Dominique Barry is a climber—at least, that’s how people perceive him after participating in HBO’s reality show The Climb. As his life became consumed by the sport, he felt pressure to perform—maybe from people’s expectations of him or maybe just his own expectations of himself. Either way, he was hard on himself when he was climbing. He started dreading going to the gym at busy hours and he preferred to keep to himself. “I was completely losing my footing on why I love doing it in the first place, which was to explore my body movement, go places, and meet new people,” he says.
Barry’s experience is not unique: Many people feel pressure to keep up the pace on a group run or show off their skills on the basketball court. Even as hobbies, sports have a sneaky way of intertwining with our identities until we can’t imagine ourselves without them. Being a runner, cyclist, or other athlete comes with a checklist of actions, apparel, and even personality traits that you’re supposed to embody. So when that sport stops bringing you joy? It can feel like you don’t know yourself anymore.
Even though exercise has been proven to ease anxiety, it can sometimes become a source of it instead. “Whenever any individual is training for something hard that they’re passionate about or that they have a goal towards achieving, there’s an element of anxiety that pops up,” says former pro athlete and sports psychologist Lennie Waite, PhD. This anxiety can persist long after said race or competition and creeps into normal training sessions or easy runs. “If you continue to do an activity that makes you miserable and you’re constantly anxious because you think you’re supposed to enjoy it and you don’t, you will experience burnout,” says Waite. “Many athletes end up feeling lost and confused,” says Tony Kemmochi, PsyD, a clinical sports psychologist at Intermountain Healthcare, “saying things like: Why am I doing this? I’m not happy anymore.”
Sports anxiety isn’t always so obvious because it manifests differently across people. Often, especially before an event or game, you may experience rapid heartbeat, heightened breathing, or a stomachache—“typical fight or flight responses,” says Kemmochi. But it can also present as social isolation, controlled eating, avoidant tendencies, or excessive past- or future-oriented thinking, he notes. Does some of this sound a bit too familiar? Here are a few tips for easing it:
It’s natural to experience changes like a loss of motivation or passion, but how we react to it matters. “Be curious about what’s happening to your passion and love,” says Kemmochi. Instead of thinking of it as a problem, we should “accept what’s happening, learn from it, and figure out what we want to do about it,” he explains. Acceptance is key to working with your anxiety instead of fighting against it, which “is the same as telling somebody hanging onto a floatation device to let go of it. They don’t want to do it,” says Kemmochi.
First, he recommends digging into the reason behind your anxiety by asking yourself what you’re really feeling. If you’re feeling scared for a big race, that might mean that you care a lot—it’s a reflection of your passion. This knowledge can help you carve a path forward, whether that’s working on your mindset, taking a step back from the sport, or seeking professional help.
Remember your initial joy and purpose
When Barry was anxious about climbing, he noticed his motivation had started to shift from passion to the need to prove his worth to others. So he thought back to what led him to the sport in the first place—the joy of the movement and making the community more welcoming as a Black man in a predominately white sport. “Remember why you do it, to begin with, and hold that near and dear,” he recommends.
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