Understanding Anxiety and Nerves


Dr. Tim Baghurst


Ice skating requires perfect timing in a very visible environment.

Ice skating requires perfect timing in a very visible environment.

If you’ve been watching the Winter Olympics, you’ve seen some of the finest athletes on the planet compete for the greatest prize in their sport. Some athletes have risen to the occasion, doing their very best when it mattered most. Yet some have not, and we have seen many, many catastrophic failures on ice and snow.

Why is this? An athlete trains for years for this very moment, and when it comes, they fall short. They train countless hours to become physically perfect but break down mentally in the big moment.

A great example of this came during the ice dancing. American duo of Hubbell and Donohue were in third place after the short program, and a good performance in the long program could put them in the history books.

But, as reporter Christine Brennan states, “… they started off a bit raggedly on their twizzles, one of the staples of any ice dance program, and doubt suddenly crept in. ‘I think we both had a little bit of a moment mentally,’ Hubbell said. ‘We knew everybody was skating very strong in the event, and we knew that it was going to be very close.’”

Another lapse in concentration and another mistake soon found the Americans completely out of the medal picture. Simple routines done thousands of times in practice became complicated.  Suddenly the pair could not keep it together, and found themselves going home without a medal.

What is Anxiety?

Anxiety can be easily confused with fear and stress. Fear is the presence of a specific, observable danger. Something tangible, such as a tree falling toward you, is a danger and can cause fear. Stress is caused by the perception that you do not have the resources to cope with the situation.


Anxiety is the perception of a threat to a person’s essential value. It may be a physical (injury), psychological (shame), or interpersonal (loss of respect) threat.   A sports example is a coach who tells an athlete to play a new position immediately before an event. If the athlete doesn’t think they can play that position, they are likely to become stressed.

In most sporting situations, there is no need to be fearful. Stress can and does occur, but it’s anxiety which is most common. More specifically, athletes experience anxiety or get nervous when they place expectations upon themselves that would otherwise not exist. Examples include:

·         “What if I lose?”

·         “What if I win?”

·         “I’ll let so many people down if I don’t play well.”

·         “This match is more important to me.”

·         “Coach said it’s on me to win this.”

Anxiety is a very complex topic; not something that can be explained or trained in a short article. However, recognize that some athletes are more likely to get nervous than others. It is part of their personality.

Also understand that nerves can be both mentally and physically harmful. An athlete who is nervous will most likely be thinking negatively, which impacts their performance through feelings of self-doubt and fear of failure, but they will also experience physical symptoms such as increased heart rate, rapid breathing, nausea, and sweating. All these lead to negative outcomes and cause the athlete to experience mental and physical fatigue.

When Does Anxiety Occur?

Oftentimes, the assumption is that athletes are most nervous in the big moments. Yes, in many situations that is true, but not because the environment is suddenly different, but rather because the athlete perceives the environment or situation to be different. It is psychological.


However, nerves may occur more in situations where the pressure is perceived to be greatest. In a big match, where I am a significant underdog, I may experience no nerves, because I do not feel pressured to win. It is not expected of me. Rather, I may experience more nervousness in a situation where I know it will be close.

Here is a good example: get a ball and a bucket and attempt to throw the ball into the bucket from three feet, nine feet, and fifteen feet (if you can create a pressure environment such as in front of an audience then even better). In which situation did you feel the most pressure? My guess is at nine feet. Why? Well, three feet was simple and at fifteen feet you knew it would be very difficult and there would be no judgement if you missed. But at nine feet, making the shot is possible. The same applies to sporting situations. You may have an easy match, and an impossible match, but that one in the middle might be the one which creates the anxiety.

Controlling Anxiety

Nerves are very individual specific, and there is no secret sauce that fixes nerves. Unfortunately, many coaches tell their athletes to “just relax” but are not relaxed themselves and have never taught their athletes how to relax. Meditation, breathing techniques, and physical techniques such as Progressive Muscle Relaxation are all valuable tools in controlling anxiety, but they take time and training to master.


Athletes who recognize they are nervous are taking the first step in addressing it. One recommendation for the short term is to interpret nervousness with excitement. Excitement is not a bad thing and can help performance. Unfortunately, too many athletes see anxiety as a negative and therefore focus on negative thinking. Instead, athletes should try seeing nerves as a positive tool. Why the excitement? Usually because the opportunity exists for success.


Nerves are common within sports and racquetball is no exception. They typically stem from the athlete placing too much pressure on themselves in specific situations where they perceive a lot is at stake. Coaches may also contribute to this situation. Unfortunately, nerves can cause physical and mental side effects, and as a result, performances decline. Recognizing when an athlete gets nervous is the first step in providing treatment, which can come in both physical and mental forms. 

About RYDF

Please support the mission of RYDF in assisting young athletes from around the world with needed resources to achieve success both on and off the court, and to develop successful careers in sports and life. RYDF accomplishes this through three related programs:

Dream It – Fitness Forever Program

Empowers communities by providing opportunities for youth & families to experience fun, friendship, and lifetime health and fitness through participation in racquet sports. 

Reach It – The Dream Team

Provides emerging professional racquet sport athletes with financial support, mentoring, and career development opportunities to achieve success on the court and in their life.

Live It – Athlete to Professional

Uses experts across disciplines to provide knowledge, skills, tools, and practices to improve performance, build a successful career on and off the court, and give back to the community.