Welcome to part two of the three-part emotional game: Anxiety. In the last post about arousal, we looked at how arousal is a general term used to describe alertness and the emotional state while playing sports. In this blog post, we are going to dive into the realm of Anxiety which is often misunderstood and can actually impact sports performance more than we expect. Although arousal in it’s self is a natural state if we experience negative thoughts and feelings we are experiencing anxiety. This is a state of emotion where you will think unwanted thoughts, for example, we doubt our ability to cope with a specific thing in a sports enviroment, this is an example of state anxiety. This is different from trait anxiety as Spielberger (1996) explains in his book “Anxiety and Behavior”.
This type of anxiety is more like a personality “trait” those who become anxious about non-threatening situations shows high levels of trait anxiety, for example, someone who is worrying about how weather conditions affect an upcoming hockey match in two months time is showing a classic example of trait anxiety. Spielberger also explains that people who have high levels of trait anxiety are more likely to show higher levels of state anxiety than less ‘trait-anxious’ people.
When a sports athlete is feeling tense or short of breath (sub-optimal for performance) at the start of a match then you are likely to experience state anxiety. This is different from trait anxiety as its a tempory response to a situation which is seen as a threat by the brain. This can often change over time or quickly during sports competitions, for example, a football player may feel high levels of state anxiety before an important match but once things get going they will feel calmer and their levels of state anxiety will reduce. Further, this may drastically change if they step up to take a penalty to win the game.
As my goal from writing these blog posts is to help people reading it (players parent and coaches alike) to be able to directly impact their sports performance. The easiest way to do this is to look at the research behind an area of anxiety: Cognitive State Anxiety.
During a research project by Weinberg and Hunt (1976) they took two groups of students and using a questionnaire split them into two groups: 1. High trait-anxious 2. low trait-anxious. They asked them to throw tennis balls at a target and observed their accuracy. As an extra measure they attached electronic monitors to their muscles, as expected group 1 showed higher levels of state-anxiety but more interestingly their muscles were used more energy before-during-after each throw. This means that their muscles were tenser and using unwanted energy, which can be seen as the ‘reason’ that anxiety makes us perform worse due to unwanted muscle tension.
Reducing Cognitive State Anxiety [CSA]:
If so many athletes are having a physical negative effect on their performance from something as common as anxiety it is very important that players and coaches alike can impact it in a positive way. I have identified two different ways in which lower levels of state anxiety can be produced during high arousal situations. By making an equation it is easy to see the two many factors when looking at CSA:
Cognitive State Anxiety = Trait-Anxiety x State-Anxiety from the task.
If these are the two main traits it would be a great idea to reduce both of these making the CSA as low as possible reducing muscle tension and improving performance.
Intervention 1: Reducing overall trait-anxiety levels:
Lots of research has shown that those with high levels of trait-anxiety will produce higher levels of state-anxiety in situations of high arousal. If you were able to reduce the level of trait-anxiety in athletes the levels of tension on the muscles will simply not be as multiplied. Trait-anxiety can be reduced by looking into things you are able to directly control and those you are not. For example, if a player is able to accept that they can not affect the weather they will eventually not be affected by its negative emotional effect on their performance. Coaches should really try to talk with these players often and see how they can help them discuss things that are on their mind, almost always speaking about something will instantly reduce the trait-anxiety someone is experiencing.
Intervention 2: Make high arousal situations more “normal”.
This is actually quite obvious and I see it in many different sports. Want to be less anxious when kicking penalties in matches? Practice more penalties during training! Although in essence, the idea is simple it is actually very difficult to create a competition enviroment during a training session. All training sessions should have competitive elements whether that is for a prize or something else to keep the competitive element alive. For example, during practice games in hockey trainings in the Netherlands we often take a photo of the winning team so they can have their photo posted on social media, this gives them a great sense of pride and it makes the players work a lot harder as they really want to win, thus creating higher levels of trait-anxiety, and in turn making it more normal to be competitive. For very specific things such as penalties, these can be harder to produce a high level of trait anxiety but if you practice them and treat them as serious as a competitive match you can still train the athletes to see these high arousal moments as more ‘normal’ which really helps reduce levels of CSA.
To conclude Anxiety is a negative emotional state which affects muscle tension and cognitive ability. By reducing, trait and state anxiety athletes can perform high arousal tasks with better muscle control thus perform better. Coaches should work with players to reduce levels of anxiety in order to obtain a higher level of performance from their athletes.
Spielberger, C.D. (1996), Anxiety and Behaviour. New York: Academic Press.
Weinberg, R.S. and Hunt, U.V. (1976) The relationship between anxiety, motor performance and electromyography. Journal of Motor Behaviour. 8, 219-224.