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Anxiety And The Student Athlete

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Athletes are afforded many positive opportunities such as traveling, making new friendships, receiving praise, and experiencing the thrill of winning. For many athletes; however, these experiences are accompanied by anxiety. There are two components of anxiety, a cognitive component and a somatic component. (Liebert & Morris, 1967; Borkovec, 1976; Davidson & Schwartz, 1976 as cited in Kais, K.; Raudsepp, L., 2005). Cognitive anxiety refers to negative expectations as well as having concerns about performance, the cost of failure, negative self-evaluation, assessment of one’s ability compared to others, the failure to concentrate, and inattentiveness. Somatic anxiety is the physiological affect including an increase in autonomic arousal and negative feelings including nervousness, upset stomach, tension, increased heart rate, rapid breathing, sweating, and shaking. (Kais, K.; Raudsepp, L., 2005). While many people may experience these symptoms occasionally, student athletes experience them frequently and negatively enough to impact their personal lives, academic performance, and athletic potential. (Goldman, 2014).

College athletes often struggle to manage the stress and anxiety of college coursework, the demands of their sport including practice and games, the pressure from family, and maintaining friendships. In his book Emotions in Sports, Yuri Hanin wrote, “of all the psychological factors thought to influence sport performance, anxiety is often considered the most important.” (Hanin, Y.L., 2000 as cited in Fullerton, C., n.d.). Two types of anxiety have been identified – state and trait. State anxiety is anxiety at a given time, and trait anxiety is an increase in state anxiety when exposed to certain stressors. (Hanin, Y.L. 2000 as cited in Fullerton, C., n.d.). Several theories exist to

describe the relationship between anxiety and athletic performance such as the inverted-U hypothesis, the drive theory, and the individual zones of optimal functioning model. (Ford, J.L.; Ildefonso, K.; Jones, M.L.; & Arvinen-Barrow, M., 2017). The inverted-U hypothesis states that low anxiety leads to low performance and increased anxiety leads to better performance to an optimal point; however anxiety beyond the optimal point causes performance to decline. (Yerkes & Dodson, n.d. as cited in Ford, J.L. et al., 2017). The drive theory states that a linear relationship exists between state anxiety and performance; higher anxiety leads to better performance and lower anxiety leads to poorer performance. (Hull, C.L., 1945 as cited in Ford, J.L. et al., 2017). Hanin’s individual zones of optimal functioning model suggests that individuals have an optimal anxiety zone where they can reach their peak performance; however, if their anxiety is above or below this zone, their performance will drop. (Ford, J.L. et al., 2017). In athletes, anxiety is often defined as sports-related performance anxiety. This anxiety leads to an unpleasant response to the stress of participating in a sport. Anxiety is a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about a future event or something with an uncertain result. In the student athlete, the threat is often linked to their ego – “If I lose, I am a loser.” Coaches can help to reduce these thoughts and subsequent anxiety in a variety of ways.

While an athletic coach is responsible for teaching athletes a particular sport and evaluating their individual performance in order to prepare for competition, they also need to consider the emotional well-being of their players. Little research exists that identifies ideal coaching behaviors. However, coaching attitude and behaviors are perceived and given meaning by individual athletes which determines their attitude

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toward both the coach and the sport experience. Coaches need to encourage their players and understand that they can be the determining factor on emotional experiences of athletes. (Ramis, Y.; Torregrosa, M.; Viladrich, C.; and Cruz, J., 2017). Often, coaches unintentionally increase a student athlete’s anxiety when trying to motivate by using phrases such as “the next goal is critical” or “the team is counting on you”. Research shows that nearly 85 percent of athletic trainers believe anxiety disorders are currently an issue with student athletes at their schools. (Goldman, 2014). By having empathy and understanding, a coach can support these athletes. Depending on the coach’s knowledge and comfort level as well as the severity of the sports-related performance anxiety, additional support may be needed from both parents and other professionals such as an athletic trainer or sports psychologist.

The demand on athletes today goes beyond the sport they are playing. Again, the pressure put on athletes by their family, friends and coaches affects their mental state as well. For most athletes, this pressure results in anxiety that can cause the athlete to make a mistake. In more extreme cases, the athlete can have a complete breakdown. In some situations, the anxiety becomes serious enough that they take their own life. Luckily, athletic trainers are becoming more familiar with the signs that lead to anxiety and can provide support to these athletes. Athletic trainers work with the athlete, the coach, and a sports psychologist to help the athlete understand why certain thoughts and feelings develop and then help them implement strategies to minimize the same. (Quinn, 2019). This team of professionals helps the athlete to reduce performance anxiety before the event, during the event, and after the event. Before the event, the athlete and trainer focus on recognizing that pre-game nerves are normal and

they practice visualization or positive self-talk strategies. (Quinn, 2019). In order to reduce anxiety during the event, the trainer and athlete work to place the focus on being present in the moment rather than the outcome of the game. After the event or game, they review the athlete’s performance with a focus on the positive, acknowledge those things that hindered performance, and continue to develop a training program that mimics game-like conditions. (Quinn, 2019). While athletic trainers play a significant role in the management of sports-related performance anxiety, the athlete must first recognize and acknowledge that they have a need.

Do you perform well during practice but fall short in a game? Do you feel nervous or fearful prior to a game? When the coach calls you up from the bench, does your heart begin to race and your palms begin to sweat? If the answer is yes, you might suffer from sports-related performance anxiety. As a student athlete who suffers from anxiety, I understand these feelings and encourage you to seek the support of your family, coach and athletic trainers.

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“Anxiety And The Student Athlete.” Edubirdie, 17 Feb. 2022,
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