Anxiety in sport - Ellie's story

January 18, 2017

Ellie Osmond guest blogger for everactiv

Anxiety in sport

Many athletes suffer from anxiety. This week our guest blogger, youth runner Ellie , talks about her experiences and we get some expert advice from sports psychologist Tony Westbury.

"Today I really wanted to talk about something I have avoided so far on my blog  despite it being possibly the main reason I started my blog "Energised Ellie" in the first place - dealing with anxiety and how it affects me in running and how I plan to overcome this.

Ellie Osmond guest blogger for everactiv

But first, a little bit of backstory… I have always been competitive but about a year into secondary school, my desire to achieve suddenly expanded. I got my first 100% on a test and, since then, I have been adamant about scoring highly on every single exam. At its worst, I would be very disappointed if I did not get the highest mark or get upset if I didn’t get 100%. I would study as hard as I could because, in my mind, if I was good, I wanted to be the best. The same applied for running.

I started running around the same time my perfectionism in school started and I was improving rapidly. I would run hard single day and every Saturday and Sunday I would smash my parkrun PBs – it was great! Until I hit an absolute wall. I was no longer improving. Every week I would try for a good time and just end up crying for ages over the result. This started to affect my performance to the point where I would tense up and my breathing would rise. It would make me more likely to give up when someone over-took me. I was doing everything I could think of to improve: I ate super healthily, I joined a running club, I researched constantly but I still didn’t get that magic PB. It was awful. Eventually the time came for me to start competing and immediately I was hit with the reality of how advanced my competitors were. Most of the girls I would run against were experienced club runners and I wasn't. The races were harder than I had ever done and I wasn’t as high up as I thought I should have been. Part of this was because of my anxiety. It got so bad that in one race, I was forced to drop out because I was exhausted and panicking because a person I usually beat was right behind me.

Ellie Osmond guest blogger for everactiv  running
That is the main issue. No matter how hard I try, it is difficult not to compare myself to other people. I have smashed PBs and I am a much better runner but I still get anxious. I no longer breakdown during or afterwards but I do get stressed if one of my rivals is nearby or, even worse - way ahead. As soon as I arrive at a race I point out everyone who looks fast and cower in fear. It would honestly probably be better if I could just run with a blindfold! Sometimes it affects my training. My coach always notices it: my shoulders come up, my stride shortens, my breathing quickens and I tense up which does not help me run fast.

I know it needs to be overcome as it holds me back and takes away a lot of the enjoyment of running. So, I have decided to make it my project to improve my running mentality and my anxiety in general. First I am going to try to just run for the love of running. I can’t pretend I don’t spend time analysing results and I must admit that I do memorise quite a lot of them. I am going to try and stop doing this and simply run for myself (although this will be a massive hurdle for me). “Run your own race” is what they all say and that’s what I'll try to do! I am also going to do more relaxation activities and spend more time relaxing because I have a very contradictory mindset in which relaxing tends to stress me out but I am working on it!

I hope you enjoyed this slightly different blog post! I’ll definitely keep you all updated on my anxiety progress and how I am going combat it! During this Saturday’s race, I am going to focus on relaxation by using techniques such as counting in my head to 100 (which has previously worked well for me) and repeating mantras - wish me luck!

Ellie xx

Tony, our expert sports psychologist, read Ellie's blog and provides this advice:

This is a case which I have seen many times. It's complicated because perfectionist thinking around performance develops over time, often as a result of motivational climate around the young performer. Small, subtle things around self-worth become internalised and linked to performance outcomes.

The scenario Ellie describes is very common - she is training hard and responds well, her performance increases dramatically and she gets great positive feedback: Satisfaction from improving and the drive to keep going. However, the human body doesn't have an infinite capacity to keep improving at the same rate. At some point the adaptations get smaller and less clear cut - although, ironically, much more important! For example, there is less than 1% difference between 1st and 8th in an Olympic final.

The first thing that I would suggest for Ellie is that we look at her expectations. Expecting perfection in every race or training session is unrealistic. Being your very best or perfect every time you perform is rare and gives you a very narrow target to try and meet (see the white box below). When it does't happen you can get demotivated and upset.

Photos fo Best Vs Optimal performance sports psychology

Aiming for optimal performance (the gold box) is more realistic. What is the best for you on that day? Did you enjoy it? Was it worth doing? Did you try your best? How can you improve next time? Once or twice a season you may reach a "perfect" performance, but most of the time you might be good, great, or excellent. Making gradual improvements is the key to being excellent in the long term.

The second thing that we can look at is comparison. Comparing yourself against the performance of others can be the root of many people's anxiety. This happens because: 

  • You can't control another person's performance. If they have a great race and you just have an above average one, you feel you have failed. But you haven't failed, you've actually had a good performance - above your average!
  • People tend to be selective about who they compare themselves against - often the choice isn't helpful.

Comparison can lead to us avoiding potentially valuable learning experiences. For example, at an open track meeting would you rather be in the middle of the pack in the A race, or easily win the B race? Which race would be more valuable for learning and improving? You may not win the A race, but you could learn new race tactics and skills from better athletes. Benchmarking yourself against yourself is a more useful and psychologically healthy approach - did you deliver the best performance that you could on that day? Where can you improve next time? You can't control your competitors performances, but you can take full control of your own performances.

Elite sport is not full of the best performers - its full of those who didn't burnout, get injured or become disillusioned. Aiming for your optimal performance can give you the mindset for this journey. 

everactiv co-founder Cat Morrison is a multiple World Champion in the sport of duathlon and comments: "One of the things that was important for me was focussing on my own race, putting all the things that I had done in training into practice. If I did all this on race day then I would be as happy finishing middle of the pack as I was if I finished first."



Photo of Tony Westbury guest sports psychologist for everactivTony's research interests include sport psychology interventions for performance, and behavioural change/exercise psychology.
Tony holds a PhD from University of Brighton and is accredited by the British Psychological Society Chartered Sport and Exercise Psychologist BASES as a Sport and Exercise Scientist.


Tony's new book: Ask a Sports Psychologist, a Question and Answer Guide, is now available for pre-order on Amazon.



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