Sports anxiety inhibits student ability

The stands are so quiet you can hear your own heart. You can feel the burning eyes of your teammates on your back as you face the open goal in front of you, the opposing team’s goalie staring at you with a calculated expression, trying to decipher which way you will shoot the ball. You’re nervous. No, you’re terrified. A missed shot will cost your team the game. Your teammates will be so disappointed in you. Your coach won’t start you ever again. Your friends in the stands will make fun of you for the next month.

Do you want to take the shot?

Olivia Mahan (11) knows this feeling all too well. She has been a tri-sport, varsity athlete since her freshman year, running cross country, track, and playing soccer.

“People knew I had a good shot [in soccer], and always saw me making great shots in practice, so my coach would always have me take penalty shots during games,” she said, “It’s the most stressful thing ever and I always dread it so much.”

Before her soccer season even began, however, Mahan struggled with her nerves during cross country season.

Her first meet of her season this year, Mahan had high hopes and was expected to place in the top three for Westview’s team.

Halfway through the race, however, she found herself struggling for breath. She began to panic, confused as to why she couldn’t seem to get enough air into her lungs.

A serious competitor on the cross country team, Mahan was not used to this feeling at such an early point in the race.

This continued to happen over the next few meets until she went to the doctor, expecting to be diagnosed with asthma.

Instead, Mahan was diagnosed with vocal cord dysfunction, a breathing disorder very similar to asthma that is caused from sports anxiety.

It is most commonly diagnosed in athletes, like Mahan, who compete under high levels of stress from an early age.

“Vocal cord dysfunction shows up when you are extra stressed or anxious, so for me I always do great in practices but when it comes to meets that’s when my breathing acts up,” she said. “It’s triggered by stress and not much else.”

Competing at the varsity level from a young age, Mahan had to adjust to the pressure of sports that her older and more experienced competitors had already mastered.

“It’s slowly getting better,” she said. “The biggest thing I learned from it is that you need to have a positive mindset and learn how to calm down your thoughts and your body.”

By seeking professional help on how to cope with her anxiety, Mahan developed a variety of useful strategies to help her perform to her full potential.

“I ended up seeing a sports psychologist about my anxiety, and he taught me two things that really helped me,” she said, “The first was a lot of breathing techniques that helped me calm down and learn how to breathe regularly again, and the second was something called visualization.”

She explained the process of visualization to be the process of thinking of a place or situation that makes you feel calm, and repeated this process each night before you go to sleep.

“By learning how you feel at your calmest, you can remember and replicate this feeling during sports by conjuring up that visualization,” she said, “You can also apply this to other stressful situations such as tests.”

Although this is an extreme case, Mahan isn’t the only Westview athlete to struggle with sports anxiety. From football to golf, sports anxiety is indiscriminate in who it affects.

A commonly misdiagnosed phenomenon, sports anxiety is known by many names, such as ‘normal pre-game nerves,’ or ‘choking’ under pressure.

No matter what you call it, sports anxiety can cause a wide range of issues, and each athlete manages it in a different way.

Lily Pham (11) competed in hurdles on the track team during her first two years at Westview.

Running hurdles requires an enormous amount of focus; one missed step and you could trip and find yourself sprawled on the track, scraped up and badly bruised. This kind of injury is common in hurdles, and a lack of focus can be a direct cause of these injuries.

“All you can really think about is your body shaking, your legs feeling like they’re gonna fall off, or all the sweat that’s building up from the anxiety,” she said. “Getting in the blocks [and] waiting for the starter’s gun to go off is the most gruesome thing because you’re not sure whether you’re ready, when the gun will go off, or if you’ll slip and fall on your face.”

But for Pham, the adrenaline that comes with the fast-paced nature of track and field helps her stay focused and free of nerves.

“Once the gun goes off, all that anxiety flushes out of your system and the only thing you can think about is winning,” she said.

However, this is not the case for all athletes, especially those who compete in longer, games such as football and basketball.

Extended periods of concentration and confidence are necessary for a player to succeed in these sports, and anxiety can make this hard to maintain. This can seriously affect how well a player plays, as well as the success of the whole team.

Nathan Wang (11) is determined to make himself and his team proud. Therefore, he uses a variety of strategies to overcome his sports anxiety.

A member of the basketball program for two years, he has dedicated himself to improving both the mental and physical aspects of his game.

“Dressing a specific way makes me feel more in control on the court when I’m feeling nervous,” he said. “Everything that I wear in a game is important. I remember during some games, I would wear black shoes and I would say to myself, ‘Black means it’s time to be an assassin, it’s time to be a killer on the court’ and that would help me play better. It’s all about hype and being pumped up. It’s all about building confidence.”

Mental pep talks s to get ready for a stressful game can be effective. Football player Joe Bennett (12) knows this.

He has played linebacker on varsity all four years, he has had to adapt to the high pressures of being watched by hundreds in the stands every Friday night.

His first encounter with sports anxiety in high school was during his first game of his freshman year.

“The day of the game I was super nervous but very excited at the same time,” he said. “I knew I had to perform well and do my best for the team. I had to mentally prepare myself to play the whole game and never take any plays off.”

He remembers how seriously his nerves affected him, but he knew he had to overcome them to live up to both his team’s and his own expectations.

“When I got nervous, I always felt like I couldn’t breathe,” he said, “I used deep breaths to try to calm myself down. I also would get goosebumps out of excitement and nervousness.”

With four years of experience under his belt, Bennett has developed a pre-game method to control his sports anxiety.

“I cope with my anxiety by taking deep breaths and properly preparing for a game, mentally,” he said. “Usually, I use a lot of visualization and run through plays to give myself the confidence of knowing what I’m doing so I’m less nervous. I also tell myself just to do what I’m taught [in practice] and everything will work out.”

Additionally, Bennett said that support from his family and friends can be an effective and helpful support system when dealing with anxiety.

“My mom and dad have a huge impact on my confidence and composure because there always at my games to give me reassurance before and after which helps with anxiety relief,” he said.

Although each athlete had a different story, a different sport and a different life, they are all connected by their struggles to overcome their sports anxiety.

From the seasoned varsity football player breathing deeply as he  strides confidently onto the field, to the young basketball player lacing up his black shoes, each has learned to deal with their sports anxiety a little different.

However, they all said they are thankful they struggled, because it made them a stronger athlete in the end.

“My experience has definitely made me stronger,” Mahan said, “At first I was so angry and I wanted to give up, but I pushed through it. Now when I am struggling with something, I always try my hardest because now I know I can get through anything.”  you can think about is winning,” she said.

However, this is not the case for all athletes, especially those who compete in longer, games such as football and basketball.

Extended periods of concentration and confidence are necessary for a player to succeed in these sports, and anxiety can make this hard to maintain. This can seriously affect how well a player plays, as well as the success of the whole team.

Nathan Wang (11) is determined to make himself and his team proud. Therefore, he uses a variety of strategies to overcome his sports anxiety.

A member of the basketball program for two years, he has dedicated himself to improving both the mental and physical aspects of his game.

“Dressing a specific way makes me feel more in control on the court when I’m feeling nervous,” he said. “Everything that I wear in a game is important. I remember during some games, I would wear black shoes and I would say to myself, ‘Black means it’s time to be an assassin, it’s time to be a killer on the court’ and that would help me play better. It’s all about hype and being pumped up. It’s all about building confidence.”

Mental pep talks s to get ready for a stressful game can be effective. Football player Joe Bennett (12) knows this.

He has played linebacker on varsity all four years, and has had to adapt to the high pressures of being watched by hundreds in the stands every Friday night.

His first encounter with sports anxiety in high school was during his first game of his freshman year.

“The day of the game I was super nervous but very excited at the same time,” he said. “I knew I had to perform well and do my best for the team. I had to mentally prepare myself to play the whole game and never take any plays off.”

He remembers how seriously his nerves affected him, but he knew he had to overcome them to live up to both his team’s and his own expectations.

“When I got nervous, I always felt like I couldn’t breathe,” he said, “I used deep breaths to try to calm myself down. I also would get goosebumps out of excitement and nervousness.”

With four years of experience under his belt, Bennett has developed a pre-game method to control his sports anxiety.

“I cope with my anxiety by taking deep breaths and properly preparing for a game, mentally,” he said. “Usually, I use a lot of visualization and run through plays to give myself the confidence of knowing what I’m doing so I’m less nervous. I also tell myself just to do what I’m taught [in practice] and everything will work out.”

Additionally, Bennett said that encouragement from his family and friends can be a helpful support system when dealing with anxiety.

“My mom and dad have a huge impact on my confidence and composure because there always at my games to give me reassurance before and after, which helps with anxiety relief,” he said.

Although each athlete had a different story, a different sport and a different life, they are all connected through their struggles to overcome their sports anxiety.

From the seasoned varsity football player breathing deeply as he  strides confidently onto the field, to the young basketball player lacing up his black shoes, each has learned to deal with their sports anxiety in their own way.

However, they all said they are thankful they struggled, because it made them a better athlete in the end.

“My experience has definitely made me stronger,” Mahan said, “At first I was so angry and I wanted to give up, but I pushed through it. Now when I am struggling with something, I always try my hardest because now I know I can get through anything.”