Overcoming pre-game anxiety

Anxiety is a sate with both psychological and physical symptoms brought about by a sense of apprehension of a perceived threat.

Source: thesportinmind.com


Anxiety can be divided into state and trait anxiety. State anxiety comes and goes, it is very similar to a fight or flight response activated when we perceive something threatening, and respond accordingly. Whereas trait anxiety is innate, some people perceive certain situations more threatening than others, leading to a life with a higher general anxiety level.


State anxiety:

  • This is the type of anxiety an athlete experiences before a game.
  • It is gone when the threat (game) is over.
  • State anxiety manifests in two ways – cognitive effects include worrying, somatic effects include sweating, shiwering, increased bowl movement, etc.

Trait anxiety:

  • A personal trait, based on how the individual perceives events and circumstances. Some people overestimate the threat of events, and underestimate their own abilities to cope with them. Others underestimate threats, and overestimate their ability to respond. The former are the more anxious types, the latter are the less anxious.


Players rarely name anxiety as a problem source. The following symptoms can be noticed instead:


  • Lack of sleep
  • Short attention span
  • Lower skill level than normal
  • Sudden changes in expectations or behaviour
  • Overly concerned with doing well in certain games
  • Substance abuse


Anxiety theories


Anxiety can have a severe effect on match performance.

There are multiple theories when it comes to explaining the relationship between anxiety and performance.


Inverted U theory

According to this theory raising anxiety levels lead to an increase in performance up to a point. After that point more anxiety hinders performance. The point at which performance is optimal depends on the sport. I would be interested in research on what anxiety levels are best for different positions in certain soccer playing styles, but I am not aware of such research yet. I suspect each coach gathers this knowledge through years of coaching a certain philosophy of the game.


Zones of optimal functioning

The idea here is that there is no one  level of anxiety that is best for the athlete. However there is an interval where athletes perform at their best. All is fine as long as the athlete stay in this zone.


Multidimensional anxiety theory

This theory says that cognitive anxiety stays constant before a match, however somatic anxiety gradually increases before the competition. In this theory only the somatic anxiety has an inverted U-shape. However any level of worry will negatively affect performance.


Catastrophe model

This model states that even the slightest cognitive anxiety will lower one’s performance. However somatic anxiety doesn’t really affect one’s performance.


Reversal theory

The way anxiety affects performance is down to the individual’s own interpretation. If the athlete interprets his level of anxiety positively – ‘I am ready for competition!’ – his performance will improve. In the opposite case his performance will suffer.


What does the research say?


Based on research it seems that a slightly higher level of anxiety than in a normal state has a positive effect on performance. Martens (1977) found that there is a significant correlation between anxiety in a player and their motivational tendency. Getting slightly anxious before a game leads to increased motivation, but too much anxiety is bad, as it can lead to double muscle pulling. The muscle is tense from somatic anxiety, which is exacerbated by the movements required to play soccer.


Every player experiences different anxiety levels before a game, due to differences in trait anxiety, as well as state anxiety. It was found that increased cognitive anxiety leads to worse performance on the field. (Woodman and Hardy, 2003) The less cognitive anxiety a player has the more confident he can be, which leads to a better performance on the field. A somewhat higher than normal level of somatic anxiety has a positive influence on the player’s performance. 


Brady Hatfield, a sport scientist at the University of Maryland showed that during the execution of a previously practiced skill in a relaxed state, the connection between the motor and reasoning parts of the brain is minimal. On the other hand a beginner shows increased activity in these areas of the brain, so he is trying to reason and translate all the information and make sense of it in the context of the task performed. With increased cognitive anxiety an expert’s mind works just like that of a beginner, which leads to worse performances.


Treating anxiety


There are adaptive and maladaptive ways of dealing with anxiety. Adaptive behaviours are successful in dealing with anxiety in the long term, while maladaptive behaviours are only successful in the short term, exacerbating the problem in the long run.


Avoiding the situation that causes anxiety is the most common maladaptive behaviour, but it is also the worst. Avoiding the situation teaches the player that not taking responsibility is the way to get back to a normal state. Thus the player doesn’t learn how to lower his anxiety levels during competition. A 2007 study by Shojaei and Hoji Ghasem performed on U19 to U23 soccer players showed that their drive to achieve success was twice as strong as their drive to avoid failure. This suggests that avoidance behaviour is negatively correlated with being a great soccer player, whereas the ability to overcome anxiety is positively correlated with it.


Some processes to deal with anxiety include:


  • Relaxation training entails learning routines that can relax the body. Relaxing music is one of such techniques, such as yoga or meditation. The key to successful relaxation training is practicing it long before competition so that it can be drawn upon when anxiety hits before/during the match.
  • Breathing exercises increase the oxygen level in the blood, which helps lower somatic anxiety by lowering the chances of double muscle contraxion through increased oxygen levels in the blood. This technique doesn’t work if it is done only once before the game, it has to be practiced consistently.

Every person is different when it comes to meditation – a form of breathing exercise. Lying down, sitting are both acceptable, as well as breathing exercises to music or in silence. Thinking about positive previous experiences on the field while meditating can work as well. Phil Jackson used to meditate with the Bulls and the Lakers in order to make them more centered, more in the moment during competition.

  • Having a secure person or object around also works. This is why it is importat that the coaches remain calm during a game. Some players wear their ‘lucky shoes’, these are secure objects for the athlete.
  • Setting process-based goals allows the athlete to stay in the moment and concentrate on carrying out a process, thus lower cognitive anxiety.
  • Positive self-talk puts the brain into a state where it can focus on performing well. Raising confidence through positive self-talk reduces cognitive anxiety. Address situations where anxiety is likely to occur during self-talk.
  • Labeling is the process of changing an athlete’s beliefs about what the symptoms of anxiety mean. For example a striker feeling sweaty palms should say to himself “Good, now my body is fired up for scoring goals”. If the athlete thinks about anxiety in a positive way, his performances will not suffer.
  • The emotional thermometer was featured in Bill Beswick’s book, ‘Focused for Soccer’. It has three levels, green, yellow and red. Each color represents an emotional state. Green means that everything is going smooth. Yellow means that anxiety is getting to you, but things are still alright, Red means that you are completely out of control, anxiety runs high in your body. Bill tried out the emotional thermometer with an England youth team before a game against Serbia, where it was likely that the players would face provocation, thus controlling anxiety had an important part to play in getting a result. The concept was shared with all members of the squad. Lee Matthews was provoked during the game, so Matthew Upson ran up to him and started shouting ‘Lee, stay in the green!’. Lee realized that anxiety was getting to him, and he got back to the green zone.


Adhere to the matching hypothesis when applying any of the above processes. The matching hypothesis states that the treatment has to match the problem, so somatic anxiety warrants different solutions than cognitive anxiety. Somatic anxiety can be treated most effectively with breathing exercises or relaxation training. Setting process-based goals, positive self-talk, labeling and emotional control are good for treating cognitive anxiety.


It is important to keep in mind that every athlete is different, so what works for one might not work for another. 


The way you train is the way you play


Well set-up training is essential to practicing dealing with anxiety. It is good to incorporate a few yoga or meditation sessions during the season just to get used to the idea. In case the players prove resistant to breathing exercises, just sit with them in silence for ten minutes. Doing so over and over again will get them hooked on the feeling and leave them longing for more.

If you plan on using process-based goals, try it out in a friendly or training game first, and have the players and the staff share their experiences with each other. First there will be a lot of confusion about the goals set, so I advise against trying it out in an important game. It would just lead to more cognitive anxiety, which kind of defeats the purpose. Discuss the processes and goals with the players first, this method works only if they buy into the idea.

Positive self-talk must be practiced when the stakes are high. In training this can mean the loosing team having to do push-ups, or run laps. Make sure that the player remembers instances when he overcame a situation which is likely to cause anxiety in the next game. His self-talk must reference these instances. Make him visualize overcoming the same obstacles in the next game with as much detail as possible.

Much of the groundwork on labeling has to be done in advance, but a player will only get better at it with practice. Again, high stakes training is essential.

The emotional thermometer must be introduced during a team meeting. Every player has to come up with two memories/actions, one that can get him back to green from yellow, and another one that can get him to green from red. These two memories must be different as some memories reduce anxiety more, making them more suitable for the red action plan. For example Dan Abrahms references a player who had a habit of getting sent off for retaliating hard challenges. His action plan was – in case he got in the red – to stay on the ground, and count to ten, thus giving himself time to think instead of doing something sudden that he might regret later.


Thank you for reading this long post! What are your experiences with anxiety? How do you help your players deal with anxiety before and during games?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s