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The Stress of Competition: Alleviating Athletes' Anxiety

Whether you are a weekend warrior or pro: simple ways to reduce stress

Thomas Wolter
Source: Thomas Wolter

Some degree of anxiety with competition is almost universal. Frequently, sports-related anxiety can negatively affect an athlete’s psychology and performance. It can range from a little jitters to a full-fledged panic attack.

Athletes tend to be tough. A natural tendency for a tough person who comes against an obstacle (like pushing a weight) is to just keep pushing harder. Unfortunately, with stress and anxiety, pushing harder against those feelings just makes them worse -- in essence one gets stressed about being stressed and anxious about being anxious. So athletes need a new skill set to deal with anxiety. Below are some tips that can be used right before, or even in the midst of competition:

  1. Instead of resisting the adrenaline, tell yourself you have a high energy level that you can use during the sport. Feel the energy course through your veins with the confidence that you can use this energy to improve your performance.
  2. Try mindful diaphragmatic breathing, feeling your belly expand with a full inhalation and relax with the exhalation. Next, you might try feeling your abdomen expanding with the inhalation and relax a muscle group with the exhalation -- like your neck, shoulders, jaw and/or small muscles between your eyes.
  3. Another option is to quickly tune into your body and assume a relaxed healthy posture: Imagine that your body is like a cotton shirt on a clothes valet with the spine being the upright pole, shoulders being the hanger and the rest of the muscles relaxed and loose, like the shirt.
  4. Whatever present moment sensation(s) you focus on, the key is to patiently refocus again and again without giving yourself a hard time. Giving yourself a hard time will just keep you out of the zone. In contrast, quickly and patiently refocusing will help you increase the amount of time you are focused and mindful.

Whether it’s practicing backhands, jump shots or goal kicks, athletes improve performance with drills that give them a chance to practice skills. In the same way, an athlete can practice focusing and relaxation. With meditation, one can build the neural pathways that the strengthen his ability to be patient, mindful and focused -- to “be in the zone.” One can just focus on one breath after the other for three minutes -- the key is when the attention wanders, patiently return focus to the sensation of the breath. Practicing this patient refocusing (without giving yourself a hard time) is key. Another option for a quick meditation is to spend one minute refocusing on the breath, one minute focused on the sensation of the body breathing and the final minute focused on what ever arises in the present moment (breath, body sensations, sound, etc.). (Several free guided meditations are at

When the anxiety is extreme and leads to panic, there are usually some thoughts associated with the panic attack, such as:

  • “I hate how I’m feeling.”
  • “What if I blow the shot?”
  • “I wish my heart would slow down.”
  • “It will be awful if I choke.”

The “letting go meditation” can be very helpful with panic attacks. I’ll start by leading people in meditation as described above, but then in addition to having them let go of whatever thoughts they have on their own, I’ll suggest that they think the thoughts that tend to be associated with their panic attacks. However, prior to doing this, the instruction is to not believe the thought, just let it float by and then refocus on a breath and then relax a muscle group. In my experience, at the end of the meditation, people are then more relaxed (usually much more relaxed) than they were at the beginning of the meditation. This proves to them, on an experiential level, that if they learn to just notice those thoughts and let them come and go (without believing them or resisting them), the thoughts will not lead to panic. When someone is in the midst of competition, and he thinks “It will be a disaster if I miss the shot,” he can just let the thought go without believing it, enjoy a mindful diaphragmatic breath and relax his neck. Ideally, one would do a letting go meditation with the phrases that they tell themselves during a panic attack. However, you can also try the letting go meditation at (exercise 6).

Another helpful and quick meditation is the three-minute breathing space popularized by Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (exercise 11 at Sometimes when people are stressed, anxious or depressed, they tell themselves long, complicated stories that justify the feelings and just get them more stuck. I use three-minute breathing space to help folks simplify and be mindful about their experience.

In summary, for competition stress (and other stress), learn to patiently refocus again and again on the current moment (such as the sensation of a full inhalation and exhalation). This skill can be practiced with meditation, so when you're in the midst of competition, you will get back into the zone without giving yourself a hard time.