Apr 2, 2024 | Performance Psychology

The Ultimate Guide to Performance Anxiety in Sports: How to Manage your Nerves and Perform Under Pressure

Performance Anxiety is crippling for performance, limits potential, and ruins enjoyment.
The ability to manage your thoughts, down-regulate your nervous system and break the pattern of negative thoughts leading to negative, avoidance behaviours is one of the most critical skills that an athlete can possess.

Performance Anxiety is by far the most common issue that we work with at Mindframe Performance and is one of the most prevalent challenges dealt with by a Sport Psychologist.

Anyone can experience Performance Anxiety and there’s not necessarily a linear relationship where the higher the level, the worse the anxiety.

Nerves and Anxiety are a normal response to something you care about. But it’s also important you do something about it.

What are the symptoms of Performance Anxiety?


Performance Anxiety can be experienced in multiple different ways including:

Psychological symptoms – Overthinking, catastrophising, worrying, comparing

Physical symptoms – High heart rate, shaking, sweating, feeling sick

Behavioural symptoms – Avoidance behaviours, playing safe, rushing, negative body language

Overthinking and tension are often the two biggest killers of performance.

What are the causes of Performance Anxiety?


Causes of Performance Anxiety can be internal – such as excessively high personal standards and demands – or external – such as parental pressure, coach pressure or trying to impress others. Some individuals have a disposition to be more generally anxious than others and it can also be triggered by a stressful event such as choking under pressure. Performance Anxiety is a common response but the causes can vary massively between individuals

Does Perfectionism cause Performance Anxiety?


There’s a massive link between Perfectionism and Performance Anxiety. A lot of high performing athletes are Perfectionists. And perfectionism has its perks – it’s a key trait possessed by many of the worlds best athletes as it makes you work hard, constantly look for new ways to improve and refine your abilities.

But Perfectionism also has its downsides. Those downsides come in the form of overthinking, anxiety, comparison and never feeling good enough. It’s often worth considering where Performance Anxiety shows up and being wary of the negative effects that Perfectionism can create at 3 key time points of performance

1. Before

If you have unrelenting and excessively high standards, this is going to cause you to worry and feel pressured beforehand, as it’s so hard to meet your expectations.

2. During

If you have to be perfect, it’s going to make you tense, hesitant and limit risk taking as you’ll likely try to avoid making mistakes – avoid not being perfect.

3. After

If you’re a perfectionist, you probably focus on the 1 thing you did badly vs the 9 things you did well, beating yourself up which drains your confidence.

If you are a Perfectionist, and you had a button in front of you that you could press and it would get rid of your Perfectionism – would you press it?

Most people answer No to this question.

I’d agree, I wouldn’t either.

If I could build a sportsperson, I’d probably sprinkle in some Perfectionism. It’s not about fully getting rid of it, it’s about managing the downsides.

How to deal with Performance Anxiety?


Symptoms can vary between individuals, so interventions by a Sport Psychologist should aim to identify the symptoms first, before deciding the correct tools, techniques and mental skills to apply. Uncovering the route cause of Performance Anxiety is essential for overcoming it.

How does a Sport Psychologist manage Performance Anxiety?


Some mental skills can often be ineffective as they paper over the underlying causes and work as a means of distraction, without truly addressing the cause. This is a large reason why some Sport Psychology interventions can work temporarily, followed by a relapse a few months later. Working with a Performance Psychologist or Sport Psychologist is critical for identifying the underlying causes and implementing the correct solutions.

How to manage negative thoughts and stop overthinking?


The 2 best ways to manage your negative thoughts are Cognitive Reframing and Cognitive Detachment.

Cognitive reframing involves changing the thought – replacing a negative, unhelpful thought to something more positive and helpful.

Cognitive Detachment involves changing your relationship with your thoughts – observing thoughts, accepting them and letting them go.

Perhaps the most important skill you could ever have is the ability to manage your thoughts. I’ll hold my hands up – I’m slightly biased as this area is my job and my passion.

But think about it – you’re constantly thinking. Our thinking shows up at home, at sport, in our spare time.

Our internal voice follows us wherever we go, providing a running commentary of our every move, often in a critical and negative way – whether we like it or not

Your thoughts are constantly there, so regaining control of your brain and managing what goes on in your mind is a critical skill you need – whatever, whenever and wherever the situation – 24/7.

How to manage the physical response of Performance Anxiety


Relaxation techniques are a great way to manage somatic symptoms of Performance Anxiety. These may involve:


  • Deep slow breathing
  • Relaxing music
  • Progressive Muscular Relaxation (PMR)
  • Speaking or Humming

What can I do to stop Performance Anxiety?


  1. Cognitive Reframing
  2. Cognitive Detachment
  3. Practice Mindfulness
  4. Down-regulate your Nervous System
  5. Approach related Behavioural responses


1. Cognitive Reframing – Cognitive reframing is a classic psychological technique used by Sports Psychologists that helps us spot, challenge and replace negative, irrational and unhelpful thoughts and beliefs.

Changing the meaning you apply to events changes how you think, feel and behave which changes your outcomes for the better.

Cognitive reframing helps reduce Performance Anxiety by cultivating more positive and functional thinking responses to any psychological situation.

It doesn’t mean we need to see everything through a lens of over the top positivity. It just means we start viewing things as a challenge rather than a threat – something we possess the coping resources and skills to overcome, rather than something that needs to result in panic and overwhelm.

2. Cognitive Detachment – The goal here isn’t to get rid of all your negative thoughts, they keep us alive.The goal is to change your relationship with your negative thoughts.

You don’t control all your thoughts – your are not your thoughts.

The reason we have so many negative thoughts is because before making us happy and successful and perform at our best, the no.1 job of the brain is to keep us alive. And thinking negatively and predicting worse case scenarios is better for our survival than positive, best case scenarios.

Our brain hasn’t changed very much in hundreds of thousands of years and it doesn’t have plans of doing so anytime soon either, so it’s key to understand how it operates so we can work with it rather than get stuck fighting it.

Your thoughts and feelings are often inaccurate signals but we don’t treat them this way – we listen to and believe and act upon them and allow them to dominate our lives.

Practice cognitive detachment by labelling your thoughts.

This could be something simple as negative Nigel, my caveman brain or even someone you know who’s always telling stories you know aren’t true – like Jay from the inbetweeners.

When you label your thoughts you create detachment and separation, which invalidates the thought and allows it to pass on.

By noticing and observing your thoughts, it gives you control over how they are perceived and acted on, rather than your thoughts acting on, and controlling you

3. Practice Mindfulness – Mindfulness is a form of meditation, a little like weight training is a form of exercise. Mindfulness techniques include breathwork, body scans, conscious noting and detachment from thoughts, sensory engagement and spatial awareness.

Regular practice of Mindfulness meditation reduces anxiety, improves performance and  increases happiness. A recent meta analysis showed that Mindfulness is the most successful intervention in Sport Psychology. Mindfulness predicts flow states, performance and so much more, including happiness, well-being and productivity.

Most people spend large amounts of time and attention in the past and future, memory and anticipation – living in their head vs in the moment.

Broadly speaking we can worry about two things in life – things that have happened (the past) and things that might/will happen (the future).

Mindfulness isn’t a process of switching off the mind, it is a deepened focus to the present moment, absent from past or future worry. It allows you to observe, accept and detach from the multitude of thoughts that are constantly going on in your mind.

4. Down-regulate your Nervous System – While we often refer to Nerves and Anxiety as a psychological response, there’s also a physical reaction – our nervous system gets fired up releasing adrenaline and cortisol (the stress hormone) into our blood stream.

So while it’s important to manage thoughts, it’s also key to calm and de-stress your Nervous System.

Luckily this isn’t rocket science. Relaxation techniques suffice here, such as breathing techniques, calming music and PMR.

5. Approach related Behavioural responses  Negative thoughts are okay, they’re normal, it’s part of being a human.
But they really become a problem when they change our behaviour.

Performance Anxiety often results in avoidance behaviours such as playing safe, avoiding risks, taking the easy option. An extreme avoidance behaviour would be avoiding the situation altogether and not showing up.

This isn’t easy but if you can separate a negative thought leading to a negative, avoidance behaviour, you not only boost your chance of success in the moment but you reduce the validity of that thought when it comes up the next time.

Identify the behaviours you want to be doing and try to act like it, not allowing this to change as a result of your anxious, overly active, negative mind.



Performance Anxiety kills your performance and enjoyment. Working with a Performance or Sport Psychologist is essential for overcoming Performance Anxiety.

We specialise in Performance Anxiety at Mindframe Performance so get in touch with our team to work with a Sport Psychologist or Performance Psychologist to help you get back to your best, get out of your own way and fulfil your potential.

Recent Posts

Ready to transform your mindset?

Take your game to the next level and fulfil your potential

Get in Touch