My fast heart rate and self-doubt were plenty enough reasons to not play volleyball during my freshman year of high school but so was my competitive coach.
As a relatively sensitive and anxious person, I always figured there was only room for competitive athletes in sports—those whose only goal is to win. I believed I wasn’t in it to win it and I accepted that.
According to Scott Stossel’s “The Relationship Between Anxiety and Performance” in the Harvard Business Review, “to choke is to wilt under pressure, to fail to perform at the moment of greatest importance.”
I don’t really hear any conversations about the anxiety athletes suffer from. It’s humbling and comical, but quite problematic to know that some of the greatest athletes of all time have gone down in history as some of the greatest “quitters” and “cowards” in sports.
For example, professional boxer Robert Duran lost his welterweight competition to Sugar Ray Leonard in 1980, within the final 16 seconds of the 18th round, when he held his hands up in surrender yelling, “No màs, no màs.”
Some will argue that Duran is a brave fighter but some will argue he’s a quitter.
Better yet, Bill Russell, a Hall of Fame basketball player, vomited from anxiety before games—a total of 1,128 times between 1956 and 1969, courtesy of Scott Stossel’s calculations. According to his teammates, the vomiting was a welcoming sound that always initiated a great game.
As an athlete, it’s beneficial to both your mental and physical health to check in with your values. Every athlete endures pressure differently.
For some, an upset stomach and shaky hands is the optimal amount of anxiety, but for others, it’s an endgame.
Sian Beilock, a University of Chicago cognitive psychologist, performed an experiment that improved athletes’ performance by diverting their attention to something less mechanical like reciting a song or poem.
The problem with this study lies with the fact that it was done within the confines of an experiment, which doesn’t entirely replicate the competitive pressure of a game. Nonetheless, its results were interesting.
You may find winning isn’t all that’s inflating to your ego—it might just be an expected goal from standards set by your team and coach, or more specifically, by the social construct of sports itself.
In the Quarterly Iranian Journal of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, a study titled “The Relationship between Coaches’ and Athletes’ Competitive Anxiety and their Performance” demonstrated that coaches’ anxiety has a meaningful impact on athletes’ anxiety.
Athletes deal with their own psychological stress, fear of failure, sense of inability, goals and expectations on top of the expectations and treatment coaches impart. Furthermore, the study reinforced how an athlete’s relationship with their coach can affect their performance.
In the same light, I think the term teamwork fails to cover all the components each team player contributes to this effort. It’s not just about the game plan, the positions each person plays or the pep talks.
Essentially, teamwork is how the success of each player depends on the performance of their teammates. Teamwork assigns more than just a physical responsibility to each player, but a uniform expectation that not all players typically meet.
I think responsibility is essential to development and high expectations can be an efficient tool for motivation, but teamwork can be blind to the unrealistic demands of each individual.
Not everyone thinks alike, not everyone has the same headspace and some operate better under pressure more than others.
However, not all anxiety is necessarily bad. Eustress, the beneficial stress, and even regular amounts of anxiety can be enough to get any athlete revved up for a game.
Also, there are some physiological components to the relationship people have with anxiety.
Here’s a cool, irrelevant formula to determine your level of anxiety: Neuropeptide (NPY), a neurotransmitter that regulates stress responses, plus how likely you are to crack under stress.
From what I’ve experienced and discovered in athletic settings, athletes are merely people pleasers by means of winning for their team and coaches. Let me reiterate—the fact that a score is kept already writes the fate of every athlete’s behavior and attitude towards a game.
Performance anxiety is the result of competitive pressure and expectations. Make friends with your teammates, coach and athletic environment, but don’t forget to make friends with your anxiety.