Catching Anxiety


“Watch coaches during the warm-ups,” a fellow coach and mentor advised me early in my coaching career. I didn’t quite understand his point. Did he want me to see what different athletes did for their warm-up drills so that I could copy them? When I asked for further clarification, he replied, “Watch the mannerisms of the coach. What are they doing? That will tell you how the athletes are going to do.”

Still not entirely clear on what I was looking for, I committed to observing other coaches. Some stood quietly watching their pupils and occasionally chiming in. Others paced frantically back and forth, while another group seemed to be over-coaching, correcting the smallest of details of their athletes’ warm-up drills. A few coaches appeared to be nervous wrecks, seemingly looking for reassurance from the athlete they were supposed to be helping. The expressions and emotions ran the gamut.

The surprising part wasn’t the myriad of coaching styles, it was that the athletes seemed to follow suit. The coaches emotions seemed like they rubbed off on the athlete. Could something as simple as a coaches’ mannerisms really impact the performance of an athlete?

According to the latest research, yes. Good (or bad) vibes can spread like a virus. Researchers have discovered that emotions are contagious. If a boss or coach is pacing around like a nervous wreck, it’s likely that the athlete or subordinate will catch at least a  bit of that anxiety.

If you are someone in charge — be it a boss or coach — then how you act and what you say before your colleague or teammate enters the arena can turn the tide. You can either instill confidence or stoke their inner fear and anxiety. It might sound silly, but taking time to work on how you carry yourself before such situations, and how to get across the message you want, is of the utmost importance. It doesn’t mean you have to be stoic. But it does me to be aware of the message you are sending.

In my own coaching, I value the last part of the athletes’ warm-ups, as they are waiting to walk out to the starting line. As I walk up to the athlete, knowing I have a moment to provide one more piece of advice, I do my best to observe the athlete and figure out where their head space is at. It’s then my job to deliver the message, both verbally and non-verbally, that gets them in a space to compete to the best of their abilities. Sometimes that means being completely vulnerable, telling them that I’ve been nervous when I was in their shoes, or that it’s perfectly normal to feel that way. Other times, I’ll try to lighten the mood and act silly. With one athlete, he requested that I be tough and use a few choice words. This is a position that was out of my comfort zone, but that the athlete required.

Regardless of if you are in a leadership position, a colleague, or even just a friend or family member, humans are adept at picking up the emotional tone of those around us. It’s why when we enter the arena of competition, it’s important to remember what message we are sending to those teammates or colleagues that we want to perform at their best.

— Steve

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