PAB Newsletter #8 – Competitive anxiety: dealing with high-performance pressure

PAB Newsletter #8 – Competitive anxiety: dealing with high-performance pressure

10 ways to unlock your potential

Psychology is considered one of the key factors to achieve optimal performance and well-being in sports. If an elite sports athlete wants to achieve his optimal performance, he must have the ability to excel in the “mental game”. One of the key points of the “mental game” is the ability to overcome anxiety, because anxiety is one of the variables that has the most impact on any performance.

Fear or anxiety?
The difference between fear and anxiety is that fear is a reaction to a danger presently detected in the environment (present emotion) while anxiety refers to the anticipation of some potential threat, that may or may not happen in the future (anticipatory emotion). However, the body system does not distinguish between the two.

TIP 1: Monitor your “state anxiety” and “trait anxiety”.
Anxiety is an emotion that arises because of the interpretation and assessment of the situation at hand (Cox, 2007). It has two distinctions: the anxiety athletes feel at a certain time – for example before a game (state anxiety) and the anxiety felt because athletes are generally classified as anxious (trait anxiety).

TIP 2: When playing a game, make a quick evaluation of the nature of the mistake you just made. It will be easier to correct it and not repeat it.
If an athlete is afraid of several aspects of the situation, he will experience high anxiety. This will reduce the athlete’s performance because it makes it difficult for him to control the rhythm of the game. He will be unable to regulate the reaction time, regulate muscle contraction and will feel tired too quickly. It also reduces his ability and accuracy of reading the opponent’s game, it encourages him to make decisions hastily and to make movements without conscious mind control. (Satiadarma, 2000). Therefore, we recommend players to categorize their mistakes (psychological mistakes, learning mistakes, forced by opponent mistakes) in the game in order to adjust quickly.

 TIP 3: Label anxiety as facilitative to performance.
Some researchers suggest that anxiety could be perceived by some athletes as facilitating mental preparation and performance: if the athlete evaluates the situation and concludes that he has a degree of control over the situation, he will be able to cope with the anxiety and achieve his goals. In this case, the athlete will interpret the symptoms of anxiety as facilitative to performance. This is why we keep insisting on the concept of “one athlete, one individualized program”.

TIP 4: Find out if you have an anxious personality type.
Are we born anxious or are we shaped as anxious individuals? An athlete needs to know the answer to this question in order to manage anxiety better.

We can be biologically predisposed to anxiety: the autonomic nervous system is the portion of the nervous system that controls and coordinates all organs of the body. It has two parts. The sympathetic nervous system prepares our body for emergency (fight or flight response) and it always functions when our mind notices a need for defense or to provide energy. The parasympathetic nervous system is in charge of “the rest and digest response” and “relaxation response”. The vagus nerve is key in this process.

We encourage players to be aware of their personality traits. It will help them understand and cope better with the stressful situations they will face in their career. It is a fact that we are influenced by our environment, which can trigger anxiety.

Research has identified four important psychological variables that predict a psychological vulnerability to anxiety (Barlow, 2002), described in Tips 5, 6, 7, & 8.

TIP 5: Check your general environment and try to reduce stimuli that may trigger anxiety.
Perceived control: anxiety is greatly determined by the ability to control a potentially stressful event. It is important to realize that this lack of control may, or may not, be accurate. It is the person’s perception about their degree of control that is important.

TIP 6: Train to experience control. The more control you have over your basketball skills, the less anxiety you will experience during competition.
Cognitive appraisal: the way we evaluate and asses a situation. According to Lazarus and Folkman (1984), a cognitive appraisal is made up of primary appraisal (the individual’s subjective evaluation of the situation: irrelevant, positive or stressful) and secondary appraisal ( the individual’s evaluation of their ability to cope with the situation).

TIP 7: Add as many resources as possible to your game and you will feel ready to perform in competition.
Cognitive beliefs: Core beliefs refers to organizing principles we use to understand and interpret the event in our environment.

TIP 8: Be aware of your core beliefs and challenge their accuracy.
Cognitive distortions: there are many types of cognitive distortions but overestimating threats, underestimating one’s ability to cope with the threat, perfectionism and negative bias have a lot of impact on anxiety (M.Rovira. Personal communication).

TIP 9: List your own competitive threats/fears and start working on them.
In the context of sports, anxiety usually arises in response to competitive pressures. We call it competitive anxiety. Factors that influence competitive anxiety in athletes include fear of failure in a game, fear of social consequences because of the quality of performance, fear of injury, fear of not being able to complete their duties, to compete properly, and demands to change something without training (Cox, 2003).

TIP 10: Explore your psychological vulnerability and add psychological tools to improve it.
This is key. Sports psychologists can help you with this task. Ask for guidance.



Competitive anxiety has 4 measurable aspects (Smith et al, 1990), namely cognitive, affective, somatic and motoric.

  1. Cognitive: is an event in the mind of the athlete that reflects anxiety symptoms in sports that affect action in competition, such as being unable to concentrate, thinking about unrelated things, and negative thoughts that disturb concentration.
  2. Affective: is an event in the athlete’s feelings that reflects anxiety symptoms in sports that affect action in competition, such as feeling hopeless, reckless and having self-doubt.
  3. Somatic: is a perceptual event of physiological excitement in an athlete reflecting anxiety symptoms in exercising so that it affects actions in competition, such as heart palpitations, urination, cold sweating, and difficulty sleeping.
  4. Motoric: is a physical occurrence (muscles) in athletes that improperly reflect anxiety symptoms in sports so that it affects actions in competition, such as face and forehead wrinkle, trembling, feeling heavy in the feet, aching muscles.

According to the literature, when working with athletes, we should consider, monitor, and work on some variables in order to help them cope with competitive anxiety such as trait anxiety, cognitive bias, positive and negative affect, hardiness, coping strategies, self-confidence, neuroticism, competitiveness, extraversion, skill level, competitive experience, performance level and locus of control. (Fletcher and Fletcher. 2005).

Considering all these elements, the best way to work on the competitive anxiety of athletes is to create an individualized program that evaluates all the variables (biological, psychological and social/sports) and to work on boosting performance, and reducing the inconveniences of high competitive anxiety (M.Rovira. Personal communication).

General recommendations/tools for players and coaches:

  • Develop a relaxation ritual
  • Create a pre-competition game plan
  • Practice competitive routines
  • Introduce yoga and or meditation/breathing techniques in the sports program
  • Master the self-talk
  • Practice with a purpose (deliberate practice)

Authors: Mar Rovira, Jaime Sampaio, Francesco Cuzzolin, Julio Calleja-Gonzalez, Igor Jukic, Baris Kocaoglu, Sergej M. Ostojic.


EuroLeague Players’ Association and ELPA Performance Advisory Board present 1st ELPA Performance International Congress (EPIC), which will be held online on May 29, 2021. Renowned experts from different professional fields will share their latest scientific researches, methodologies and experiences with the wider basketball and sports community on the topics of performance, strength & conditioning, nutrition, data science, sports psychology, traumatology, and others.



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