top of page

Positive and Negative Anxiety

“Under pressure you can perform fifteen percent better or worse.” – Scott Hamilton

According to Williams (2010), “anxiety is negative in direction in that it is an emotional state or reaction characterized by unpleasant feelings of intensity, preoccupation, disturbance, or apprehension” (p. 227). When an athlete feels anxious, their body responds physiologically by “a racing heart beat, a dry mouth, butterflies in your stomach, cold and clammy hands, trembling muscles, or an inability to clearly focus thoughts” (Williams, 2010, p. 221).

According to Murphy (2005), “When an athlete gets anxious, his or her focus of attention changes and so does his or his intellectual functioning. This means differences in what information is processed and how it is processed” (p. 79). Due to the narrowing of attention and distorted intellectual functioning, the athletes’ performance levels will decrease. The attentional control theory (ACT) contends that “anxiety impairs processing efficiency by reducing attentional control and making it difficult for the goal-directed attentional system to override the stimulus-driven attentional system, especially in the presence of threat-related distracting stimuli (Wilson, Wood, & Vine, 2009). For instance, a soccer player returning from injury for the first time experiences their stimulus-driven attentional system (thoughts of previous injury) override their goal-directed attentional system (performance goals) due to the threat of reinjuring themselves.

Based on the inverted-U theory, which states “optimal performance occurs at an intermediate level of arousal and that both very low and very high levels of arousal will result in impaired performance” (Murphy, 2005, p. 80), performance disregulation can occur with high levels of arousal due to “unpleasant emotional reactions associated with the autonomic nervous system” (Williams, 2010, p. 222). Mack and Casstevens (2001) contended, “Under stress, some people are cardiac responders – their heart rate goes up. Some are skin responders – they begin to perspire. Others begin to breathe rapidly, feel their stomachs churn or feel their neck and back muscles tensing. These are all physical early warning signs. Mentally our minds start racing. A little voice begins whispering negative thoughts” (p. 31). Abnormal high levels of arousal comprised with negative self-talk and self-defeating thoughts lead to performance anxiety, and ultimately, performance impairment. Negative self-talk impairs performance because “such verbalizations allow individuals to interpret feelings and perceptions, regulate cognitions and give themselves instructions and reinforcement” (Hatzigeorgiadis & Biddle, 2008, p. 238). Ultimately, negative self-talk reinforces negative thoughts.

Although anxiety is generally negative, soccer players and coaches can use anxiety to their advantage by developing antibodies to regulate such fears and worrisome thoughts. In Pep Confidential, Marti Perarnau said, “Guardiola’s Achilles heel is his anxiety. He carries with him a deep fear of coming under attack, which was probably born during his playing career” (p. 159). Perarnau continued by stating, “He compensates for his anxiety with a level of audacity that can sometimes become excessive. He has developed the antibodies to deal with his fear and now, as a coach, has a capacity for extraordinary courage and single-minded determination. He doesn’t like being attacked, so he goes on the attack first” (p. 159-160). Guardiola recently exhibited his anxiety antibody in the first leg of the Champions League Semi-Final at the Camp Nou by high-pressing and attacking FC Barcelona. Although his Bayern Munich side lost 3-0, Guardiola’s side continuously attacked and pressed FC Barcelona in a fashion that no other coach would have the courage to implement.

Soccer players and coaches can use their anxiety to fuel their rise to new heights. In particular, players and coaches can implement mental training within their current program in an effort to improve beyond previous expectations, but in order to accomplish such feat; the individual must have “knowledge of one’s ideal state of arousal before and during athletic performances (Murphy, 2005, p.88). Once an ideal state is recognized, the individual is ready to begin implementing a relaxation ritual, pre-competition game plan, or a progressive muscle relaxation program to name a few in order to regulate one’s arousal level (Murphy, 2005, p. 88-89). Although anxiety has a negative connotation, soccer players and coaches can use their fear or worrisome thoughts to prepare, learn, study, and train more than ever before. Such habits can lead to positive self-talk, ultimately improving performance and decreasing arousal levels.


Hatzigeorgiadis, A., & Biddle, S. H. (2008). Negative Self-Talk During Sport Performance: Relationships with Pre-Competition Anxiety and Goal-Performance Discrepancies. Journal Of Sport Behavior, 31(3), 237-253.

Mack, G., & Casstevens, D. (2001). Mind Gym: An athlete’s guide to inner excellence (31). Contemporary Books.

Murphy, S. (2005). Anxiety: From pumped to panicked. In The sport psych handbook, 73-91. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Perarnau, M. (2014). Right Now I Am Not The Best Coach In The World. In Pep confidential inside Pep Guardiola’s first season at Bayern Munich. (pp. 159-160). New York: Birlinn

Williams, J. (2010) Arousal-Performance Relationships. In Applied sport psychology: Personal growth to peak performance (6th ed., pgs. 221-246). Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Wilson, M. R., Wood, G., & Vine, S. J. (2009). Anxiety, Attentional Control, and Performance Impairment in Penalty Kicks. Journal Of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 31(6), 761-775.

bottom of page