All About Performance Stress

From youth leagues to the Olympics, most athletes experience stress before big events. Anxiety, however, is different. It describes the feeling of impotence you get when the challenge seems beyond you, and you can’t help but worry about it. Anxiety can kill enjoyment and harm your performance. It leads to mental and physical symptoms, such as annoyance, anger, fatigue, and muscle pain.


Most anxiety that a player feels is not related to the game itself but what’s going on inside their mind. Here are the most common causes:  

  1. Having an audience – Even positive, supportive parents can make athletes self-conscious about the decisions they make. Why? Their presence can make an athlete put pressure on themselves to perform well and avoid disappointing those they most care about. 

  2. Thinking too much - When athletes overthink their body mechanics in high-stress physical situations, instead of using muscle memory to do what they’ve practiced, they’re more likely to choke.

  3. High expectations: Every athlete wants to do their best, but when they set expectations to always perform at an optimal level all the time, the pressure can lead to fear of failure, disappointment, guilt, negative self-talk, and even feeling physically sick without a physical cause. It is wise to remember that no one can play the perfect game, or even a good game every time.

  4. Recovering from an injury - After an athlete gets hurt, it can take a long time to restore their confidence.

Here are some ways to reduce stress and anxiety and to counteract the above problems:  


1. Prepare and visualize - Arrive early and practice your warm-up routines, while visualizing yourself playing well, and taking some deep, slow breaths. This will help to increase “muscle memory” so you can think less. If you can’t do that, go on the side and visualize what you would normally do. Maybe even stretch and loosen up. During practice, repeat your game day movements at game-day intensity so that they become automatic.

2. Focus on the super short term - During the game, focus on the next play, not the whole game.  


3.  Practice the 4-7-8 breathing technique - Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound. Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of 4. Hold your breath for a count of 7. Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of 8. Here is a quick video that we encourage you to try before a game.


4. Try progressive muscle relaxation - Breath in, and tense a muscle group, such as your legs, hard but not to the point of pain or cramping, for 4-10 seconds. Breathe out, and suddenly and completely relax the muscle group. Do NOT relax it gradually. Relax for 15 seconds before you work on another muscle group. Arms, legs, and torso are the most common.


5. Avoid distractions - Athletes who consistently perform at a high level avoid external distractions like social media, gossiping, or video games right before a game. Associating with these things too much can keep them in the back of your mind. Getting enough sleep the night before a competition is also very important to maintain focus.

Works Cited

American Psychological Association, American Psychological Association,

Goodes, Jeanne. “3 Steps to Nip Youth Performance Anxiety in the Bud.” Breaking Muscle, 21 Aug. 2019,

“Helping Young Athletes Handle the Stress of Competition.” Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center, 5 Mar. 2019,

Smoll, Frank. “Are Youth Sports Too Stressful?” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 1 July 2014,

“Sport Performance Anxiety in Youth Sports.” TrueSport, 19 Sept. 2018,

Suter, Erica. “5 Ways Young Athletes Can Reduce Stress and Anxiety.” STACK, 4 Nov. 2019,


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