Men’s Health Week 2016 – Understanding Anxiety in Sport


“Nerves can be brilliant because they get your adrenaline going and it means you care and want to do well. There’s a fine line though. Getting too nervous can ruin a race and that’s happened to me…I just got so nervous and so worked up that I literally dived in and I completely stiffened up. I’d never experienced it before”  Rebecca Adlington

Elite sport is full of sources of stress and rugby is no different. Among professionals, where most athletes are supremely physically prepared, it is often a player’s emotional control, self-confidence, concentration and use of other mental skills that differentiates those who perform at the highest levels. Many other factors such as coach relationships, family/friend factors (e.g. social support), situational concerns (e.g. transportation, contracts) and basic fundamentals such as sleep and recovery need taking care of in order to translate best training performances into competition.

What is sporting anxiety?

Anxiety can be reflected in:

How you think (such as fearing failure instead of relishing victory)

Your body (such as tense muscles or breathing changes)

Arousal levels (the extent to which a player is activated and ‘pumped’)

How does anxiety affect performance?

The first thing to understand is that in an explosive sport such as rugby, the energising, focusing effect of some anxious thoughts are often beneficial. How a player thinks about their ‘butterflies’, when they come, is critical. Players who learn always to interpret stressful situations as challenges to be beaten (rather than as threats to them or risks) is critical in determining performance. This is because it results in a different system being ‘turned on’ in the body – a ‘distress system’ resulting in stress hormone release – after which the body cannot properly mobilise energy. High levels of anxiety and arousal become damaging to performance. This is also because a player’s attention moves inwards (e.g. away from teammates or the flight of a ball and onto images of missing or fears about opponents). This is sometimes called “paralysis by analysis”. The issue is yet more complex because other factors are also involved, especially underlying self-confidence and coping styles (such as whether a player tends to deny or blame themselves versus whether they are a ‘problem solver’). Match day nerves are a very individual, personal thing and no one player is ever the same.

How do athletes manage anxiety on the day?

So, first up – use it to your advantage! Athletes do best when they practise welcoming some degree of nerves, recognising that a few anxious thoughts fire you up, energise and focus: ‘getting butterflies to fly in formation’. This must be done whilst still remaining positive and confident in your ability to meet all of the challenges ahead. Easier said than done, right? Not with the right mental skills. The most mentally tough and resilient athletes have often perfected various techniques including imagery (such as mentally rehearsing being calm and focused prior to scoring a crucial penalty kick, or imaging team strategies and plays), thinking skills (such as being aware of and controlling or changing unhelpful thoughts as they pop up), goal-setting and self-talk (the principle that what people say to themselves affects the way they behave). Things like progressive relaxation, meditation, breath control or autogenic training are not always chosen because they tend to promote deep relaxation: a state not necessarily helpful on match day; for the reasons above. Athletes typically condense these kinds of skills into an individualised pre-match routine.

The main message?

…is that a player’s mind needs training, practice and recovery in exactly the same way – and with the same commitment – given to the rest of their body.

Dr Tim Rogers is a consultant psychiatrist with a special interest in sport and performance at Cognacity.

A reminder this off-season all RPA members can access support via the RPA Confidential Counselling Service helpline (run by Cognacity), 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

To access the confidential counselling service please call 01373 858 080 or talk to your Personal Development Manager.

For more information on Men’s Health Week 2016 please click here or join the social media conversation using the official hashtag: #MHW16