We all experience stress to a certain degree, especially in some situations that require special attention and whenever our performance is on trial. Therefore, stress and anxiety in the sporting field are quite common, and it’s not only a matter of the psychologic response of athletes to competition. Sometimes even their coaches and parents contribute to this feeling. Fear of failure and athlete burnout syndrome are linked to each other in experienced and junior athletes. What they have in common is a highly competitive environment that includes their peers, parents, the relevance of a given event, among others.
But should we worry about it? Since stress actually encourages you to move forward, people think it’s a natural part of the experience on the field and a good thing. However, as you will see in this article, what you need to have is a balanced view of stress and control performance anxiety.
Some hidden facts about psychology and sports performance
Many coaches, parents, and even athletes tend to think that if you want to be the number one in a given sport, all you need to do is practice. Increasing your fitness levels, endurance and strength plays a significant role in sports performance. But they are not only the result of biomechanical (the athlete’s technique) and physiological factors (levels of fitness). Athlete’s psyche plays a pivotal role as well.
Stress plays its part by pushing athletes to optimise their game, but this episodic stress may become overwhelming affecting our play and becoming chronic stress when not properly handled. This is properly explained by the stress response curve, a stress vs. performance graph showing how good stress increases performance levels. In this curve, there’s an area called comfort zone, where we can handle stress with no problems.
When stress levels go beyond this comfort zone, perceived stress starts to become overwhelming until we reach our fatigue point. After reaching our fatigue point, good stress becomes bad stress and performance starts to drop. The whole idea of maintaining a balance between stress and performance is pushing ourselves out of the comfort zone without reaching or surpassing the fatigue point. While this may seem difficult to do, it’s something athletes need to test and train before an important sporting event.
The difference between stress and anxiety
Stress is a physical, emotional or mental demand that either comes from the environment or the individual itself. It can be either good or bad depending on the factors we have already described above.
Even if it’s closely related to it, anxiety is not the same thing as stress. It’s an unpleasant state of nervousness or arousal in front of what is perceived as a challenge or a dangerous situation. To make a clear contrast, stress is a physical and emotional demand appearing during training sessions and sporting events. Anxiety is more common in competitive situations when athletes are concerned or keep in mind the possibility of failing to achieve their goal. It plays an essential part by helping athletes focus on what they perceive as a challenge in a competitive event.
Anxiety is an integral part of competitive sports, and managing this state of mind can become the dividing line between success and failure. When anxiety is out of control, it would strike our nervous system continually with tension and nervousness and won’t let players concentrate on their match. He won’t be able to solve problems and make quick decisions, and his ability to judge situations will become impaired. Moreover, after perceiving that he’s not making the right decisions, it will become a vicious cycle that results in losing control of the situation.
|Definition||Physical, emotional or mental demand||Unpleasant state of mind|
|Pros||Drives our efforts to obtain results in sporting events and life||Help athletes focus on what they perceive as a challenge|
|Cons||Performance drops above the point of fatigue||Nervousness and negative thinking that impairs performance|
Recommendations to improve your levels of stress and anxiety
Athletes who have experienced uncontrolled anxiety during a sporting event would agree it is not an easy thing to overcome. However, there are a few techniques to prevent and treat performance anxiety before and during a match:
- Breathing and relaxation techniques: We should practice relaxation techniques before sporting events. Anxiety increases our blood pressure and heart rate, but closing your eyes and breathing can make your body go back to normal. After closing your eyes, you can practice on increasing awareness about your own body and the air you breathe. Leave all performance-related thoughts behind and breathe deeply using your diaphragm. In time, you will feel your body tension normalise.
- Visualisation techniques: These are useful for athletes who need to regain their sense of reality. Athletes who feel an overwhelming sense of impotence may improve their stress and anxiety levels by visualising themselves, their opponents and the game. It’s usually done as a guided meditation technique, and athletes are asked to close their eyes and start visualising different part of their bodies, the different stages of preparation to the match, the sporting event ahead of them, and their upcoming victory. Similarly, they are guided to visualise their opponents playing and moving in front of him. While doing that, he should repeat to himself that he’s able to overcome challenges and beat his opponent’s moves.
- Focus on what you can control: Different from the previous techniques used as a preparation to prevent performance anxiety, maintaining a positive frame of mind and focusing on what you can control is something you can do anytime. Do not focus on your audience; do not focus on how good your opponent is. This type of thinking will only harm your self-confidence and will impair your performance. Instead, focus on what you can do, what you have practised, and how to apply it during the match.
Stress and anxiety are common in rookies and experienced players, and should not be neglected. According to the International Society of Sports Psychology, maintaining proper mental health is equally important than physical fitness if you want to succeed, and you can train your weakness traits such as low frustration tolerance and low self-control, which often contributes to stress and anxiety during a sporting event.
Gustafsson, H., Sagar, S. S., & Stenling, A. (2017). Fear of failure, psychological stress, and burnout among adolescent athletes competing in high level sport. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports, 27(12), 2091-2102.
Schinke, R. J., Stambulova, N. B., Si, G., & Moore, Z. (2018). International society of sport psychology position stand: Athletes’ mental health, performance, and development. International journal of sport and exercise psychology, 16(6), 622-639.
Bali, A. (2015). Psychological factors affecting sports performance. International Journal of Physical Education, Sports and Health, 1(6), 92-95.