Athletes are expected to be able to regulate their emotions, have a clear thought and focus, as well as to have their mind and body in harmony. However, to be able to accomplish this, a lot of practice and mental training is required to overcome negative stressors!
In this series of articles, we are going to identify some psychological demands that are commonly faced by athletes during high competition tournaments and games and otherwise across all sports. As a next step, we are going to discuss the application of sports psychology techniques that most closely align with meeting the demands of the problem and help the athletes in overcoming it and dealing better with pressure and stressful situations.
Follow PICS Process to overcome negative stressors
I – Impact
S – Solution (downloadable PDF)
Now, we have picked a psychological demand that is very commonly experienced by athletes at any stage of their sports careers, be it an amateur tennis player who is playing their first competitive match or an elite athlete performing in the Olympics!
A certain amount of performance anxiety associated with sports is thought to be acceptable and natural, but athletes who experience severe performance anxiety may have a negative impact on their performance. Competitive anxiety has also been correlated with the risk of sport injuries (Kellmann, 2010).
There is a wide range of symptoms and indicators that athletes with sport-related performance anxiety may display, from mild to debilitating.The signs and symptoms of performance anxiety might include cognitive, behavioural, and physiological manifestations, and they can surface before, during, or even after the event.
- Cognitive signs and symptoms can include recurrent negative thoughts, confusion and poor concentration, indecisiveness, irritability, lack of confidence, fear of failing, negative self-talk, escapism and avoiding participation.
- Somatic signs and symptoms include increased blood pressure, heart rate, fast breathing, sweating, dry mouth, muscular tension, blurred vision, vomiting.
- Behavioral signs and symptoms include biting fingernails, inhibited posture, repetitive movements, withdrawal, fidgeting, restlessness.
- “Choking’” is another common phenomenon experienced by athletes owing to high levels of performance anxiety. In the worst situations, some are unable to even compete at all.
Determining the Causes
Performance Anxiety does not have a single registered cause! It varies and looks different for different athletes. This is because each individual has a distinct optimal stress level. They have their own triggers. A situation that may overwhelm one, might not be that daunting for another. Some possible causes have been listed below. However, it is not limited to these!
An athlete’s scores or graph of performance sometimes reaches a stagnant stage where it has been consistently the same over a period of time, with no significant improvement, decline or gains. This is called a performance plateau! Often this leaves athletes with a sense of confusion, panic and feelings of frustration.
Athletes are more than often, carrying a bag loaded with expectations, from coaches, teammates, friends, family and others. Now, realistic expectations do serve as a catalyst for the athlete to perform to their full capabilities! However, just when these expectations skyrocket and become unrealistically high, it converts to pressure that leads to high levels of stress and impacts the athlete’s mental processes negatively as they are more focused on winning!
Performing in front of an audience
It is often observed that some athletes perform extremely well when in their natural form during training and practice sessions. However, on the day of the game or event, where there is a large audience or spectators, their performance declines significantly. An audience can either have an effect of increasing participant arousal levels and performance or for certain competitors, it can certainly arouse anxiety and tension.
Self-defeating thoughts are negative views and beliefs that an athlete might have about themselves. These especially hold back an athlete from realizing their maximum potential that results in self-doubt and low self-efficacy and eventually experiencing performance anxiety.
Motivation is an important aspect of mental preparedness and training. Many studies have shown the link between motivation and optimal levels of functioning. Low motivation leads to less competence and autonomy which can trigger anxiety related to one’s performance.
Fear of comparison with opponents/superior competitors
Athletes and people in general often form judgements about themselves through social comparison or evaluating oneself in relation to others. When athletes are compared unfavorably and bitterly, it can produce low self-esteem and induce intense pressure in athletes to prove their abilities and avoid embarrassment.
Yerkes-Dodson Law to overcome negative stressors
Optimal Arousal Theory of Motivation (The Yerkes-Dodson Law) explains how stress and anxiety can have an impact on performance. Simply put, it proposes that, your performance will certainly decrease if your arousal levels are on the extremes. To perform efficiently, you need to keep your stress levels within the optimal range. Let’s look an example:
- Low arousal: You have low motivation to put in your maximum efforts to win the game so you will end up performing poorly.
- Optimal arousal: You are playing with realistic expectations and pushing yourself while being aware of your limits to handle pressure and stress so you will perform wonderfully.
- High arousal: You are so nervous and tensed that you can barely focus on your techniques, and you feel like you will choke. Here, one might be experiencing performance anxiety and will perform poorly if they can’t cope with it.
Developing and applying a variety of psychological coping mechanisms and techniques can help athletes better manage anxiety. Athletes can always improve their ability to function better and evaluate their setbacks in more positive ways. Changing one’s perspective and transforming performance anxiety to something productive and positive can lead to optimal performance.
Coping Strategies to overcome negative stressors
There are numerous coping strategies and techniques that are used by sports psychologists to address psychological demands posed by athletes. However, the nature of these techniques also depends largely on the individual’s profile and its application can differ for each.