After months of practice, “Heather” had mastered every skill in her routine and her timing was perfect. But once she hit the mat during competition, her face went blank and she froze mid-step. Although she’d been involved with cheer from the age of five, she still experienced periodic bouts of performance anxiety, especially at key moments.
Heather isn’t alone—the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reports that about eight percent of teens age 13 to 18 have an anxiety disorder. In many cases, a certain amount of anxiety can be beneficial, providing an effective way to handle a difficult situation. But excessive anxiety can, in certain circumstances, become disabling, and for cheer teams, too much anxiety could spell serious trouble.
As a sports performance expert and owner of Mind Body Cheer, Jeff Benson is all too familiar with scenarios like Heather’s. He notes that some athletes operate with a “fixed mindset,” viewing possible failure “as a life or death situation.”
Case in point: Benson worked with one athlete who resisted his attempts to teach her a more correct and advanced version of a basket toss. “She was thinking she might not be perfect right away and couldn’t tolerate the learning process,” he says. Although her response wasn’t logical, it was real to her and she had to quiet her “critical coach.” By breaking the skill down into steps, helping her visualize execution and reminding her of past successes, he was able to cut through her fear and reduce her anxiety.
In more challenging situations, Benson uses a “traffic light system” to ease athletes into attempting an advanced skill. While the rest of the team might be executing a tricky back handspring, an anxious athlete would prepare by first working on a less demanding “green light” exercise, such as a cartwheel, then proceeding to a more difficult “yellow light” skill, potentially inducing some degree of nervousness. The “red light” skill—or the one that is completely overwhelming—is attempted only after successfully completing exercises at the green and yellow levels.
Jeanine Russell, cheer director at New York-based Core Athletix, notes that in some cases, the athlete is not aware of the underlying cause for her anxiety. As she sees it, there are two main types of athlete anxiety: one related to performance and the other based on skills. Either way, the first step for Russell is helping them “open up and acknowledge there is an issue.” She calls her process “address and correct,” noting that fear often stems from lack of confidence.
To that end, Russell empowers athletes by letting them know that everyone has to start somewhere—especially when attempting a stunt for the first time. “I tell them this is a challenge as you continue to grow. If you could do it the first time, it wouldn’t be such an accomplishment,” she says.
Acknowledging Age and Gender Differences
Russell finds that anxiety seldom manifests to a debilitating degree in athletes younger than 10 years old. “Preteen and adolescence is usually when anxiety starts and then increases,” she says. “There are a lot of things going through their bodies and their heads at this stage.” At this age, female athletes tend to put too much pressure on themselves, and hormonal changes may also play a role in amplifying anxiety levels, she surmises.
In Russell’s experience, anxiety isn’t as common in male athletes, but does surface occasionally. “Males participate in other sports, like lacrosse, football and soccer, so they have a tendency to rise in the face of competition,” Russell says. “But I’ve seen it in males who were more intense with their emotions and more sensitive.”
Finding Homeopathic Solutions
Beth Mundell, coach-owner of Maricopa, AZ-based Fyrestorm, finds that anxiety might sometimes be mistaken for asthma. Amid the often “chaotic energy” in the gym, such excitement can spark vitality and excitement, but can also infuse a sense of panic in even the most seasoned athlete. “[Some] people are quick to shove inhalers at the athlete, but you’re revving up an already revved-up system by doing this,” she says. “An inhaler is a stimulant; when an athlete uses it, she becomes worse.”
One solution that has worked for Mundell is consistency. “Cheer is a superstitious sport. We do the same things in the same order every time. If I change the routine, anxiety gets worse,” she says.
Based on consultations with a naturopathic doctor, Mundell also employs some homeopathic remedies to help her athletes. She has found that magnesium oil rubbed on the soles of the feet has a calming effect. “We also put tea tree oil on the sides of the nose. When the athlete is on the floor, she can smell it and it’s a reminder to breathe,” she says. She admits there is no science to back up her claims and the result may be purely psychosomatic—but the technique does tend to get results, at least with her athletes.
Managing Team Reactions
Athletes are often so closely bonded that they’re very sensitive to each others’ cues and dynamic shifts. Russell relates a situation in which one athlete’s elevated anxiety infected the entire team: “This girl happened to be a leader on the team. When she broke down, they couldn’t handle it,” she says. “One girl was hyperventilating, another was vomiting on the side and another was having hot flashes. There was sympathy across the team.”
To prevent mass contagion, Russell takes a proactive approach. “As a group, I don’t allow them to watch the competition. They keep their backs to the performance,” she says. “[To distract them], I also make them sing a song or count eights.”
Not enough attention is given to anxiety, asserts Mundell. “A coach may call the girl a ‘drama queen’ or a ‘head case’ and brush it off, but that’s due to lack of education,” she says. “Coaches need to be attuned to their athletes. They need to differentiate between legitimate anxiety and simple fatigue.”
Sports performance professional Jeff Benson teaches athletes how to handle negative feelings. Get Benson’s tips on identifying anxiety in athletes and suggestions for coping with it:
Signs of anxiety
- Blank stares – the athlete seems to be “off in space”
- Interruptions – the athlete continually interrupts while the coach is giving instructions
- Physical shaking – the athlete’s body moves rapidly and involuntarily
- Resistance – the athlete believes she will not be perfect from the start and refuses to try
- Breathing irregularities – the athlete “forgets” to breathe or breathes very rapidly
- Take a break – the athlete should be removed from the situation temporarily
- Breathe – instruct the athlete to practice deep, rhythmic breathing to help relax the muscles
- Be consistent – do the same things in the same order before each performance
- Laughter – tell a joke or say something silly to make the athlete laugh
- Empathize – point out that everyone has failed at some point in life, even the coach
- Encourage – remind the athlete of her past successes and reassure her that she will overcome this temporary setback
- Visualize – ask the athlete to imagine herself completing the skill
- Use progression – have the athlete attempt an easy skill to build confidence and then graduate to a more challenging one
- Raise awareness – speak with the athlete one-on-one to figure out what the underlying cause of her anxiety might be
- Educate – teach the athlete to have realistic expectations