March Madness Pressure: Sports and Anxiety

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March Madness is one of the most exciting times of the year for college basketball. The tournament is filled with high-pressure moments, buzzer-beating shots, and the thrill of victory. However, along with the excitement comes a significant amount of pressure and anxiety. 

The pressure to perform at their best can be overwhelming for athletes, leading to nervousness, self-doubt, and even panic attacks. This blog post will explore the relationship between sports and anxiety. We will discuss common triggers for sports anxiety, strategies for managing it, and tips for athletes, coaches, and fans to navigate the tournament with mental strength and resilience.

Common Triggers for Sports Anxiety

Anxiety in sports is a common experience for many athletes. These can come up in a multitude of ways but we’ve gathered some of the most common triggers for sports anxiety. 

Fear of Failure

The anxiety athletes feel around failure is related not to the failure itself, but to the consequences that follow the failure. Some common consequences these athletes may experience include: 

  1. Shame and embarrassment
  2. Negative view of self
  3. Having an uncertain future
  4. Upsetting team or coaches
  5. Important people losing interest

This can lead to low self-esteem, negative self-talk, avoidance of challenges, and even physical symptoms like increased heart rate and muscle tension.

High Expectations

Many athletes, especially during big sports moments like March Madness, will pressure themselves with high expectations hoping it will result in a personal best or optimal performance. 

One athlete who could not meet his high expectations was Mark Appel. Appel was the No. 1 pick for the MLB team the Houston Astros in 2013. His signing bonus was 6.35 million dollars. Everyone expected him to be one of the best pitchers the Astros had ever seen. After trying to keep up with the pressure of high expectations he performed poorly in the MLB because he had lost his love for the game.

Perceived Lack of Control

When faced with unpredictable situations, such as a sudden change in the game's pace or new challenges from opponents, athletes can feel a sense of hopelessness that manifests into anxiety. The feeling of not being able to control the outcome of the game can be particularly difficult to manage. 

This can include feelings of decreased confidence and negative self-talk. 

This study done on College Student-Athletes found “stress not only has negative health consequences but also excessive stress may impede performance athletically and academically.” 


With loud noises, bright lights, and intense physical activity, it’s easy for athletes to become over-stimulated. In sports, this is considered arousal. Arousal in sports is not what you think it means - it is the level of mental and physical energy your body and mind will apply to the current task. 

When a player's body becomes too aroused by the overstimulation going on, their coordination can decline and they can slip into anxiety or even worse panic. 

Strategies for Managing Sports in Anxiety

Many athletes, especially high-level ones, have had to learn tips and tricks for easing stress and anxiety levels. It is so common that most professional sports teams will have an on-staff sports psychologist. These psychologists help them manage external pressure and anxiety. Here are some of the strategies they will use. 

Deep breathing and relaxation techniques

Begin inhaling through your nose, bringing into your lungs a deep breath. Hold for five seconds. Once you exhale, imagine you are exhaling your stress and worry through that breath. Do this 5 - 10 times or how many times you feel your body may need it. 

Practice this every day to improve your blood pressure and response to stress in the nervous system. 

Positive Visualization

The power of positive visualization is essential to a player’s confidence. In times of stress, picturing yourself in a peaceful environment or a happy event from your past can calm the nerves and center your mind. 

For athletes in particular, this could be imagining success to regain confidence. When it’s time to compete, returning to that feeling of calmness can bring you centered on continuing a stress-free game. 

Reframing Negative Thoughts and Emotions

Many athletes will experience negative thoughts and emotions during their sports careers. This could include frustration, disappointment, and self-doubt. Reframing these negative thoughts and emotions can be an effective way to maintain a positive mindset. 

Negative thinking is based on fear. As you continue to entertain the negative thoughts in your head, you create reality. 

Therefore, focusing on success and positive thoughts will lead you to better outcomes. Focus on a positive outcome and how you can accomplish it instead of the fear of what may happen. You can also ask yourself questions such as “How can I increase the likelihood we win?”

Mindfulness Practice

Mindfulness practice is all about finding calmness by being in the present moment. This is such a helpful tool for anybody who experiences anxiety and great for athletes experiencing anxiety as well. 

Mindfulness practice helps regulates stress levels and prevents anxiety from intervening with performance. Here are a few mindfulness practices anybody can participate in: 

  1. Deep breathing
  2. Visualization
  3. Body Scanning

Through consistent mindfulness practice, athletes can build resilience and mental toughness. Which can benefit their sports performance and translate into other areas of their life.  

Seeking Support

As previously mentioned, almost every professional sports team will have an on-staff sports psychologist. This is due to the need for athletes to have psychological support in their careers.

Whether it’s outside problems coming into play during competitions or the anxiety of the sport itself - seeking support helps reframe the negative feelings so athletes can do their best. Talk therapy can help identify roadblocks to success, process previous traumatic events, and work on breaking unhealthy habits.

Tips for Athletes, Coaches, and Fans during March Madness

There is so much we can learn from March Madness. It is incredible to us at SohoMD and for almost all fans of March Madness to watch college students give their all to a sport they love. So whether you are an athlete, coach, or fan, there are some tips we can take away from this annual competition. 

Establishing Realistic Goals

If anybody has ever set up a March Madness bracket, they know that establishing realistic goals is important to not get frustrated or upset. Even the best teams fall under the pressure. 

Setting unrealistic goals can be overwhelming, leading to anxiety and decreased performance. Set specific, measurable, and time-bound goals that are tailored to your ability level and skill. If you just start playing basketball today, the likelihood is that you are not going to be starting in the NBA by tomorrow. 

A better goal would be to practice 3 times a week for a month to start. Setting small, achievable goals that build to a larger objective can help anyone reach their potential. 

Prioritizing Self Care

March Madness is 3 weeks of non-stop basketball. Watching hours of games, engaging in heated debates, and constantly being on edge for your favorite team to get to the next round.

For athletes, this means playing games non-stop and feeling the adrenaline of being in March Madness. All to say, that self-care must be a priority during these few weeks for athletes, coaches, and fans alike. This includes exercise, meditation, and healthy eating. These activities can reduce stress, improve mood, and promote overall well-being. 

So while it’s tempting to get caught up in the excitement of March Madness, remember to prioritize your self-care routine for a healthier and more enjoyable experience. 

Celebrating Success and Learning from Failure

Amanda Stanec Ph.D. and co-founder of Move Live Learn said “I think [we] really need to focus on how we define success. Like, sure we all like to win right? But you can also lose or not win and feel good about yourself and feel good about your effort and feel good about your performance.” 

During March Madness we can celebrate success and learn from failure no matter what position you take during the competition. We can learn from the players on the court that failing only means more success later on. And success doesn’t mean you’ll always win. 

The importance of addressing sports anxiety is highlighted during March Madness. The pressure to perform well, over-stimulation, and fear of failure are common among sports players. But with the proper support and coping mechanisms, players can perform at their best. 

Ultimately, sports are meant to be enjoyed. By taking steps to address anxiety and promote mental wellness, anybody can experience the thrill of competition without being held back by fear or stress.

Happy March! 

If you or someone you know is experiencing anxiety around sports. We have 200+ providers ready to help you through your journey to success. Find a provider in your state today with our easy-to-use directory. 

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