Science behind sports anxiety

The boys soccer team re-groups and gets focused prior to a game // Photo by Alexis Lent.

Anxiety is one of the most prevalent mental health topics in the country right now, especially in teens.

One thing that is not looked at as much however, is the effect of anxiety on the athlete. Recently, BlueStreak Sports Training, a local training facility in partnership with Innovative Health and Rehabilitation (a local sports and physical therapy office), hosted Dr. Tom Woodman of Brain and Body Wellness in Norwalk.

Dr. Woodman gave a presentation in which he discussed the different types of anxiety disorders, as well as the upward trend on anxiety at younger ages. Dr. Woodman discussed how currently 25% of children 12-17 have an anxiety disorder. Meaning that these disorders are reaching about 6 million children.

In terms of athletics, Woodman included the idea that sports can increase emotional stress and therefore will negatively impact the athlete in terms of performance.

This can be seen in situations in which the coach of the opposing team will “ice” the other player to force them to think about the situation and stress about the future task. Specifically in football, coaches will call a timeout before the kicker has a big kick coming up. “I would ice the kicker to create a mental game and make him anxious, it will make him anxious and mess up his mechanics. It also messes with the snapper, the holder, and the entire process.” said head football coach, Frank Marcucio

“If someone called a timeout before my big kick I would feel pretty anxious but I would pull together mentally and do my best to make that field goal and make the big kick for my team” said senior kicker Jose Regio.

Other athletes feel stress get to them and see how it can effect them as well. “The timeout takes your focus away from the game so it can weaken your performance. Sometimes if you’re are serving, the opposing coach will call timeout to make you think about it and try to make you miss” said senior Volleyball captain Gabriella Veseli.

The science behind why anxiety can decrease performance is partially thanks to the chemical in the brain known as cortisol, which helps the body use sugar and fat for energy. Cortisol also helps the body manage stress. Dr. Woodman claims that too much cortisol in the body results in more stress leading to a weaker athletic performance.

Another variable in the brain that affects the performance of athletes is the amount of  GABA they may or may not have. GABA is essentially a brain messenger that reduces stress and anxiety. The amount of GABA some people have however does vary.

AP Psychology teacher Ms. Tintle had a more detailed description of the effect. “I know some girls who don’t see competing as stress…their body is heightened. Others get very anxious and they don’t perform well.”

Ms. Tintle also discussed how the Yerkes-Dodson law plays a part in the levels of stress that an effect athletes on game day. The Yerkes-Dodson law essentially says that any person will perform to the best of their ability under the proper amount of stress. Too much stress will throw someone off their game, and too little stress will do the same.

Relating back to Dr. Woodman’s discussion. Dr. Woodman’s ways of dealing with the issues included aromatherapy, decreasing video games and use of computer at night, as well as Brainwave neurofeedback which he claims has a 92% satisfaction rate from his Norwalk office.

Whether it be the Yerkes-Dodson law, GABA, or cortisol levels, sports can get stressful for students. It’s important that all student athletes take a step back and understand that high school sports are not the be all end all and were created so that students could have fun. All athletes are reminded that whenever they feel stressed they can talk to their guidance counselor, coach, athletic trainer, or athletic director.

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