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Strategies for Anxious Athletes

BY Patrick Smith

If you or your athletes have been feeling a little more anxious these days, trust us, you're not alone. These tips can help provide some relief.

Raise your hand if quarantine life has your anxiety set to rollercoaster-mode.

Yeah, me too.

And our athletes.

Anxiety is a funny thing. Some respond to it as an opportunity for growth, some run from it as if their thoughts of impending doom are literally impending. The experience of anxiety—heightened feelings of physiological excitement, racing thoughts, the endless scroll, are a product of the human race developing in environments where we were prey for the majority of our existence. Even now, it is advantageous to notice when danger is around the corner. It keeps us from doing obviously harmful things. (Okay, maybe it keeps us from doing most of the obviously harmful things.) So feeling anxiety is normal.

The real question is what do we, and our athletes, do when we feel anxious? Do we notice the nugget of care and consideration, the values-based concern that triggers the anxious response? Do we take action toward those valued outcomes? Or do we do the thing that just makes the feeling go away? This is one of the foundational processes that is differentiated in Acceptance and Commitment Training (ACT pronounced like the word).

What is ACT and How Can We Learn from It?

ACT is somewhat counterintuitive. We have grown up in a society that promotes escape, avoidance and control of thoughts and feelings. ACT promotes noticing, feeling and discovering an action that is just as likely to increase contact with those same thoughts and feelings in the pursuit of identifying a valuable direction. And those values are the crux of it. 

Consider your own life experiences. In the list of satisfying or formative experiences, how many of those came about because they were easy? How many required commitment, sacrifice and discomfort along the way? A satisfying, values-consistent life is not entirely easy, and an easy life is generally neither satisfying or consistent with your core values.

Your athletes are tapping into something they value when they express anxiety. Today, it may be expressed as a fear of exercising outside or of committing to goal events that are likely going to be canceled. This is your chance to connect with your athletes on a deeper level—a chance to provide a truly tailored service that is likely to result in retained athletes and long-term growth.

Working with Anxious Athletes

So how do you work with these athletes? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Acknowledge that their experiences of anxiety are normal and tied to something they deeply care about. The old practice of encouraging control and avoidance are guaranteed ways to just amplify their feelings and build a divide between you and the athlete.
  2. Spend some time working with them to clarify what’s important to them within that anxious experience. Sometimes this may be a fear of death or disease, loss associated with diminished capacity, or taking an unnecessary risk that may endanger friends or family members. Many athletes may not be able to pinpoint the core value right away, but creating space for this exploration allows everyone a moment to step back and consider the lessons available in this uncomfortable anxiety signal. 
  3. One method of exploring values is to ask an athlete to describe how they would like those most important to them to describe their actions during this time. Maybe ask them to imagine a post-COVID get together or post-event party to make it most tailored to their context. At this hypothetical event, the athlete exists as a fly on the wall and considers the action descriptions they would use. Have the athlete list the top three adjectives they wish others would use to describe their action in the current context. This tends to bring out what is most important to them. Those adjectives are their values in that context.
  4. Ask the athlete about what behaviors, observable by others, would best fit the values clarified in the above activity. In other words, prompt them to describe what action is values-consistent and what is values-inconsistent. This is an important time to withhold your own judgments. Values-directed actions can take many forms and sometimes those forms, or the underlying values, don’t align with the values of others. This is okay. These values and behaviors are for the athlete. For each of these actions, ask the athlete if they bring up further anxious feelings. Sometimes this is an indication that those behaviors are too dangerous, could use some fine-tuning, or are exactly what is needed. As we said above, an athlete experiencing anxiety (or fear/sadness/elation, etc.) is coming into contact with something important to them. Encourage them to notice and feel those emotions as they come. It will take time, but athletes that use emotions as useful signals to be experienced and explored become more resilient, aware and responsive to what needs to be done.
  5. Based on the above values and behaviors, this is your time as the coach to collaborate with the athletes and help them come up with a plan of action or modify training plans accordingly. If they want to do some training that they have been avoiding due to the anxiety, explore how they can do this in a way that willingly induces that anxious feeling, while moving in a valued direction. For example, if they have been avoiding running outside for fear of exposure to the virus, find safe locations, running partners (roommates?), or times where they are less likely to come in contact with potential carriers. Or make adjustments to their training plan so they can sustain base fitness within their own living area until they feel more comfortable with outdoor training. The key here is to be flexible and collaborative with your athletes such that you get to play the role of valued action enabler instead of the coercion coach.
  6. Rinse and repeat as your athletes contact their diverse emotional experience around training. (Trust me, once an athlete sees emotions as valuable signals, you will get more chances to practice this. This is a good thing.)

Creating an Action Statement

ACT emphasizes committing to act with awareness and willingness to experience all the highs and lows of the process. Those value-consistent behaviors can convert into committed actions by adding the details of when and under what conditions they will occur. Try this with your athletes or yourself. Once you have clarified a value and what behaviors are consistent with it, commit to an action in that context by a deadline. Here is a simple fill in the blank template for writing committed actions.

“In _____<context that normally induces avoidance or anxiety>____, I will ___<values aligned behavior>___ for ___<achievable amount of behavior occurrence>___ by ___<reasonable and soon deadline>___.”

Each time you or your athlete complete a committed action, make sure to reward it. It was probably uncomfortable but moved you toward a more satisfying life. Congratulations!

If you would like, email me your values adjectives and a committed action for each at Any coach or athlete who sends me at least one value adjective and committed action statement will get a free 30-minute zoom consultation to experience values clarification or fine-tune writing their committed action plans.

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About Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is a Training Peaks Level 2 Coach licensed through USA Cycling. He offers consultations, fully customized training plans, and prewritten training plans you can purchase through the TrainingPeaks plans store. You can learn more at his TrainingPeaks coaching page, his website, or by reaching out.