Understanding the Anxious Athlete - A brief reflection and guide for coaches, parents, and athletes.
Updated: Jun 26, 2020
Now I am going to start this post off with the obvious. I am not, in any way, a licensed psychiatrist or psychologist, but I have spent the last 10 years working and interacting directly with a population that experiences high levels of anxiety, stress, obsessive patterns of behaviors, and enough pressure that could turn coal into diamonds. This is a subject that is very important and close to my heart, so take what you can from it and use the information to help those around you or even yourself!
So lets start with a simple definition of the term anxiety disorder. According to the Mayo Clinic, "Experiencing occasional anxiety is a normal part of life. However, people with anxiety disorders frequently have intense, excessive and persistent worry and fear about everyday situations. Often, anxiety disorders involve repeated episodes of sudden feelings of intense anxiety and fear or terror that reach a peak within minutes."
Now thats not to say anxiety isn't a normal part of the human experience, but I think that sometimes the term gets lost or overused simply because of a lack of understanding. Everyone at some point in time has experienced anxiety. This could be the first time you learned to drive, right before a big test in school, or even that great feeling right before a major life experience. Stress and anxiety, as it pertains to performance, is viewed typically on the follow chart.
It explains how going from a calm state into a form of Eustress (positive stress) is the normal progression to achieve optimal performance. This is typically when, outside of sports, you are starting a new job, getting married, taking a vacation, or even just excited for the holiday seasons. The stress does not take away from our performance, but due to the excitement it will actually help improve our focus and the work we are doing feels almost effortless. For sports, this is when we have a great practice or game and we only have happy and positive thoughts about it.
On the other end of the stress scale, is Distress (negative stress). This is when we get to a point that we are so anxious that our performance begins to suffer. In the regular world, this is when work piles up and we feel that we will not complete it all, or a teammate/coworker is really bothering you and you don't want to go to work/practice. But, the hardest part of the continued negative stressors is that it can lead to burnout if left unchecked. Burnout is another topic I will be writing about in the future.
WARNING! This section will be covering some personal information from my own life and the experiences I had as student-athlete. If you don't care feel free to skip!
I didn't start running until my freshman year of high school and the only reason I chose to do distance running was because I didn't know anyone in the other groups, so I went with a friend. The first run was a 3 mile run on a normal loop the team did. I think I walked about 10 times during the run and barely finished. But, I kept showing up and eventually started to love distance running. By the summer heading into my sophomore year, I had established myself as a top 5 runner on the team and continued to work hard and train hard during the summer so that I would be ready for cross country in the fall. For the most part, I was extremely confident and happy during my sophomore year and it wasn't until my last race of the outdoor track season that I experienced my first full panic attack and my running/competing changed dramatically.
It is a common belief that those that drop out of races tend to continue to because it becomes easier and easier to rationalize the reason for why you can't handle the pace or your breathing is tough. No matter the rationalization we give, the real reason is we have crossed into the distress side of the scale and have never been taught how to get back to a positive state.
During my sophomore season, I had qualified for states in the 3200m. This was my goal the whole season, and when it finally came down to it I was nervous, but not overwhelmed. Prior to this meet, a senior leader on the team had a very serious medical condition that caused him to experience horrible pain at random times. This, clearly, would cause him to drop out of races. Now, I don't know if every time he dropped from a race he experienced severe pain but I have no reason to believe otherwise. But, what I do know is that I saw someone I looked up to drop out of races, and even though we never spoke about it this had a lasting effect on me.
Flashback now to my 3200m race during my sophomore season. I went through the mile mark in a time I felt was fast and that's when it hit me; the fear, the panic, the "I can't run this fast". For the next lap I slowed down, and then when the gap become so big that I would never be able to catch up I knew that I had to stop. So, I faked a tight hamstring pull and laid there next to the track as the race finished without me. Now besides the obvious anger I felt towards myself, the humiliation that followed was honestly much worse. I felt terrible inside and didn't want to talk to anyone. But, having amazing teammates, they asked what happened and wanted to make sure I was okay. I was fine. Pretty sure I was running like 2 days later but the point is that I reached a point of distress so severe that I let myself stop with hopes it would stop my anxiety attack. I will note that my coach during this time didn't really speak to me about it and ,honestly, had no reason to because it was the first time this had happened to me. (That last part is important and will come back around.)
The summer going into my junior year was my time to regain confidence and, man, did I hammer it. I ran the highest mileage I ever had at paces way faster then I should have, but I felt amazing. I was so excited about the upcoming season.
After having a few good races we were entered in a meet with some of the best teams in the state on a course that was notoriously fast. So lets do the math, fast course + fast runners = fast starting pace. Can you guess what happened next? YOU GOT IT! I dropped out. Hamstring again. That pesky fake hamstring injury! Jokes aside this was the first XC race I had ever dropped out of. The sport I loved more then anything else and I tainted it with my fear and anxiety. Per usual, my teammates supported me and made sure I was okay, but it was still a let down. The rest of the season went well, and I started to run much better. Boosts in performances bring their own benefits and challenges. The obvious being better times, but what people forget about is the added pressure that those times bring. XC went well and I finished just outside of the State Open qualifying . Overall, it was a very successful season.
While athletics were going well, my academics however, were not. I had always been an average student, but I was not doing great this year. The Indoor season started and our team goals were very high, as well as my personal goals. I ran okay during this season but what I didn't realize, and needed my annual doctors appointment to tell me, was I had lost about 10 to 12lbs since the fall and was on the verge of getting either very sick or very hurt. The reason for such dramatic weight loss? I just didn't eat. I was afraid that foods would make me sick and that caused me to avoid foods until I was only eating soup and Chex mix, and maybe a sandwich and cookies at lunch. Needless to say, not the nutrition someone who is running 30 to 40 miles a week needs to fuel their body. This side effect of my anxiety never even crossed my mind as being a potential cause for my running issues.
The ultimate decision to be allowed to run during this time came with a caveat that I seek help from a therapist. After my appointment the therapist concluded not only did I have a bad anxiety cluster (anxiety paired with multiple other fears or symptoms of other disorders), but I also was finally diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder. This was something that should have been done back in 4th or 5th grade, but, always being one those students on the edge between needing help and doing fine on their own, it just never happened. It was like night and day for me when I started taking the medication. Not only did I feel better, but I also began to do extremely well in school. This is not me bragging, but proof the medication made a huge difference. I had a D+ in Chemistry after the first half of the year, but once I started taking the medication I was able focus and understand material so well that I finished the second half of the year with an A+ and ended up with a B for the entire year. I was actually exempt from the final because my teacher was so impressed with the turn around. My senior year I took 15 classes and got 14 As and 1 B+. Once again, not bragging, but showing that these diagnoses changed my life.
So, everything seems to be going my way, right? Well the thing about medication is it may help you with overall fears, focusing and anxiety, but it doesn't give you the tools to handle situations of high stress. I don't know the exact number, but I'm pretty sure I dropped out of at least 2-4 races during the outdoor season of my Junior year.
This is actually a photo 1 lap before I drop out of the 3200m against Conard. The guy leading the race was a multi-national qualifier (and one of my great friends now) and he was just running a regular race to help pull us to a fast time. Well, anxiety struck and I dropped out. I'm sure I had a great reason, but the ultimate source was just not being prepared with coping skills or mental tools to help me prepare for races.
After each time I dropped from a race my coach would walk over, ask what happened, and say okay. That was it. No advice, no "hey, lets reflect on what happened", no support at all really. For a long time I blamed him for not helping me prepare or better understand why it was happening, but you don't know what you don't know, and even though at the time it was awful, it has helped shape me into the coach I am today. The reason I mention this is because, as coaches, we tend to be really good at the X's and O's, but when it comes to the mental side of coaching and communication we tend to fall short unless we are actively learning to improve.
[ https://brettbartholomew.net/ This is a great resource for coaches looking to improve on their communication skills. ]
There was always one meet where I would run well. It was the Greater Hartford Invite held at Simsbury High School. The 3200m was always held late enough that it was run under the lights for added awesomeness. I PR'd every single time I ran there. Never once was I nervous; didn't think twice about pushing myself. Now, after years of learning and reflection, I realize that this was a time when I was in a state of Eustress, and for some reason, the continued positive reinforcement just allowed me to keep performing well at this one meet. My conference XC meet was another one of those races where stress never passed into distress. I ended my Junior year as part of a State Championship team (Class L), and even though I finished dead last in my 3200m race (remember me dropping out last year, well at least I finished this time!), I still ended on what I thought was a positive note.
As things change, you make new friends, and other priorities happen. This can be great, but it can also be bad because it can start to change behaviors or patterns that you previously found success with. Well, that was me!
Procrastination and/or failing to plan ahead
Instead of running in the morning before work like I had done in years past I would wait until the evening team run. However, 2x or 3x a week I would more likely skip the run entirely and hang out with my new group of friends. This created a lot of problems for myself and my teammates. The biggest one being I was not in shape for the season, and my Co-Captain who, due to my poor leadership during the summer, was not a huge fan of me. This honestly ruined our friendship, as well as one of my other good friends on the team who trained a lot during the summer. My Co-captain was ready to reach a new level of performance. He had a fantastic year. It killed me, and even though I was not in great shape, I still tried very hard to get back to a level of performance I could be happy with. There were 2 more races that season that I dropped out of, and it was mostly due to pacing and how I thought I couldn't handle it. This just reinforced more negative thoughts I had and added to my anxiety.
Even after those failures, I still finished with All-Conference honors for the 3rd time, I had a decent showing at the state meet, and was just ready to end the season. The remaining indoor and outdoor season comprised of multiple races where I dropped out, ran poorly, and surprisingly, every once in awhile would have a good race. Needless to say, it wasn't the confidence building experience one hopes for.
Loving running more then anything I had the hopes of continuing to run in college, and that was all I cared about. Priorities that were extremely off base, but not a new concept for many athletes. I viewed myself only as the runner, not the student-athlete. The allure of getting a scholarship also stopped me from going to a school (Keene State) I think I truly would have loved to run for and learn from, but that choice to attend Merrimack College worked out in my favor. (Met my would be wife one week after my freshman year of college at Merrimack!)
I ended my senior year being Captain of another state title team (Class MM), and even though I wouldn't learn about this until a few years later, becoming a captain was used to boost my confidence, but it turned into the opposite.
My head track coach, Jeff Weber, is one of the winningest coaches in state history. He has coached New England record holders, National Champions, and has won 6 State Titles. He always tells me now that coaching isn't about knowing what workouts to prescribe but it's the relationships you build with the student-athletes that will get them across the line first. He has had a huge impact on my coaching beliefs. But back to my senior year!
It got to the point where I was left out of meet planning and race planning because the coaches didn't want to put pressure on me to perform. It really hurt to hear that, but what hurt more was that ,instead of trying to help aid in the situation, I was just viewed as a risk by my coaches and a joke by my teammates. I came back one year later and heard the term "pulling a Green" which referred to dropping out of a race. They weren't wrong to avoid me or makes jokes. It was just the reality of the situation. It's funny how getting older and learning how to reflect back on your life really does allow growth and closure. I ended the season, graduated, and started training for my next journey at Merrimack College. (Another post about that may be happening later, "Athletics and Identity Loss")
I ran in college during my freshman year and had no issues. I had two great coaches who really did an amazing job of supporting us and getting us confident, but I ultimately came back to CT and started school at community college.
So why tell you all this story? Well, it's for a number of reasons:
1) Being open and honest helps others understand they are not alone.
2) These experiences are what shaped me into the coach I am today.
3) I wanted to make sure my athletes always knew that not only was it okay to fail, but that we must learn the why and how so that we can grow.
4) My example will help guide what is said next.
Coaches, parents, and even athletes should know that it takes time to fully understand the things that trigger anxiety attacks. Honestly, without professional help, you may not even truly know. What I hope to achieve by talking about this difficult topic is that those who need help and understanding will find it.
Things to look for in your athletes or children to indicate that they may be suffering from performance anxiety: (information from American Psychology Association)
Anxiety can produce physical, behavioral, emotional, cognitive and psychological symptoms. Common physical symptoms include a feeling of restlessness, feeling "keyed up," or "on-edge;", shortness of breath, or a feeling of choking, sweaty palms, a racing heart, muscle tension, nausea, feeling faint or shaky and sleep disturbances.
Behavioral symptoms of anxiety refer to what people do (or don't do) when they are anxious. Typical behavioral responses to anxiety may include avoidance, such as avoiding social situations or taking the stairs instead of an elevator, escaping behaviors, such as excessive drinking or drug use; or limiting the amount and scope of daily behaviors and activities to feel safe.
Emotional symptoms of anxiety include distress, apprehension, dread, nervousness, feeling overwhelmed, panic, worry, jumpiness or edginess.
The thoughts people experience when anxious are commonly referred to as worry. Although the content of the thoughts may vary depending on the person and situation, common themes include "What if _ happens?" or "I can't possibly tolerate not knowing_" or "I am going crazy" or "What's happening to me?"
Psychological symptoms of anxiety may include problems with concentration, or difficulty with staying on task; memory difficulties; and, depressive symptoms such as hopelessness, a lack of energy, and a poor appetite.
As I stated earlier, the best way to help those around you who are suffering from severe anxiety is to refer them to a professional. When in doubt, refer out. There are always people in your area who are certified and licensed to handle and assist those who are in search of answers.
https://www.sportingbounce.com/ this link has a directory of professionals who can assist athletes with performance anxiety, and if that doesn't work then I suggest checking your local children's hospital for resources. They all have psychology based programs, and will be able to refer you.
There are steps coaches and parents can take to aid in the development of their athletes and help them better understand where that panic comes from.
These two links are a great resource!
Hopefully, after reading all this and checking out those links, you have a better understanding of what some of your student-athletes may be experiencing and can get a jump-start on how to help them. One of the biggest challenges I see in my athletes is their fear of failure. I touched on this with our Yellow Light blog post. They think that they can't ever fail or do something wrong. I constantly have to tell them how great it is to fail during practice so that they can succeed in games/races. This is one of the key foundations of Green Light Sports Performance. Practice is made for failure and reflection so that when it comes time to perform, they have learned the skills to make changes as needed. All I want is to take away their fears and anxiety, but I also know that they need to experience it for their own benefit. What tends to happen is that they get to experience the anxiety, reflect on their performance, and take action steps to perform at a higher level the next time.
Thank you so much for checking out my blog and if I can help you in any way, shape or form please let me know!
Some great books for reference are
"Getting to Us" Seth Davis
"This is Your Brain on Sports" L.Jon Wertheim and Sam Sommers
"How Bad Do You Want It" Matt Fitzgerald
"Invisible Influence" Jonah Berger
and one of my favorites
"The Brave Athlete: Calm the *uck Down and Rise to the Occasion" - Simon Marshall and Lesley Patterson