Intense fear of failure is something everyone can relate to at some point in life. This sensation typically arises before any performance, whether it is in the realm of academics, entertainment or sports. Surprisingly, performance anxiety is becoming more common in the area of high-level sports competition.
Stories of athletes who have reached the highest level of their sport and can suddenly no longer perform simple tasks are well-known. An infielder who can no longer throw a baseball to first base, a pitcher who can’t find home plate, a basketball player who puts up an air ball from the foul line and competitive swimmers who fear drowning when on the starting block are examples.
The human brain can be divided into two parts. The diencephalon, or primitive brain, controls emotions and consists of the hypothalamus, thalamus and limbic lobe. The telencephalon makes up the thinking portion of the brain and includes the more highly developed cortical structures.
The “fight-or-flight response” is based on the perception of danger. It triggers an outpouring of adrenaline and the body responds with increased heart rate, rapid breathing, profuse sweating and increased muscle strength.
“When an athlete becomes anxious, the primitive areas of the brain hijack the regions that control coordinated movement, making simple learned skills impossible to perform,” reports Dr. John Sullivan, a sports psychologist in Rhode Island who works with amateur and professional athletes. Emotions always impact physical activity and the ability to balance this interaction will improve performance.
Dr. Jeffrey Anderson, a sports medicine specialist, believes that anxiety among young athletes is rising.
“We have created a youth sports system where there are no losers and everyone receives a trophy. As these athletes get to higher levels, they encounter the harsh reality that losses do occur. For many, the thought of losing is overwhelming,” said Anderson. He half-jokingly states that as a matter of principle, he allows his children an opportunity to fail on a regular basis.
Many athletes develop their own ways of dealing with anxiety.
John Paesani, a professional golfer in Norwich, competes regularly in regional and national tournaments. He deals with the inevitable anxiety all golfers experience on the first tee by following a routine that begins the morning of an event. He allows enough time to eat, stretch and practice to increase confidence in his performance.
Amber Holt, a star forward for the Connecticut Sun, also has devised a coping strategy.
“When I get to the foul line, I slow my breathing and just think about making the shot to avoid anxiety,” she said.
Lee Elci has had to deal with performance anxiety as both a professional baseball player and as an entertainer.
“In baseball, I was always confident that I could be successful against any pitcher. Entertainment was a different arena for me and dealing with anxiety was difficult and demanded a lot of time and practice.” Elci is now a top-rated radio talk show host and believes good preparation avoids a fear of failure.
Treating performance anxiety requires training athletes to connect their emotions with their physical strengths. This often requires professional help and sometimes medication.
Dr. Sullivan advises that an inordinate amount of anxiety in a young athlete is often the result of factors other than sports and early intervention can avoid serious psychiatric problems.
A successful performance depends on both emotional preparation and physical practice in any arena.