Competitive Anxiety and How to Control It

Competitive anxiety is something that nearly every athlete faces some time in his or her career.   When the demands of training or competition exceed an athlete's perceived ability, their stress level elevates.  Anxiety is the inevitable outcome.

Psychologists generally differentiate between two types:

  • Trait anxiety relates to an aspect of personality in which nervousness is a stable personality trait in an individual.
  • State anxiety on the other hand refers to temporary feelings of anxiety in a particular situation. 

Therefore, a person with an anxious personality may find many different everyday tasks stressful compared to someone who only gets nervous in extreme situations.

Symptoms of Competitive Anxiety

Symptoms of competitive anxiety are individual to each athlete, but they can generally be recognized on three levels:

  • Cognitive symptoms relate to thought processes, including fear, indecision, poor concentration, loss of confidence, and defeatist self-talk.
  • Somatic (physical) symptoms include muscular tension, clammy hands and feet, increased heart rate, sweating, and butterflies in the stomach.
  • Behavioral symptoms relate to patterns of observable activities, including inhibited posture, fingernail biting, avoidance of eye contact, and uncharacteristic displays of introversion or extroversion.

The Causes

According to Kremer and Moran (2008), one reason athletes become stressed may be the pressure of being observed. Spectators of any sport are constantly evaluating the skills of the athletes they are watching. This can be extremely upsetting to athletes who are not trained to deal with this pressure. Fear of performing poorly can add more stress.

Competitive anxiety is often linked to the fear of failure, and an athlete's perception of his or her abilities may be based on a previous performance, or beliefs regarding the opposition or the perceived importance of the competition.  The athlete’s perception can also vary greatly from event to event, depending on his or her perceived state of physical and mental preparation in each case. 

The more important the contest the greater the stress, and the more likely it is that a competitor will be prone to anxiety. Participants in individual sports tend to suffer more greatly before, during, and after competition than participants in team sports. This is related to greater the sense of isolation and exposure as compared to the relative anonymity of athletes in team sports.

Arousal and Performance

Anxiety is a negative emotional state which involves feelings of nervousness, worry, and apprehension. Anxiety is associated with the level of activation or arousal of the body.

Arousal is a general physiological and psychological activation, varying on a continuum from deep sleep to intense excitement. The athlete’s level of arousal is related to competitive performance.  To achieve an optimal level of performance, the athlete may need to manage his or her anxiety level. 

The Inverted U Hypothesis (Yerkes Dodson Law) suggests that as arousal increases, there is some optimal level of performance but then performance gradually drops when too much arousal exists.

The optimal level of performance is the zone between mild alertness and stress in competition.  This area is also called the Zone of Optimal Functioning. Sport psychologists and coaches can help athletes perform within this zone by selecting appropriate techniques for managing anxiety.

Managing Stress and Anxiety

For a lot of athletes anxiety can be very unpleasant. Creating positive expectations of success will help you become more confident and likely to perform close to your best.  

The trick for each athlete to become sufficiently “psyched-up” without becoming “psyched-out”.  Sport psychologists teach many techniques to control competitive anxiety. The following are examples:

  • Labeling involves getting the athlete to identify thoughts and feelings. Through labeling the athlete can learn to associate those former negative thoughts and feelings with a successful outcome. For example, a cyclist can learn to recognize his/her increased heart rate as a positive indication that they are well prepared for competition.
  • Thought stopping. When you experience a negative or unwanted thought (cognitive anxiety) such as “I just don’t want to be here today” or “She beat me by five meters last time out”, picture a large red stop sign briefly, and then allow it to fade away along with the negative thought. Finally, follow with positive self talk such as “I am going to hit it hard right from the beginning!”.   The technique can help to create a sharp refocus of attention, keeping you focused on the next task.
  • Letting go. Lie down where you are unlikely to be disturbed.  Close your eyes and and pay attention to each part of your body progressively, tensing the muscles for a few seconds before relaxing them.  Repeat the process as many times as you need to. Once you have covered each body part, tense the entire body, hold for five second,and then let go. You will feel relaxed and in control of your emotions.

Learn more in this book, Competitive Anxiety in Sports, an excellent resource on this topic.

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