The root of performance anxiety spreads far and wide, sometimes without the proper verbiage to articulate a sentence of expressing why. We have seen recent examples of Olympic athletes taking a stand for themselves, their mental health, against cultural norms of a “toughen up” society. From Olympians Simone Biles and Michael Phelps, to professional athletes Rick Ankiel and Ricky Watters, for decades we have observed elite athletes attempt to openly discuss some truth of who they are and what they feel, and now is the time we provide a platform for listening, learning, and responding with understanding and support.
Youth sport participates are not immune to mental health issues. Pluhar and colleagues (2019) studied anxiety and depression in athletes between the ages of 6 and 18 years of age who were participating in team sports versus individual sports. Their study revealed 13% of athletes participating in individual sports (i.e., running, gymnastics, diving) reported anxiety or depression in relation to their sport. A staggering 30% of individual sport athletes played their sport for goal-oriented reasons, as opposed to for fun. In another study conducted in May of 2020, Watson and Koontz investigated the impact COVID-19 on youth sports, reporting alarming numbers in the mental health realm. Of the 13,000 adolescent athlete’s studied country-wide, “40% reported moderate to severe depression symptoms and 37% reported moderate to severe anxiety.” The study rightly mentions the disproportionate impact on low-income and minority children.
Whisper Running, a year-round youth running club in Vancouver, Washington, has felt these realities, where runners, as well as parents of runners, have shared feelings and experiences of anxiety related to sport, particularly since the onset of COVID-19. Being a youth-centered program, these are often first-time feelings of anxiety and depression for the young athletes involved in a completive program.
What’s a runner to do when feelings of stress and anxiety arise at the mere thought of running?
In a Bill Moyers video featuring Jon Kabat-Zinn, Kabat-Zinn encourages his clients to “dance..live…around the corners (of pain and discomfort),” (32:30) all the while, being fully aware of the presence of pain and anxiety. This is practiced in low-pressure settings (i.e., at practice), and implemented, or put into play, when things get tough in the sport of running. Whether it’s merely showing up, pushing a pace never experienced, or going back to a place of discomfort for the greater good, placing your body in these challenges, teaching the body and the mind to “dance” through the moments of discomfort can begin to bring down the walls of performance anxiety.
Another solution to handling adversity is sustaining some level of consistency. Even achieving small, mundane tasks, such as the basic Activities of Daily Living, can develop some semblance of achievement and self-confidence. Another solution, in-line with familiarity and consistency for those involved in the running program, is working with Psychological Skills Training tools, to keep the focus on running sharp and centered. Whether a runner is now training with their school team, or still attending regular practices at Whisper, here are a few strategies one can implement to reduce sport-related anxiety and keep the focus on the present.
Setting realistic goals. This is one of the most challenging efforts to follow-through with. With their head on a swivel, too often, runners compare themselves to the uncontrollable, such as friends, teammates, other teams, siblings, or even traditions, rather than accepting who they are as a runner, where they are as a runner, and working from the ground floor. With each passing step, a runner’s goals should be personal and supported with action.
Goals should be shared. Clearly the bravest step in the process, sharing goals can take comparison with others off the table. As one communicates their intentions, desires, and dreams (goals), a renewed sense of self can freely begin the beautiful pursuit of something grand. On a successful team, teammates will embrace one another’s goals as their own, taking personal responsibility to periodically check-in on their teammates to see how things are progressing.
Personal goals should be in small increments. There is no magic formula to setting goals. There are simply too many variables to account for, and the reality is, sometimes performance will take a step (or two) back, before it can take two steps forward. Keep things simple and remember that even successful performances might not mean a PR (personal record), but rather, a personal best time on a specific course, or running a great week or month of workouts, should mean a feather in the cap of success.
Personal goals are greater than team goals. Team is important, but on some level, when setting goals, putting your needs first is okay, so long as it doesn’t lead to a detriment of the team or teammates. Communicating these needs first, or along the way as you mature, is also important. Needs such as resting more, taking an interval off when needed, running an extra interval, or running 5-10 more minutes to feel more fulfilled about the workout is in order. Regardless, understanding your needs as a runner, and what it takes to fulfill those needs, will make you a better runner.
Visualize success. 99% of “visualize success” means imagining behaviors you can control. To keep things simple when imagining success, close your eyes and place yourself in a familiar space, such as a park or a road you might run regularly. When visualizing, have an objective – a focus on a task, such as concentrating on foot strike, a rhythm, feeling smooth and relaxed, a relaxed arm swing, feeling easy and controlled, imagine good posture, or listen to the sound your shoes make as they tap the ground at an easy, yet fast speed. Some coaches like to draw these imagined behaviors into interval sessions, while other coaches believe these imagined behaviors should be thought of while on longer runs. When to blend the imagery into the workout – during easy runs or hard tempos – can be an individual preference. The key is the consistent intentional focus on the small actions that make you a better runner.
Whether you are currently training with Whisper, training with your local school, or an adult running to hold on to some semblance of youth, Goal Setting and Visualization are key elements that elite performers use to help dial-in on performance objectives and desires.
Pluhar, E., et al. (2019). Team Sport Athletes May Be Less Likely To Suffer Anxiety or Depression than Individual Sport Athletes. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6683619/
A. Watson & J. Koontz (2020). Youth sports in the wake of COVID-19: a call for change. https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/55/14/764
B Moyers, (1993). Healing and the Mind – Healing from Within. https://vimeo.com/39767361
Edemekong, P., et. al. (2021) Activities of Daily Living. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK470404/