Anxiety: What Sports Psychology Can Teach Us in Times of Uncertainty

What Sports Psychology Can Teach Us in Times of Uncertainty

As many of you know, the coronavirus is on everyone's mind. Facebook and Instagram posts highlight the anxiety from the worldwide pandemic. People are on edge. People are thrown off their daily routines. Kids are out of school.  Jobs, money, and the stock market are all unstable. Lives are at risk.  All of it can be anxiety-producing.

While visiting friends down in the Santa Barbara area, an English professor friend of mine at a college in the region estimated that even before the rise of the coronavirus, 1 in 4 students have visited the mental health office with many of those visits being anxiety-related. 1 in 4. And that's just the students who have reported having anxiety-related issues. How many more are there?

And how many more working-class people are experiencing anxiety from the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus? 

Can we escape the anxiety that is produced by the uncertainty of the times?

To be sure, I am not a mental health professional. I use the philosophy, mental frameworks, and psychological tactics and skills from the field of sports psychology to help high performers get better and be better. I am a mental trainer. Me and my company, Elite Mindset, helps teams, athletes, businesses, and high performers reduce anxiety so they can perform at their very best. 



Could sports psychology teach us something about dealing with anxiety? I believe so. My definition of anxiety is that anxiety is an over-preoccupation with the past and/or the future. Uncertainty about the future and pain from the past can produce a lot of anxiety. But we are not powerless. Our response to uncertainty has a great deal of influence over the outcome of that uncertainty or pain. While we may have little control over the uncertainty, we can largely control our response that affects our anxiety levels. Take a quick look at the equation below:

We can choose how we will respond to challenges and difficulties. Hardships can make us better or bitter. Opposition is an opportunity to adapt, grow, and get better.


From the world of sports psychology, here are my top 7 things we can learn from elite performers about living with anxiety (btw, yes, I practice these things and more daily):

1. Learn how to live in the moment like an elite athlete.

Admittedly, this one is difficult for me. I've had to train myself, through painful experiences, to let go of the past. And, I'm a futurist always thinking about what will come. There's little I can do about the past except re-interpret those events in ways that might be helpful and make sense to me. There's little I can do about the future except put myself in a position to do well. But the one thing I can do is live well in the moment. 


2. Learn how to breathe like an elite athlete. Practice nasal breathing. In 1998, The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded jointly to Robert F. Furchgott, Louis J. Ignarro and Ferid Murad. The title of the Nobel Prize paper was “Nitric Oxide as a Unique Signaling Molecule in the Cardiovascular System.” Their findings show that the main site for Nitric Oxide production is the paranasal sinuses. In short, breathing through your nose delivers more oxygen to your brain, body, and vascular system– a vasodilator and bronchodilator that increases oxygen transport throughout
the body.  Nose breathing reduces hypertension and stress. You can read all about it here. 

Second, know that a slow, controlled, deep, nasal breath in and out is a physiological signal to our sympathetic system to be calm. When I create an intentional space, I practice the 6-1-7 second method every day. Six seconds in, one-second pause, and seven seconds out. 

Third, practice vertical breathing. That is, try to imagine that a good portion of your lungs is in your upper back. Try to avoid breathing into your upper chest (horizontal breathing) as stress receptors there seem to activate chest tightness which simulates a stress response.


3. Focus on small, micro-goals instead of fixating on big goals like an elite athlete. Achievement goals are exactly that: big achievements! Process goals help you reach your achievement goal. Micro-goals are the smallest, daily goals you need to do before you can reach your process and achievement goals. Micro-goals keep us focused on the little things we need to do to be successful. Being committed to progress and string together momentum. Consistent momentum leads to confidence. Confidence leads to better all-round performance. 


4. Determine what you can and cannot control like an elite athlete. Try doing the Control Box exercise in the title picture. Write what is in your control in the box, you have partial control on the outer lines of the box, and what you don't have control over outside the box. Take a moment to observe your diagram.

If you want to dig a bit deeper, try doing this great exercise: It's called Four Helpful Lists. Divide your paper up into 1 big column and 3 smaller ones. Then write down simply what feels right, what feels wrong, what feels confusing, and what feels missing as illustrated below. After completing the first column, put a checkmark into the correct column that indicates how much control you have over those things: full, partial, or none. It might look something like this:

 Take a deep look into what you have full, partial, and no control over. What changes do you need to make in your thinking? What can you learn from this exercise? What actions can you take?


5. Connect with others like elite athletes. Elite athletes do much better when they are connected with other athletes. They can share the ups and downs of athletics. While the coronavirus dictates that we all practice physical social distancing, we can practice verbal, emotional, and psychological friendship. We don't have to be alone. We have each other, our faith or belief system, and our loved ones. 


6. Speak carefully like elite athletes. Trevor Moawad, son of the great Bob Moawad, says that a Havard study indicated that negative thoughts that are spoken out loud increase the power of negativity 4-7 times when verbalized. Not only does negativity becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, but it also narrows our thinking and makes us less resourceful. Be mindful of your words. It's not to say that we don't recognize the difficulty of our circumstances, but we can choose how we will respond to adversity. If something negative happens, how we talk and respond with the power of our words sets up our future. 


7. Sleep and move like elite athletes. At the risk of sounding trite, elite athletes know that a good night's sleep is crucial for cognitive and physical performance and emotional regulation. The statistics are overwhelming: a good night's sleep will do more for performance and anxiety control than most other non-medical related anxiety issues. Exercising releases endorphins which has a dramatic effect on our well-being. It might be worth mentioning that what you eat has a dramatic effect on your gut biome and brain, but that's another article in the making!



Many neuroscientists believe we think between 40,000 to 80,000 thoughts every day, of which 90% are unconscious. But with the 10% or so that we can be conscious of, we can control to a large degree with practice and discipline. Elite Mindset mental training trains people to think well. We don't have to be slaves to our emotions. We can acknowledge our emotions, but as cognitive-behavioral psychology suggests, our thoughts can change our feelings. If we think well, we can feel better, and perform at our best. Anxiety doesn't have to control us. With training, we can control it. 


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