Overcoming Your Race Anxiety

by Michelle Cleere

Anxiety is something all athletes deal with at some level. What’s important to know about anxiety is where it comes from, its effects, and what to do about it.

Defining anxiety

Anxiety is a negative emotional state characterized by apprehension, worry and nervousness. Anxiety appears cognitively through worry and apprehension and it appears somatically through physiological changes in your body including increased heart rate and increased respiration.

Anxiety-state versus trait

State anxiety is a temporary and changing emotional state of subjective, consciously perceived feelings of tension and apprehension. This kind of anxiety is relative to the event and the elements contained within an event. Trait anxiety is a behavioral disposition where a person perceives the circumstances to be threatening that are objectively not threatening and then responds with disproportionate state anxiety.

There is a direct correlation between state and trait anxiety. Research has shown that those who scored high on trait anxiety also experience more state anxiety; although there are exceptions. A highly trait anxious athlete might be experienced in a particular situation and for that reason not perceive it as a threat or experience the corresponding state anxious symptoms. Similarly, high trait anxious athletes can learn coping skills to reduce the state anxiety they feel which will be discussed later in this article.

The affect of anxiety on performance

There are many theories on anxiety. The theory explained here is called catastrophe theory. Catastrophe theory states that with low worry, increases in arousal and somatic anxiety are related to performance by improving performance up to a certain point. With a lot of worry the increases in arousal improve performance to an athlete’s optimal zone. If arousal continues beyond that zone there is a rapid and dramatic decline in performance. Once an athlete’s performance has rapidly declined due to increased arousal levels, the athlete would need to greatly decrease their physiological arousal before being able to regain previous performance levels.

Key considerations of anxiety for athletes

There are five key considerations to think about when it comes to anxiety:

1) Identify your optimal arousal related emotions. Think of arousal as an emotional temperature and arousal regulation skills as a thermostat. Your goal as an athlete is to find your optimal emotional temperature (under what conditions do you perform optimally) and then learn how to regulate your thermostat. Regulating your thermostat is done by either psyching up or psyching down.

2) Recognize how your personal and situational factors interact. It’s important to understand the interaction of personal factors (self esteem, social physique, anxiety and trait anxiety) and situational factors (event importance and uncertainty) to get the best predictor of arousal, state anxiety and performance.

3) Recognize your signs of arousal and state anxiety. You can better understand your anxiety level by becoming familiar with the signs and symptoms of increased stress and anxiety:

  • Cold, clammy hands
  • Frequent urination
  • Profuse sweating
  • Negative self talk
  • Increased muscle tension
  • Butterflies
  • Feeling ill
  • Headache
  • Cotton mouth
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Inability to concentrate

Athletes might experience some of these symptoms on a small scale, which is ok as long as it leads to optimal performance. However, an athlete still needs to learn how to regulate those levels based on the individual’s optimal performance. The quantity of symptoms depends on the individual. It’s the quality that’s important to keep in mind. Try to notice changes in these variables between low and high stress environments and learn to make changes when necessary.

4) If working with a coach, the coach(s) should work to tailor strategies to the individual. Arousal and state anxiety sometimes need to be reduced, at times maintained and other times heightened depending on the individual and the situation.

5) Develop your confidence and perceptions of control. You can develop confidence by being positive and putting yourself in positive situations and environments. By being positive you surround yourself with other positive people and positive situations and environments. One other way to develop confidence is by learning to feel ok about mistakes and losing.

One technique for becoming aware of your anxiety

Write down how you feel before, during and after (positive & negative) workouts and competitions. Keep track of your thoughts, feelings, physiological symptoms, your perception about whether or not the workout or competition was easy, moderate or hard and what importance you placed on the workout or competition, etc. You can use this information to become aware of the assets and what gets in the way of your performance. Journaling will help you see the patterns and make adjustments.

Some techniques for dealing with your anxiety

1) Smile when you feel the anxiety – it’s difficult to be mad when you are smiling and it takes the edge off anxiety-producing situations.

2) Think fun – highly skilled athletes have a sense of enjoyment and fun during competition. Most of them look forward to the challenge of pressure situations.

3) Breathe – breath control and focus to produce energy and reduce tension.

4) Use positive key words or phrases – saying and thinking personally generated positive words or phrases can be energizing and activating. Some examples are: I can do it, push to the top, strong, fast, tough, etc.

5) Use imagery – imagery helps generate positive feelings and energy. It involves visualizing something that energizes you. An athlete might visualize swimming like a fish, cycling as fast as a car and running as swiftly as a cheetah.

Pre-performance routines

Once you perfect some of the techniques for dealing with your anxiety you can incorporate these into a pre-performance routine. A good routine increases or decreases anxiety by helping you implement control over your environment and provide stability in an environment that you might perceive as highly unstable. It helps you to regulate your thermostat.

Pre-performance routines are a systematic sequence of preparatory thoughts and activities athletes use to concentrate effectively before competition. These routines help an athlete train their mind to focus on what’s important versus focusing on their anxiety. By concentrating on each step of a well thought out routine, athletes learn to focus on what is in their control.

Don’t try this for the first time the day of your competition. These routines take practice. It’s something that you want to get in the habit of developing during training sessions so you have a fully developed, personalized plan for competition.

The pro’s of pre-performance routines

1) It’s one way of implementing control over your environment.

2) It provides a stable environment for something that might be highly unstable (You can only control your skill and effort. Don’t race against others, you have no control over them or whether they are better than you or not).

3) It’s especially helpful for anxious athletes because if you are thinking positively, you cannot be thinking negatively. If you are in your own zone thinking positively, you aren’t being distracted.

4) It provides consistency.

5) Routines and these techniques help you forget about race outcomes and keep you focused on the here and now.


Your performance can be hindered significantly by how far your anxiety pushes your level of arousal. At the lower end of the arousal scale an athlete is not aroused enough to perform optimally. With a little psyching up an athlete finds their zone or optimal performance level. This zone is very small as compared to the lower and upper ends of the arousal scale. That is why it takes a lot of awareness, understanding and refinement to stay in that zone and not drop off the other side into the psyched out zone where an athlete’s performance drastically declines.

Some anxiety is hereditary and some depends on the situation. Your chances of eliminating hereditary anxiety are slim, although as is the case with situational anxiety, you can diminish its effects. In any case, the bad news is, you aren’t going to change your anxiety levels overnight. The great news is that you can immediately begin to become aware of what your anxiety levels are and almost immediately figure out how to work on regulating your anxiety for optimal performance.

Michelle Cleere is owner of Sports Minded, a sport & exercise psychology consulting practice. She works with individuals in person, by phone or e-mail and also conducts group workshops.