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Underperforming? Mental Training for the Anxious Athlete


Sports and performance anxiety often coincide. Have you ever felt great in practice then when you get to the game you mess up badly? In your sporting event have you ever felt your nerves getting in the way of your athletic performance? While many athletes become “pumped up” during competition, others get extremely nervous and this can have devastating effects on your ability to perform. Before you learn how to manage the symptoms of anxiety during competitions, it is important to understand the relationship between anxiety and athletic performance.

For optimal athletic performance, athletes must able to handle anxiety. Although a certain level of arousal can enhance performance, hyperarousal can quickly diminish performance (Jenson 2010). There are two types of anxiety cognitive. Cognitive anxiety refers to any negative expectations or concerns about oneself, the situation, or possible consequences, and is conscious. Somatic anxiety can be described as the physiological and affective elements of the anxiety experience that develop directly from autonomic arousal, and make no reference to it being conscious or not (Jenson 2010). Others may describe somatic anxiety as “the perception of one’s physiological arousal,” implying that it is also a conscious experience. In any case, cognitive anxiety and somatic anxiety are thought to be independent. Either component can potentially impact performance; both cognitive anxiety and somatic anxiety have been considered in this report.

Jenson (2010) used two athletes (1 elite and 1 novice), who were participating in major competitions within 2 weeks of testing, they were assessed for cognitive and somatic anxiety levels pre- and post-intervention. Three psychometrics were used to measure mental state (cognitive anxiety): the Sports Competitive Anxiety Test, the Depression Anxiety Stress Scales, and a Health Survey. To assess somatic anxiety, saliva samples were collected and screened for cortisol and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA). The intervention was performed by a doctor of chiropractic and consisted of one 30-minute session of NET that focused on the athletes’ concerns regarding the upcoming competitions. The results showed reductions in reported subjective anxiety levels and changes in the salivary hormone profile of both athletes following the intervention, with the more remarkable changes occurring in the novice athlete. The reduction in reported cognitive anxiety levels and the change in somatic anxiety markers may be the result of the mind-body intervention. However, these changes may also be attributed to other factors, such as the natural course of anxiety during competition. An experimental trial would be required to determine the effectiveness of NET for reducing precompetitive anxiety of power-lifters.

Anxiety in sport is commonplace. A certain level of anxiety enhances performance, uncontrolled emotions and negative cognitions can be a major problem in our performance. Various techniques have been used to help athletes control their emotions. These include hypnosis, biofeedback training, progressive relaxation, visuomotor behavior rehearsal, autogenic training, meditation, positive self-monitoring, thought-stopping, various self-talk techniques, induced affect, and cognitive-behavioral therapies. Studies supporting these methods for the general population are limited. The evidence supporting the effectiveness of these methods for athletes is weaker still. It is very important that an intervention to consistently control performance anxiety is also critically needed.

COR provides athletes that may be dealing with anxiety in their sport with mental practice that can help them relax and concentrate on what they are doing. We combine positive-feedback, visualization, and deep breathing methods for athletes who undergo anxiety in sport.


Jensen AM. A mind-body approach for precompetitive anxiety in power-lifters: 2 case studies. J Chiropr Med. 2010 Dec;9(4):184-92.

Writen by Chris Barber, CPT