’s mouth.
But not all symptoms are physically obvious… some symptoms of performance anxiety impact your behavior, rather than your bodily sensations.
Below you will find a list of common behavioral symptoms of performance anxiety.
Underperforming or ‘Choking’
Perhaps the most obvious indication that an athlete is struggling with performance anxiety is consistent underperformance in competitions.
Everyone has an ‘off-day’ once in a while, but when an athlete routinely performs much better in practice than they do in competitions, they are likely struggling with performance anxiety.
Playing small (or not at all)
Performance anxiety can lead to athletes finding excuses to not compete or to avoid challenging situations.
This is often the case with matchups against competitors who are ranked slightly worse than them, but have a shot a pulling off ‘an upset.’ There is no shame in being the underdog and losing to the favorite, but many athletes feel it is deeply embarrassing to be the favorite and lose to the underdog.
Publicly-posted results and social media amplify this shame.
This is particularly true for athletes whose self-worth, and/or perceived worth to parents & peers, is derived from their athletic performance and associated social status.
So rather than risk this embarrassment, many athletes will come up with excuses for why they can’t start or finish a competition.
These excuses can include:
- Fake or exaggerated injuries (before or during a competition);
- Not “feelin’ it today”, so better to drop out and save themselves for another day;
- Claiming to be too busy with schoolwork or something else;
- Tripping and falling intentionally;
- Behaving recklessly – so as to increase the chances of falling or getting injured;
- Fouling-out or taking penalties intentionally or recklessly; and
- Only competing against competitors who are much better or much worse than them.
These behaviors typically aren’t well-thought-out, conscious decisions. Rather, they are the ‘dirty-work’ of the sub-conscious brain that acts like a well-meaning henchman acting to protect the boss’ interest, but takes things too far.
Closely related to the above, self-sabotage consists of behaviours that hurt progress, but lessen the embarrassment of failure by creating an excuse the blame the failure on later.
A classic example of self-sabotage would be a student intentionally NOT studying for a test.
- If they do well on the test, they can attribute it to being naturally brilliant.
- “I got good marks without even needing to study.”
- Whereas if they do poorly, they can claim blame their failure on something external, and use the ‘benefit of the doubt’ to suggest that the their poor marks are not an indicator of their natural intelligence.
- “I only got a poor result because I didn’t study. But if I had have studied, I would have done well…”
- Their fear is that if they study hard and get a poor result, there will be nothing to blame the poor result on. They believe it would indicate that they are hopelessly stupid.
- “Even when I try, I fail. There must be something wrong with me…”
- This scenario is particularly scary for individuals who have a “fixed mindset,” because they believe that if they are not good at something now, that they will never be good at it.
Other examples can include:
- Skipping training (practice itself, or at-home components like stretching, physio exercises, mental training);
- Withholding effort in training (also known as ‘sandbagging’);
- Procrastinating elements of training or preparation for a competition.
- This could include arriving late (or dangerously close to late) such that they would not be allowed to compete;
- Staying up too late – and therefore not getting adequate sleep before a competition;
- Not tying their shoes properly (or setting themselves up for some other equipment malfunction); and
- Intentionally straying from their nutrition or hydration plans before a competition.
Loss of enjoyment
It should go without saying that none of the above symptoms are enjoyable. In fact, many of them are downright dreadful. So the more frequently an athlete experiences performance anxiety, the more they are going to associate their sport with these gut-wrenching symptoms.
They may begin to dread competitions (or the sport in general) and just want to “get it over with.”
Over time, this can lead to the athlete questioning “why am I still doing this?”
Once they can no longer justify their involvement, they will likely quit.
To assess if you, or your athlete, is struggling with performance anxiety, check for 1 or more of the following symptoms. The more symptoms present, and the more severe they are, the more performance anxiety is likely hindering your performance.
- Loss of appetite – not wanting to eat when you know you should be hungry
- Excessive butterflies – fluttering feeling in your stomach (mild) to debilitating knots in your stomach (severe)
- Feeling like you’re going to throw up – before or early on during a competition
- Tense muscles – when you unconsciously squeeze your muscles and restrict fine and gross motor movement
- Hyperventilation – really quick & shallow breathing that can cause you to feel light-headed
- Panic attacks – sever hyperventilation where you feel like you’re losing control. Seek professional medical support
- Excessive sweating – like gross, clammy hands
- Dry mouth – feeling like you need to unglue your tongue from the rest of your mouth.
- Underperforming or choking – performing way worse in competitions than you do in practice
- Playing small, or not at all – finding excuses to avoid challenging situations
- Self-sabotage – behaviors that hurt progress, but lessen the embarrassment of failure
- Loss of enjoyment – the more you experience these symptoms, the less fun sports are, and the more likely you are to quit
- An explanation of what performance anxiety is and examples when you might experience it
Is Performance Anxiety Common?
- Is performance anxiety normal, or is there just something wrong with you?
Why Do Athletes Get Performance Anxiety?
- A brief overview of some of the common causes of performance anxiety
Where Does Performance Anxiety Come From?
- What goes on in the body when you feel anxious
How Does Performance Anxiety Impact Athletes?
- The impact different amounts of performance anxiety has on performance outcomes
What Can Be Done To Address Performance Anxiety?
- The role-specific steps athletes, coaches, and parents can each take to manage & prevent performance anxiety