What Elite Athletes Can Teach Us About Anxiety Management

Playing With Anxiety

Nobody is immune to anxiety. That’s because fundamentally anxiety is an adaptive emotional and physiological state that serves an important purpose—to motivate action.

In the early twentieth century, psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson characterized the relationship between anxious arousal and action (or performance) in their seminal research. Their findings—that when people have too much or too little physiological arousal they struggle to perform well—is known as Yerkes-Dodson law, and it highlights the importance of achieving an optimal balance between activation and relaxation for optimal outcomes.

If you are seeking to ‘optimize your outcomes’—whether that means professional or person success as you define it—looking to people who frequently put themselves in anxiety’s path and learn to play well with it (rather than fight against it) can offer some useful ideas. 

The "Life as Sport" Concept

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In Life as Sport: What Top Athletes Can Teach You about How to Win in Life, Dr. Jonathan Fader, the team sport psychologist for Major League Baseball’s NY Mets and co-founder of Union Square Practice in New York City, reminds us that there is much to learn about playing with anxiety from those who do it frequently including elite athletes, firefighters, police officers, and members of the military.

What these “anxiety pros” have in common is that they regularly practice enhancing their emotional and physiological awareness, managing these states, and repeatedly exposing themselves to cues (e.g., the tennis ball being served in their direction, the sound of a fire alarm bell or the smell of smoke in the air). In his book, Dr. Fader underscores that when stress happens—and it most certainly will—“no emotional response is not the goal.” Rather, the aim is to identify a degree of arousal that is adaptive for you, that activates you in a positive way without overwhelming you.

How do the pros achieve this balance to play hard during life’s stressful moments?

Mind the Mindset

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By using self-talk, threats can be re-conceptualized as challenges. This is as true for the tennis player as he or she prepares for a tie-break set as it is for the student who sits for an exam that is harder than expected, or a businessperson meeting a project deadline that’s been moved up.

Adopting a growth mindset (a term coined by Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck) is an important first step in developing a helpful new narrative. A growth mindset is one in which you believe that effort, learning, and persistence will lead to better performance.

This is in contrast to a less-than-helpful fixed mindset, in which abilities—be it intelligence or talents—are believed to be unchangeable. Fixed mindsets (for example, "I'm a terrible public speaker." or "I'm not a creative person.") can lead to avoidance of experiences where you might feel like a failure. But then you don't learn as much, or improve your skills. 

Growth mindsets can lead to inspiring and motivating self-talk, an emphasis on process rather than outcome, and a seeking out of opportunities to practice and improve in a particular area.

Expect and Prepare for Stress

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Professional athletes, first responders, and members of the military are required to participate in practice drills for a reason. Batting practice can improve response time to a pitch, practicing a tennis serve can improve speed, preparing for a climb by rock-climbing inside can develop strength and strategy. Beyond strength and skill building, these practices are opportunities for people to learn how best to cope with physical and psychological stress.

One critical way that you can take some control over your body’s autonomous response to anxiety, Dr. Fader writes, is by practicing breathing exercises (Read here learn more about breathing exercises that specifically target the physical symptoms of anxiety.).

As few as six full inhalations and exhalations can help the average person reduce his or her anxiety response, explains Dr. Fader, and pairing breath-work with visualization exercises (i.e., picturing all aspects of the challenging scenario) can strengthen your physiological and mental foundation in preparation. For more on integrating a daily focused breath-work practice into your busy schedule, see the American Institute of Stress’s recommendations.

Step Back Before Moving Forward

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In Life as Sport, there are several illustrations of the way in which elite athletes shift into an observer-mode—essentially taking on what Dr. Fader deems a “third-person point-of-view” of their performances. This may be one reason for the common practice of review of game footage across different sports.

Fortunately for the non-professional athletes among us, a detached perspective on oneself can also be achieved. Imagination and visualization can help, as can asking yourself a few simple questions. To practice stepping outside of yourself and the moment, Dr. Fader recommends developing a ritual in which you wonder about (1) your physical experience of a moment, (2) how sensations start and end, and (3) if you can identify any positive spin on your response to the challenge.

The goal of this exercise is to promote a spirit of curiosity, rather than condemnation, in self-reflection. In time, this may translate more broadly into overarching, nonjudgmental awareness. Dr. Fader elaborates, “When you can be willing to experience the feeling and sensations regarding your anxiety as normal and not harmful, you can gain a sense of power over them even though they have not gone away.” 

Use the Body to Embody Confidence

2016 NBA Finals - Game Seven
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What we don’t say—our posture, tone of voice, or direction of our gaze—communicates volumes to others and to ourselves. Consider a basketball player who responds to a missed shot by looking down, shaking his head and hunching his shoulders. His body may be reacting to thoughts and feelings of disappointment in an understandable way, but his mind is also likely to react to his body—perhaps with feelings of hopelessness and a belief that he is unlikely to pull off three-pointer opportunity.

Contrast this with the leading scorer on the team. If he misses the shot, he may brush off disappointment by rallying the crowd, and himself by extension.

To improve composure under pressure as you play with your anxiety, Dr. Fader advises starting by targeting one or two aspects of behavior to change. This could be standing a little taller, relaxing your shoulders or eyebrows, or speaking intentionally at a slower pace. Notice if one behavior change leads to another, or if positive physiological consequences occur (e.g., slower breathing, decreased heart rate). 

Don't Forget the Fun

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As you begin to play with some of the exercises outlined above, remember that play means play. Do your best to bring some lightness to the task at hand. Work against your natural human instinct to notice what’s wrong, Dr. Fader advises in his book, and make a point to focus on what’s gone well for you and your teammates in life. The reward need not be big, or even directly related to what you are hoping to change; it simply needs to be something positive that you feel you’ve gotten from your efforts.  

A book sample of the following was provided by the publisher for review purposes:    

Fader, J. Life as Sport: What Top Athletes Can Teach You about How to Win in Life. Da Capo Press: Boston, MA (2016). 


Dweck, C.S. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Ballantine Books: New York, NY (2006).

Jerath, R., Crawford, M. W., Barnes, V. A. & Harden, K. Self-regulation of breathing as a primary treatment for anxiety. Appl. Psychophysiol. Biofeedback 40, 107–115 (2015).

Yerkes, R. M. & Dodson, J. D. The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation. J. Comp. Neurol. Psychol. 18, 459–482 (1908).

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