Anxiety in Sports

Basketball rivals
Two female basketball players facing off on the court (Image: Image Source/Digital Vision/Getty Images)

Anxiety in sport is most common in competitive sports environments and could also be termed competitive stress. A lack of consensus makes it difficult to clearly define anxiety and stress in sport, but one definition, proposed by sport psychology consultant Dr. Graham Jones in the book “Sport Psychology: A Self-Help Guide,” is that it’s “the result of an interaction between the individual and the environment … an emotional response to the demands placed upon the individual by the environment.”

Stress

Not all competitive stress is bad, and not all competitive athletes suffer from anxiety. The stresses of competition can be perceived by a competitor as either positive or negative. Positive stress is considered to be an important element of an athlete’s preparation, heightening the senses and leading to a feeling of being "psyched up" both physically and mentally.

According to the Drive Theory, a physically skilled athlete can gain a psychological edge over competitors by harnessing the power of positive stress. Conversely, negative stress can promote feelings of self-doubt, directly affecting an athlete’s ability to cope with the regular stresses of a competitive environment, ultimately leading to a drop in performance.

Types

Anxiety has two main types:

State anxiety is transient and specific only to the particular situation an athlete finds herself in.

Trait anxiety is more general and enduring, suggesting a predisposition to anxiety in all areas of life, not just in sport.

Symptoms

Symptoms of anxiety are varied and 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 behavior, including inhibited posture, fingernail biting, avoidance of eye contact and uncharacteristic displays of introverted or extroverted behavior.

Causes

Competitive stress becomes negative, potentially leading to symptoms of anxiety, when an athlete perceives what is being asked of him to be beyond his capabilities. Anxiety is often linked to a fear of failure, and an athlete’s perception of his abilities may be based on a previous performance, his beliefs regarding the opposition or the perceived importance of the competition. His perception can also vary greatly from event to event, depending on his perceived state of physical and mental preparation in each case.

Effects

An athlete suffering symptoms of anxiety will inevitably underachieve. The physical and psychological effects experienced will have a negative impact on performance, and continued exposure can lead to burnout, often prompted by growing feelings of dissatisfaction, which can develop into a decision to leave sport completely. The results of a 2009 study published in the online sports psychology journal Athletic Insight highlight the correlation between competitive trait anxiety and burnout in young athletes.

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