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Anxiety in Sport

Anxiety in sport has been an interest in the research world for many years especially among high school and college age athletes.  Increasing levels of competition have created an environment were athletes are constantly searching for an advantage on the playing field.   Experts suggests that optimal levels of mental and physical arousal are required to maximize athletic performance.  The question posed is how well do we understand the mental aspects of athletic performance, specifically anxiety and mental focus. Understanding the practical application of mental focus and the athlete’s state of anxiety may give coaches a better appreciation for the management of their athletes.

An article published by Stuart J.H. Biddle in The National Strength and Conditioning Association’s Journal March 1983 presented his work Anxiety and Weightlifting: A Preliminary Analysis of Anxiety Patterns and Coaching Perceptions.  Biddle focused on anxiety, particularly associated with sport competition. He outlined two basic types of anxiety; trait anxiety and state anxiety. He defined trait anxiety as a relatively stable aspect of personality and state anxiety as a situational or transitory phenomenon, basically the anxiety you feel at a particular moment [2].  Biddle goes on to outline several researchers whose contributions to the subject have yielded multiple tests offering objective analysis on anxiety and sport.  Spielberg and colleagues, authors of Manual for The State Trait Anxiety Inventory, hypothesized that individuals with high trait anxiety perceive more situations as threatening and react with higher levels of state anxiety than those who are low in trait anxiety.  Based on this hypothesis Martens developed the competitive trait anxiety concept, offering a practical tool in determining an athlete’s predisposition towards anxiety in competitive sports. Martin published his work in 1977 as the Sport Competition Anxiety Test (SCAT).  Biddle discusses Martin’s work Joy and Sadness in Children’s Sports (1978) where he identifies two main factors relevant to this study, the uncertainty of competition and one’s perception of the importance of that contest.  In order to fully understand this concept, he designed his study to facilitate the understanding of anxiety and attempted recognizing individual differences in trait anxiety. He aimed to investigate various measures of anxiety in small groups of elite junior weightlifters along with the assessments of their coaches.   He posed five basic questions: (1) What individual differences and anxiety are shown in terms of both trait anxiety and competitive trait anxiety and is there any relationship between the two? (2)  Are there any anxiety patterns leading up to an important contest as shown on an anxiety profile? (3) Are there any differences and anxiety measures between the schoolboy and junior lifters? (4) Can coaches accurately predict the individual differences and anxiety that exist between their lifters? (5) What associations are there between different anxiety measures? Biddle utilized questionnaires to address these questions. He administered three questionnaires to 10 elite male schoolboys and Junior Olympic style weightlifters.   He first administered the State Trait Anxiety Inventory (STSI) developed by Spielberg and colleagues in 1970 to gauge an athlete’s propensity for anxiety in competition. The STAI consists of 20 questions which produces a score ranging from 20-80 with the mean score of 39.37 for high school age males and 38.07 for college freshman.  The second questionnaire was the Sport Competition Anxiety Test (SCAT).  Biddle administered 10 of the 15 tests within the SCAT with scoring possibilities ranging from 10 to 30 with 30 showing very high competitive trait anxiety. The mean score for the 15 to 17-year-old males was 20.03 and for college-age males was 19.74.   the final questionnaire titled “Weightlifting Questionnaire” was developed specifically for this study.  It aimed to investigate anxiety as well as other areas not discussed in this study. Lifters were asked to rate their usual anxiety at each of the 13 competition related situations on a scale from 0 to 10.  Rationale for this was that specific aspects of the way lifting competitions dictate anxiety levels for the athlete.  The final element analyzed in this study was the perception of the coaches.  Coaches were administered three questionnaires and asked to rank their lifters in order of anxiety from high to low. Data analysis revealed that the group as a whole had a steady increase in anxiety levels leading up to competition.  Anxiety seemed to peak with all lifters as they approached the competitive platform for their first snatch. Mean profile score across the study was p = 0.05. It is important to note that even though the lifters in this study were asked to rate the two lifts as better or worse. No differences were found between anxiety levels of the first match and their perceived worse lift. It seems to show that regardless of the lifters perception of the difficulty level of the respective lift they still had a higher anxiety level on their first lift.   Another important note in the discussion of this study was that the coaches reported a lack of clear understanding of the word “anxiety” and that the Martens and Simon study which spelled out components of anxiety failed to achieve significant associations.  It seems that coaches were either unable to accurately assess anxiety or they simply did not know the athletes well enough.

Further analysis of the subject was published five years later by Hatfield and Walford in the 1978 National Strength and Conditioning Association Journal article titled Understand Anxiety: Implications For Sport Performance.  The authors reported that nearly 80% of intercollegiate football players were troubled by this emotion and expressed concern about its effects on their skill execution.  Anxiety became such an issue that dealing with it oftentimes leads to a early withdrawal from sports as a whole and that young athletes would no longer play the gameHatfield and Walford reported excessive fear can decrease muscular coordination and distract an athlete’s concentration with thoughts of self-doubt [3].  Similar tests were used in this study to analyze athlete’s levels of anxiety. An important factor for coaches to know is that trait anxiety is somewhat event-specific.  In other words, an athlete could have no problem competing in front of a large audience yet when asked to speak in front of a few individuals has a great deal of anxiety.  Why this is important for coaches to understand is because labeling an athlete with anxiety may prove inaccurate considering trait anxiety is so event-specific that they may simply never have a situation on the playing field where it becomes a problem. Direct observation techniques, which involve carefully watching athletes’ pregame mannerisms, successfully concluded that the coaches must assess the individual differences in each athlete’s symptoms because they can vary considerably.  It was also noted that coaches are quite often unaware of the emotional levels of their athletes prior to competition.   It was noted that the athletes physical status may be determined by the amount of sleep experience prior to competition, the the time of competition, and the amount of caffeine ingested prior to competition.  Hatfield and Walford then go on to talk about an aroused athlete, describing him as “psyched-up.”  Then noting an anxious athlete as one who experiences a personal threat such as an ego threat or having a fear of physical harm [3].  They suggest coaches should be considerate of the personality structure experience and the nature of athletic events when determining optimal pregame arousal levels for his athletes [3]. One example noted was that coaches can deal with the situation by stressing the relevant cues to the athlete upon which to concentrate.  Simply giving an athlete a distraction, or a word that stimulates thought on another subject may prove advantageous.  Or, instead of scolding an athlete for a mistake, redirect his energy towards what he did wrong and how he could affect it in the future.   Hatfield and Walford suggest that maximum levels of performance may be achieved at an optimal level of mental and physical arousal [3].  Identifying the appropriate levels of arousal may prove the future of performance coaching.

In a letter published in The Iranian Journal of Public health 2015 authors noted quality of sleep affects the level of anxiety and performance in football athletes.  They discussed anxiety as a negative emotion and its effect on the perception of athletes before competition resulted in decreased performance [1].  If we consider some of the trends noted in previous publications with regards to the physiological implications of anxiety, we can see that sleep quality of an athlete greatly affects the physiological conditions which indirectly affects their performance.  The authors suggest that a high intake of vitamin C has a strong correlation with the decrease of anxiety levels in athletes. They reported that athletes who take 1000 mg per day a vitamin C for six weeks had a lower level of anxiety than in patients who received a capsule of vitamin D 400 IU/ day.  They also reported high depression scores are the best predictor for someone who has poor sleep quality [1].

Performance coaching has developed over recent years and studies like these have given us tremendous insight into the mind and bodies of our athletes.  Understanding our athletes through various psychological assessments have and will continue to serve as an invaluable tool for employing our athletes according to their capabilities.  Offering both a mental and physical analysis, we can better answer the question “do we understand the mental aspects of athletic performance, specifically anxiety and mental focus?”  I believe we do.

[1] Afriani, Y., Puspaningtyas, D. E., Mahfida, S. L., Kushartanti, W., & Farmawati 1023 (2015). Quality of Sleep Affects the Level of Anxiety and Performance of Football Athletes. Iranian journal of public health, 44(7), 1023.

[2] Biddle, S. J. (1983). Anxiety and Weightlifting: A Preliminary Analysis Of Anxiety Patterns and Coach Perceptions. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 5(1), 40-42.

[3] Hatfield, B. D., & Walford, G. A. (1987). PSYCHOLOGICAL IMPLICATIONS: Understanding anxiety: implications for sport performance. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 9(2), 58-65.