Reducing anxiety in sports is largely about managing expectations. In my work as a sport psychology consultant I work with a large number of high level junior tennis players. Almost all young athletes I work see have the goal of playing with less anxiety.
In many cases the tennis athlete is far more anxious when competing against a weaker player than a stronger player. In playing a weaker player the expectation is “I am better. I should win easily. If I don’t put this opponent away quickly, others will think I am not very good”. This added pressure sets the player up for increased muscle tension, decreased concentration and a greater chance for mistakes and poor play. In fact the worry cycle might begin if he/she losses a few points or games. The fear of losing to a “weaker” player comes to the forefront and increases with every lost point.
In contrast, when playing a stronger player, anxiety is less because the thinking is, “I am not supposed to win. She is the ranked player. No one is going to think less about me if I lose.” As a result, the player plays more relaxed and with a greater sense of freedom. They often perform at their best and may, at times, pull off an upset win.
Another method to reduce anxiety in sports is training the athlete to monitor and modify their breathing. By learning to breathe, slowly and deeply through the belly, the athlete can take the edge off of negative emotions and anxiety and anger and maintain a steadier composure in the face of adversity.
Combining strategies from cognitive therapy with behavioral methods provides the athlete with specific tools they can use to reduce anxiety in sports and perform closer and more consistently to their true potential.