What is anxiety in sports?

Updated July 19, 2017

The heavy breathing, chest pains, tension and sudden lack of confidence in routine athletic performance represent symptoms of anxiety in many athletes when playing sports. At any stage in an athlete's career, whether in Little League or at the Super Bowl, anxiety plagues the mind and if not dealt with properly, affects performance.


The anxiety level experienced by an athlete depends upon varying stress factors such as competition, significance of winning, opponents and personal goals. Even well-trained and experienced athletes encounter stressful situations during a game. The importance lies in understanding how to cope with the internal and external stressors so they do not become the determining factors for success or failure.

Cognitive Anxiety

Two types of anxiety levels exist. The first kind refers to the cognitive aspect. It deals with the mental state affecting performances such as worry concern angst expectations and inner-dialogue.

Somatic Anxiety

The second type of anxiety addresses the emotional component. It manifests itself through feelings such as nervousness and tension.


Anxiety, whether classified as cognitive or somatic, can negatively affect the outcome of performance. Cognitive anxiety affects the mind of an athlete and consumes his thoughts, thus affecting his ability to perform simple tasks such as free-throws in basketball or serving the ball in tennis. Somatic anxiety affects his physical ability to perform by altering his physical state such as increased heart rate or "butterflies in the stomach."


In diagnosing the problem, many sports psychologists analyse various personal and outside factors influencing the athlete. Cognitive approaches include shifting the athlete's state of mind from negative to positive.

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About the Author

Anel Laj began her professional writing career more than 10 years ago as a sports journalist for the Los Angeles Daily News. Currently, she is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Laj received her Bachelor of Arts in mass communications from UC Berkeley. She earned her Master's in Professional Writing from the University of Southern California.