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Posted 02/01/2021 in Category 1

Athletes! Are you worrying or problem solving?

Athletes! Are you worrying or problem solving?

We all worry. As athletes, we might worry about our performances, our contracts, our coaches, our relationship, our equipment, our travel and so on. The list of worries is endless. And because our list of worries is endless, many athletes feel that worrying justifies itself to make sure they are keeping on top of things. Stories we read in the newspaper or hear on podcasts seem to say that we are always working to improve, to be our best – as if there is no time to relax, recover and rest for the next day’s training or competition. But that notion and these stories are unfortunate because they do not explain the context for each athlete. Elite long-distance runners are not training all day. The may train twice a day with all the rest of the time spend in recovery. So let’s explore whether we are worrying or solving our problems.

Worry is a chain of negative and controllable thoughts (Borkovec, Robinson, Pruzinsky, & DePree, 1983). All people worry, and it’s normal for all athletes to worry. But worry does not help us solve the problems we face, and our worrying might lead to a generalised anxiety disorder. So why do we worry? We might worry to avoid dealing with our feelings, or because we cannot solve our problems, or because we cannot tolerate uncertainly. But what if there are some positive beliefs about worry? Some people believe that worry helps us to cope and if that is true, if we keep worrying, we keep coping. This strategy seems plausible because we control the worrying process and if we control the worrying process, then perhaps our motivation to solve our problems emerges through worrying. 

Sports fill us with uncertainty through training and competition. With so much uncertainty (e.g., how will I perform? Will I get injured? Will I win?), it’s inevitable that we will worry and because we are used to worrying, it appears we solve our problems by worrying. When we cannot tolerate uncertainty, we hold negative cognitive, emotional and behavioural reactions to this uncertainty. We feel distressed in these uncertain times; we can’t think clearly, and we try to avoid such situations. Researchers have not found a correlation between positive beliefs about worrying and generalised anxiety disorder.

When we dig a little deeper, we see people might lack confidence in their ability to solve problems or hold a general low self-esteem. They may also consider it is so effortful to continue thinking about the problem. When people worry, they are doing something but also doing something like thinking inflexibly. Those high in worrying (i.e., high worriers) feel responsible to think through problems and catastrophize (i.e., imagining the worst possible outcome) especially when in a negative mood. 

The challenge here is to realise that while worrying might feel like it is helping you, it is often just giving you something to do. We might feel like we are moving forward but usually we remain just where we are now. To move forward, we need to go through a problem-solving process. You can do this process on your own or with the help of a sport psychologist.


Borkovec, T. D., Robinson, E., Pruzinsky, T., & DePree, J. A. (1983). Preliminary exploration of worry: Some characteristics and processes. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 21, 9–16.

Sugiura, Y. (2007). Responsibility to continue thinking and worrying: Evidence of incremental validity. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 45(7), 1619–1628. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brat.2006.08.001

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