The Rising Tide of Anxiety

When I was coaching, I thought I could spot and manage kids’ anxiety.  Why not?  I’d been on their side of the blocks.

Their jitters showed up in pre-race routines just like mine – the must-have breakfast, being early for warm-up, the familiar towel, lurking around the back row at the clerk of course (way before Beats headphones blocked out competitors' stare-downs).  Some of the swimmers I coached would hang around me like flies at the meet, begging for last-minute tips and reassurance. 

But honestly, anxiety didn’t concern me or take up much of my time.

At least I didn’t think so. 

Now I realize that I missed it, hidden behind so many other behaviors, camouflaged, misunderstood and, I’m sad to say, not addressed in a helpful way.

Now I recognize the difference between the “good anxiety” – the passing bursts of adrenaline that push an athlete to bring her A-game – and the sort of anxiety that can cripple not just her performance but her overall mental and physical well-being. 

This harmful anxiety has risen sharply among kids and teens since I was swimming and coaching – estimates of 20-30% of teens are considered low because so many kids hide their struggles. 

A number of high-profile athletes have recently tried to raise awareness by sharing their own experiences.  Michael Phelps is featured in the documentary Angst: Raising Awareness Around Anxiety, which unpacks anxiety through the words of kids, parents and mental health professionals.  Kevin Love of the Cleveland Cavaliers recently wrote movingly about experiencing a panic attack during an NBA game and seeking help for his anxiety. 

But even with awareness, anxiety is tricky to spot precisely because it can pervade every aspect of an athlete’s existence – and because it shows up in so many unexpected ways.  As Dr. Jonathan Dalton, a psychiatrist who specializes in anxious kids and teens, told a group of worried parents, there are at least 495 ways to experience anxiety.

Anxiety can look like anger, even rage. 

It can look like (and travel with) ADHD, causing difficulty with concentration and impulse control and an irrepressible need to move.

It can mimic the stomach flu (the physical feeling is real) or cause headaches. 

It can present as tight or weak muscles or overall malaise and fatigue (making it difficult to distinguish from mid-season exhaustion). 

And very often it can look just like a stubborn, defiant “misbehaving” kid. 

The anxious athlete might be refusing to stop, refusing to start, refusing to try.  He will seem to be refusing to listen to your very reasonable reassurances, when in reality he might not even hear you once the anxiety grips hard.

The logical part of the brain goes totally offline, and all effort goes to avoidance, to figuring out now to escape whatever is causing (or he expects will cause) the pain.

It’s your star forward who starts missing practice because he’s anxious that he won’t be able to repeat last year’s performance. Or maybe he shows up but can’t perform because his anxiety about college has his stomach in knots and his mind unable to focus.  

The anxiety can also be generalized.  He might not even know why he feels so awful – and that fuels the anxious fire as he wonders what’s wrong with him.

It’s your boisterous gymnast, who suddenly starts yelling at her mom, her sister and you, anyone who will care for her no matter what.  Then she beats up on herself because she hates acting out and feeling that way.

Maybe she’s afraid of the risky new routine. Or maybe it’s social – some of her friends are getting interested in boys and parties, and she’s not ready. 

It’s important (and hard) to remember that the anxiety can be totally unrelated to the situation that’s causing the behavior, like throwing shampoo bottles in the locker room because he’s anxious about going to summer camp. 

Anxiety triggers don’t always make sense.  It could be anything. 

And even when the anxiety and behavior are related – like your athlete going AWOL at the meet before intimidating events – anxiety is the enemy of rational thinking. 

You’re not going to convince a kid in the throes of anxiety that there’s no reason to worry (and as you’ll see below, that wouldn’t help in the long run anyway).

So what can you do? 

After you start to recognize anxiety where you once suspected just bad behavior, or a bad apple; after you start to understand where the behavior is coming from; you start to feel more sympathetic, less frustrated. 

But the anxiety is still there – along with the challenging behaviors. 

How can you help the athlete to manage his anxiety, feel more comfortable, be able to give fully to his goals and to your program?

Most important, you can be calm.

As one young athlete wisely told me, yelling at an upset kid never helps. Nor does getting anxious about the fact that the kid is anxious. 

You do the most good as the “non-anxious presence,” as Jonathan Dalton calls it, the rock that the athlete can trust not to get rattled.

So, be calm.  But don’t reassure.  This is really counterintuitive and takes practice.  Our natural compassionate reaction (and strategy for getting compliance) is to tell the athlete that she need not worry, to rationalize with her, to explain that everything is going to be fine.

But that makes it worse.  She feels wrong for being concerned.  She begins to doubt even more her ability to trust herself and to overcome challenges.  Reassurance also reinforces the anxious behavior.

The coach’s role is not to solve the problem, not to make the anxiety go away, but to help the athlete see that she is able to face and overcome the fear.

As Dr. William Stixrud, a prominent neuropsychologist, and Ned Johnson, a high-stakes test-prep guru, explain in their recent bestseller, The Self-Driven Child, helping the athlete feel a sense of control, of capability, is an antidote to anxiety.  

So when your runner refuses to go the line for his first 1,500, don’t tell him that he has no need to worry, that he’s the one who signed up for it, that he’s going to be fine.  Tell him instead that you know it’s a hard race, that you understand why he’s nervous, that you’re confident he’ll find a way to get himself in the blocks.

Then stop.  Give him space.  Let him figure it out.  He’ll very likely get there. 

If he doesn’t, keep working with him in a calmer moment, when there’s nothing immediately at stake. That’s when you can ask him if he knows what’s behind his fear – maybe it’s not being able to finish or coming in last, or maybe it’s missing the team bus because the event is always last in the program. 

George Mumford, meditation coach to Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, refers to fear as False Evidence Appearing Real.  Jonathan Dalton calls anxiety “an allergy to uncertainty”.

You can talk with your athlete (again, not in the moment) about how anxiety thrives on inaccurate thinking, which as George Mumford says, takes over when you confuse your fearful thoughts with facts.  

You can also help him notice the physical and emotional signs – the sweaty hands, the shallow breathing, lightheadedness, tenseness or anger – and recognize the anxiety for what it is.  Deep, slow breaths can sometimes ease the anxiety before it really takes hold; or maybe a walk outside the arena with a friend.

Then, with understanding, keep nudging him forward.  Let him figure out how to do it his way, which (and this is important) might not be the same as yours. 

Overcoming anxiety is about learning to push through it when you’re scared, when things aren’t certain. It’s learning to stare down the false evidence and prove to yourself that it’s not real – and then gaining confidence and perspective for having done it.

Coaches are essential in helping young athletes to develop these tools, to learn to see the FEAR for what it is and grow stronger. 

Deep DiveSusan Stout