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Tackling Sport Performance Anxiety: The Role of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

Sport performance anxiety can be the toughest opponent, even the most talented athletes, might face.

You will often hear athletes during pre and post interviews talk about how much their mind is responsible for their success, or challenges. Simone Biles, the extraordinary gymnast and four-time Olympic gold medallist, made headlines during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics when she withdrew from several events citing mental health concerns, including performance anxiety. She spoke openly on social media about the vicious cycle of; the pressure to succeed, combined with the fear of failure and fear of your bodily symptoms prevents you from enjoying your sport, which ultimately prevents you from succeeding in your sport.

There are many examples of sports men and women who have identified performance anxiety as one of the biggest difficulties in their sporting career.

Fortunately, there are evidence based strategies to help overcome your performance anxiety: Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

Where to start?

Understanding Sport Performance Anxiety:

Sport performance anxiety isn't just about nerves before a big game or competition; it's a complex interplay of psychological and physiological factors. Athletes may experience symptoms ranging from pre-game jitters to full-blown panic attacks. These anxieties can manifest as negative self-talk, perfectionism, fear of embarrassment, or even physical symptoms like trembling and nausea. This can sometimes create the sensation of ‘freezing’ where you physically feel unable to move your body, and can leave you unable to participate in your sport.

The Impact on Performance:

The effects of this can ultimately impair focus, decision-making, coordination, and muscle tension regulation, all of which are crucial elements of athletic performance. Left unaddressed, it can become a significant barrier to achieving your sporting dreams.

How can CBT help?

CBT is a structured, goal-oriented therapeutic approach that aims to identify and modify negative thought patterns and behaviours. It has a significant evidence base for both young people and adults. In the context of sports, CBT helps athletes reframe their thoughts, manage their emotions, and develop coping strategies to navigate performance pressure.

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy

Cognitive: Athletes learn to identify and challenge unhelpful thoughts and beliefs which may sound like ‘I can’t do this, I’m not good enough, If I don’t win I will lose everything’. Techniques to address these thoughts can be really helpful and remove the mental ‘block’ these thoughts can create.

Behavioural: CBT will help to identify and address unhelpful behaviours athletes may engage in, that are maintaining their difficulties with performance anxiety. This could be things like over exercising, training too much, not resting enough, avoiding events/competitions, or not engaging in restful or fun activities.

Emotions and body sensations are also an integral part of CBT. This explores the physical body sensations and feelings of anxiety that can become a significant barrier in engaging in your sport. If you are becoming so anxious you are feeling sick, you may not feel able to perform in your sport.

The Future of CBT in Sports:

As awareness of mental health in sports grows, so does the demand for evidence-based interventions like CBT. In the UK, initiatives aimed at destigmatising mental health issues in sports and providing access to mental health support for athletes are gaining traction. By integrating CBT into training programs and fostering a culture of psychological resilience, the UK sports community can help athletes thrive both on and off the field.

Get in touch if you'd like to see how we can support you in your sporting endeavours and encourage a mindset that facilitates success. Book an initial consultation here.


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