With the Summer Olympics underway, attention is focused on the pressure young athletes face. Allison Winik, PhD, is an assistant professor of psychology within the VP&S Department of Psychiatry’s Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. She is a child and adolescent psychologist with training in applied sport psychology who practices at the Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders Westchester (CUCARD Westchester). She treats student athletes struggling with performance anxiety and burnout.
We asked her to explain some of the pressures Olympic athletes might be facing.
What is sports performance anxiety and how would you describe the kind of work and patient treatment plans that you and others offer?
Allison Winik: Sports performance anxiety refers to the negative effects of stress on athletic performance. At CUCARD-Westchester, we support athletes in improving their performance with a range of treatment interventions. We specifically work with athletes on managing the physiological and cognitive effects of stress (diaphragmatic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, mindfulness, positive self-talk), shifting focus towards the present and away from future results, and improving motivation and confidence. We additionally assist athletes with managing stress related to recovery from an injury or the end of a sport.
Is sports performance anxiety a relatively new phenomenon for adolescents?
Sports performance anxiety is not a novel phenomenon. In fact, psychologists began working with professional sports teams about 100 years ago. Although youth athletes likely do not face the same level of pressure faced by sports professionals, youth sports are becoming increasingly competitive. This can be associated with greater anxiety, dissatisfaction, and burnout.
What can young athletes or parents or coaches of young athletes do to reduce some of the pressure?
One of the best steps an athlete can take to manage pressure and stress is to focus solely on the present moment. Goal setting and mindfulness techniques can be used to support athletes in doing so. Parents and coaches can limit the pressure they place on athletes by choosing their language carefully. Parents or coaches might inadvertently pressure an athlete and, in turn, hinder their performance by using results-oriented language (e.g., “go up there and get a hit,” “we need you to step up and score some goals today”). Ideally, parents or coaches should focus on the process (technique, effort) instead of the outcome. Post-competition discussion should remain positive unless an athlete asks a parent for specific feedback on their performance.
What does a "typical" patient look like, and how long is he or she in treatment? What is treatment like?
There is no “typical” patient or treatment course. Broadly speaking, patients who seek support at CUCARD experience symptoms of anxiety and other related issues, such as depression. Treatment targets these presenting symptoms, which may include sports performance anxiety.
A 13-year-old, Momiji Nishiya, won a gold medal at this year’s Olympics. What do you think about the message this sends to other young children in competitive sports?
I think that as with most things, there are both positive and negative takeaways here. Hopefully young children see Nishiya’s accomplishment as proof that hard work can produce results, regardless of age. I would find it concerning, however, if young athletes were inspired to achieve a similar level of perfection at such a young age.
Simone Biles left the gymnastics team competition saying she felt rattled mentally. How does this contribute to acknowledging the immense stress and pressure young athletes face?
Professional athletes are becoming increasingly vocal about the immense pressures they face to achieve sustained success. In doing so, athletes normalize the experience of performance anxiety, promote the recognition of personal limits, and contribute to the de-stigmatization of seeking support for their mental health.