Every athlete experiences various levels of anxiety; it can be a blessing or a curse, depending on your relationship with it.
Anxiety does not begin being good or bad to the athlete, it is simply a normal reaction to a stressful experience. In sports training or competition the stress response can be triggered from a variety of stressors. These stressors can include, learning a new skill, having to keep going when the body is exhausted, facing a challenging competitive situation, audience interruptions, or taking a fall during a performance. When stress is triggered, the body responds by activating the sympathetic nervous system, known as the flight or fight mechanism, where muscular tension increases, heart rate elevates, and adrenaline is released into the system. Bodily feelings of anxiousness can develop, coupled with the athlete’s beliefs and thoughts about the stress. This combination can cause the athlete to either push through, expanding the body-mind connection, and build confidence, or succumb to the rising anxiety, doubt their abilities, lose their focus, and perform poorly.
Optimal Anxiety! Fire UP!
There is an optimal stress response, or arousal level, that the athlete can use to propel them forward in a positive way, this is known as facilitative anxiety. When he or she goes beyond that range, it can turn into debilitating anxiety. Learning where that range is for athletes is unique to them. The athlete’s perception is a key to which direction they will turn. For example, when an athlete believes they will perform well, even in poor weather conditions, they are more likely to push through the challenges that present themselves. They are self-confident, and maintain a positive attitude during the stressful time. If the athlete believes they always perform poorly when the weather changes, they will interpret the body’s stress response as evidence that they are losing their ability, everything will seem more difficult, and their performance will decline. This type of decline has been referred to as a catastrophe model of anxiety. During this anxiety reaction, performance declines due to the rising physiological responses of increased heart rate, muscle tension, and increased worry (Karageorghis & Terry, 2011).
The first step to successfully managing sports anxiety is for the athlete, and his or her coach, to assess and recognize how anxiety is triggered and experienced, mentally, emotionally, and physically. Utilizing self-assessment tools such as, the ‘Mental Preparation Profile,’ and the ‘Sports Competition Anxiety Test,’ offers a jump-start for the athlete to learn where they are currently. This type of self-awareness empowers the athlete to develop positive strategies in response to their stress. From the information gathered, the coach can customize stress management strategies, teaching the athlete anxiety relieving skills like, progressive muscle relaxation, breathing techniques, thought stopping, positive thinking, and self-hypnosis (Karageorghis & Terry, 2011).
Whenever I work with an athlete, one of the first things I do is find out how they are experiencing their own stress, what triggers it, what relieves it, what they think about it, and when it started to turn into ‘bad’ stress. We use a 0 – 10 scale, and have them rate the charge on the anxiety, the emotion, or the thought, and where they feel it in their body. This helps them gain a frame of reference of the various levels of anxiety, where they hold it in their body, and what thoughts go a long with it. We then determine the optimal level of arousal and how they can recognize this. Using this level of anxiety to propel them forward is the goal! I also teach heart rate variability management, a long with breath work, and have them create personal code words that signal their positive thoughts, and healthy range of arousal. Often times, athletes are able to remember many times when their anxiety was facilitative. We go through those memories over and over, to activate with in them, the felt sense of success with their anxiety management. When we discuss the timing of when their anxiety starting moving into catastrophic anxiety, it is often following an injury, or an emotionally traumatizing experience in competition, or with a coach. Experiences of humiliation and shame are just as powerful of an internal injury, as a torn tendon or broken bone.
In these cases, I will utilize EMDR Therapy to process the inefficiently stored information in their brain and nervous system, surrounding the injury or negative traumatic experience. Once fully processed, the old information does not trigger a negative stress response, and new, more positive beliefs are generated, which restores confidence. Utilizing a method called Brainspotting is another useful tool to help athletes come out of their slump, and restore their performance. Dr. David Grand wrote an excellent book describing this is called, “This is Your Brain on Sports.” Dr. Grand outlines what athletes go through and how they can recover. In learning to recognize and manage sports performance anxiety, an athlete should develop additional skills such as self-hypnosis, guided imagery, and strategic visualization.
More and more teams are adding mental skills training experts to their roster; as well as many Coaches are obtaining additional training. The more we learn in the fields of neuroscience and sports psychology, the more we recognize the importance of seeing the athlete as a whole person, developing their physical, mental, and emotional skills to enhance performance on and off the field.
Karageorghis, C. I., & Terry, P. C. (2011). Inside sport psychology. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, Inc.
Roberts, G. C., & Treasure, D. C. (Eds.). (2012). Advances in motivation in sport and exercise (3rd ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, Inc.
– Sara Gilman, MFT