Can you catch anxiety?


Just reading that word will cause many of you to yawn. In fact, the more I mention the word “yawn”, the more likely you are to carry out a yawn. Are you yawning yet?

How about if you watch this video? 70% of people who view that video will yawn at least once, and, in some cases, up to 15 times. Just by watching someone else yawn, you are six times more likely to yawn yourself.

The reasons for this are somewhat poorly understood, but it appears likely to be due to social mirroring, where we imitate the actions of others, with some research suggesting that increased levels of empathy enhance yawn contagion, although this is still being argued over in scientific circles. Social mirroring extends beyond yawning, and has an important impact in the world of coaching and sport.

The roots of social mirroring

When we look at where social mirroring comes from, it has a number of potentially important evolutionary mechanisms. On the plain in Africa, I might not spot a dangerous animal approaching my group, but if I’m able to spot and interpret the reactions of others, I might be able to avoid becoming lunch. In this case, it is advantageous for my feelings to be influenced by cues—verbal or non-verbal—from other humans around me. Additionally, imitation has the potential to enhance social bonds, and so if I am influenced—consciously or unconsciously—by those around me, and I mimic their behavior, my chances of being accepted into a group, or rising up the group hierarchy, are increased.

Mirroring of yawning in humans is unlikely to affect performance, but the same is not true of other feelings and emotions. From a performance context, an important consideration is that of anxiety. Evolutionary, it makes sense that, if others around me are acting anxious, I can cotton on to that feeling. If they’re anxious, they’ve probably spotted something I haven’t, and by picking up on their cues, such as stiff movement or vision focused on a particular spot, I can save myself from the danger they’ve spotted. This behavior would obviously be selected for in an evolutionary sense—if you can’t spot the danger, you die and can’t pass on your genes—which is one of the reasons why humans have evolved to be a very social animal.

Coaching and anxiety

Now let’s approach this from a coaching perspective. It’s competition day, with a big race for your athlete. They’re more anxious than usual, which is to be expected; athletes want to perform well, as their performance has the potential to alter the trajectory of their life. They’re already on high alert, and being anxious potentially increases our receptiveness to cues from other people. If the coach is also anxious—and there is no reason why they wouldn’t be—then there is a good chance that the athlete will pick up on this; in turn, this can increase their anxiety, and become performance limiting. Although, to my knowledge, not examined in athletes, there is some evidence that anxiety can be “caught” in other situations. In one study, parents of terminally ill children, a terrible situation to be in, reported an increase in long term anxiety and psychological illness if their child was more anxious. In a study exploring depression, college students randomly assigned to a roommate were more likely to develop depression if their roommate was more vulnerable to depression than average.

So what does all of this mean for the coach? Your body language, as well as the words you use, have the potential to affect your athlete directly. If you appear anxious, either through your posture or choice of words, then there is a good chance your athlete will pick up on these signals, and become anxious themselves. This means that you need to control your own anxiety, and do so effectively.

Whilst we typically discuss emotional control strategies in the context of the athlete, it is important to include the coach in this. There are a number of different strategies available—a discussion of which is perhaps beyond the scope of this article—but, if you feel you’re susceptible to competition anxiety, it is likely worthwhile working with a sports psychologist. It’s perfectly fine to be nervous, but you don’t want this to affect your athlete.

Practical tips for anxious coaches

Simply being aware of your anxiety can be a crucial first step for coaches. In my experience, anxious coaches tend to start to over-coach in the warm-up area, passing their anxiety on to their athletes. Don’t do this; have a warm-up plan set and agreed upon with the athlete before the competition, and stick to it as much as possible. In the hour immediately before a race, your work is essentially done; you can’t exert any training adaptations during this period, so adding more repetitions because you’re nervous will not positively affect performance.

Through my time with various personal and relay coaches, I’ve had coaches who appeared to enjoy the competition environment, and those who were clearly anxious. In the latter case, this became obvious quite quickly, with other athletes even picking up on this. From my perspective, this is a horrible situation to be in, because it meant I had to manage not just my own feelings, but also those of the coach, increasing my workload at a time when I wanted to just focus on myself.

Another examples comes from the book The Talent Lab: The secret to finding, creating and sustaining success. In it, Owen Slot looks at many sports including British Swimming, who, after London 2012, were in a relative sporting doldrums. Analysis by the new performance director, Chris Spice, showed that, at London, only 20% of British swimmers achieved a season’s best performance. This was against rates of around 60% from other strong swimming nations. In his analysis, Spice observed coaching behavior, deciding that, around competition, the coaches were unable to control their anxiety, and hence were over coaching their athletes in the warm-up area. By focusing on their “arena skills”—their ability to hold it together on race day—Spice worked with the coaches to improve this limitation, leading to a significantly improved performance at the Rio Olympic Games.

Sports psychology for coaches

If you, as a coach, are anxious, your athletes will pick up on this. This is likely to negatively affect their performance; they might be asking themselves whether you are anxious because you don’t think they’re well enough prepared, or good enough to win. Instead, focus on having anxiety management strategies in place to deal with your own feelings, and, after competitions, reflect on whether your behavior was performance limiting to the athlete. It’s perfectly acceptable to be anxious and nervous around competition; what is not acceptable is passing this on to the athlete. Sports psychology is no longer just something for athletes to focus on, coaches need to look at themselves in the mirror too.