I’m Not Anxious, You’re Anxious: 3 Tips For Athletes (Who Aren’t Anxious)

Anxiety is a normal human process. We inherited it from our ancestors who needed it to survive in a pre-historic era of actual, constant danger. Our ancestors, however, weren’t anxious because a bear or lion gave them the side eye, trashed their loin cloth on social media or because they didn’t want to miss the championship winning shot. They were anxious because they needed to survive. While anxiety can and does serve a purpose, it can also be triggered when there is not any actual danger.

Learn how to spot the difference and how to train your anxiety just like you train any other muscle in your body – with consistency, intentionality and lots of reality.

Reality Check: “If I lose this game, I’m a loser.” “If I make a mistake, my teammates will be mad at me and the loss is my fault.” “If I fail this test, I’m stupid and won’t be successful in life.” You may be thinking “why would anybody think that stuff?” After all, it’s just a game or it’s just a test, right? Well, kinda. Anxiety and depression (related cousins causing all kinds of emotional disputes) thrive on these types of distorted, automatic thoughts. A misread glance or facial cue, body language or even the tone of someone’s response can set off what cognitive behavioral therapists call “automatic thoughts.” Not all automatic thoughts are bad, for instance, you see a bear when you are camping and your first thought is “I am not safe, I need to get out of here.” That thought will likely save your life. But let’s say it’s the last play of the game to determine the winner of the match and you think “I am not safe. If I miss this shot, the whole game is my fault. My team, coach and parents will think badly of me. I am a loser if I don’t get this point.” Those thoughts have nothing to do with life or death, they are perceived danger. They feel true, but they aren’t always true. Automatic thoughts happen instantly, can spread like wild-fire and get us “stuck” if we don’t do some reality checking. Reality checking is just that. Checking your thoughts for truth.

HERE’S HOW: As soon as you think the negative/automatic thought. STOP. Write it down or put it aside mentally. Then ask a question. “What am I feeling right now?” “What is making me feel this way?” “Is this thought true?” “Have I checked this thought for the truth?” “Have I spoken to the person I think is mad at me or am I making assumptions?” The longer we travel down the road of automatic, distorted thoughts, the more they become our unhealthy truth. We can train ourselves to stop the loop of thoughts if we are intentional about where we allow them to go.

Breathe: Four square breathing, belly breathing, deep breaths. While our bodies do a great job of regulating how fast or slow we need to breathe to sustain our lives, an external stressor such as a test, an unfamiliar social setting, a tight score in a game can change that in an instant – combine that with distorted automatic thoughts and you may get an increase in heart rate and fast, shallow breathing. For some people a big test, public speaking, or a tight match/game may be the push they need to get out of their comfort zone and try something new and challenging. For an anxious person, however,  it may cause them to “freeze up” or feel afraid/in danger. A few deep breaths before serving for match point, might refocus your attention for the few seconds you need to get your mind off your thoughts and your body plugged back in to the play.

HERE’S HOW: Take some quiet time to listen to your breathing. Place one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly. Breath normally and see which hand rises. Shallow breathing will draw air into your chest causing the hand on your chest to rise. Belly breathing draws air into your diaphragm causing the hand on your belly rise. Try taking three deep belly breaths once a day to start and then practice a couple of times a day. I’ve practiced this for more than fifteen years and find it is second nature these days when I’m feeling anxious.

Head up, Eyes up, High Fives (Interconnectedness): Interconnectedness is one of the most overlooked ways to feel less anxious. With the rise of technology and screen time, it seems like we are more “connected” than ever before, when in reality it’s only a perceived sense of connection. Human connection, even for the most introverted of folks, is vital to a healthy, emotionally-balanced life. Yeah, human beings, relationships, teams and emotions can be messy. But knowing we are not alone in the mess is a powerful feeling. When you feel down on yourself, where do your eyes look? When you are ashamed or feel guilty, what is the position of your head? The physical act of picking up your head and looking another person in the eyes and communicating “I’m still here and so are you” without saying a word can ease anxiety in team environments. It’s the notion that we are seen and that we aren’t alone in the battle, we are in this thing together. We are connected. Oh yeah, high fives help too.

HERE’S HOW: Try to get twenty-five high fives between you and your teammates over the course of a practice or a match. Make concerted efforts to slap a hand after a mistake or something positive. Keep your head up, make eye contact and say a quick “let’s gooooo” when you can between plays.

Disclaimer: I am not a licensed therapist, these are my opinions only. If you struggle with anxiety or depression, get help and talk to a professional therapist. Some of this can be managed on your own, but nothing can replace the expertise of a professional licensed therapist.  While seeing a therapist may not last a lifetime, the skills and strategies you learn most certainly will. As always, never underestimate the power of NUTRITION, SLEEP and EXERCISE in managing anxiety.

Priscilla Tallman is a freelance writer in Phoenix, AZ. She has an undergraduate degree in Psychology and graduate degree in Clinical Psychology. She has written for FloVolleyball, Volleyball Magazine, The Art of Coaching Volleyball, Sweat RX, Gorgo Fitness Magazine, CrossFit Fury, The CrossFit Games and OPEX Fitness. She was an 2x All-America volleyball player from the University of Georgia, NCAA statistical leader, SEC Player of the year and was inducted into UGA’s Circle of Honor in 2006. She has played on the US National Team and enjoyed a bit of professional ball in Europe and on the beach. She is married with two children and currently coaches high school beach and indoor volleyball. 


Automatic Thoughts,

Mindset Training,

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (Self-Help),

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT Overview)

Mind Over Mood, Second Edition


Published by pytallman

Wife, mother, Christ follower.

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