The following article will identify the similarities between anxiety and excitement, the ‘nerves’ that arise from pressure and competition and the impact they can have on performance, and what methods and tools can be performed in order to produce the best possible results in a competitive environment.
Though I studied modules on Sports Psychology at University, competed to a decent level in athletics, it was only later, once I left athletics and had the able to observe athletes competing under pressure was I able to notice what and how the best athletes acted and performed under pressure. .
One thing I believe to be important is the frequent exposure to competition. Something I wasn’t exposed to enough myself (starting athletics rather late at 17). Competing back to back every weekend develops the skill of performing under pressure. Exposing young athletes to this earlier will maximise their chances of success on competition day.
Anxiety or Excitement?
You may not currently aware of this, but the feelings of both anxiety and excitement are one and the same.
The difference is in our interpretation.” In other words, if we recognise these feelings as positive, we’ll feel excited. If we see them as negative, we’ll feel anxious. And this has been proven by research too.
When we’re anxious, we may feel tensions, restless and nervous. We may also start sweating, breathing rapidly, have trouble concentrating and have an increased heart rate. And this is similar to how we react when excited.
Learning this and shifting the feelings of anxiety and relabelling them as excitement has been show to benefit performance.
This is especially important for athletes who train well but perhaps under perform on competition day, or athletes who open their season up really well as their is less pressure on their first competition.
Perception, Pressure and Task Performance
Plenty of studies now support the benefits of performance via the perception of excitement over anxiety.
Alison Wood-Brooks from Harvard Business School tested participants through a karaoke session, one group of participants were told to repeat to themselves “I am anxious” and the other group “I am excited”.
Not only were the “excited” participants more excited, they also sang better according to a computerised measurement of volume and pitch. Similar results were found when they were asked to deliver a 2-minute speech on camera and complete a maths test.
The most interesting thing noted was that all the participants were equally as anxious- even the ‘excited group’. Simply saying they were excited didn’t change their heart rate. In fact, the only difference was that they thought of their experience as “exciting” rather than stressful.
When we become anxious our bodies create physiological (somatic) and psychological (cognitive) responses which cause the drop in performance, which is why it is really important to be aware of any of these changes and when they occur.
Somatic Responses to Anxiety
Elevated heart rates is just one of a few somatic responses / physical changes the body exhibits under anxiety.
You may also notice, muscular tension and increased respiration rate which all lead to impaired movement and performance. Controlling these responses until the point of competition will help achieve a better result.
Cognitive Responses to Anxiety
Along with these, you may also experience cognitive responses, which can causes apprehension, doubt and negative thoughts because anxiety cause an athlete to reflect worry about their performance in turn resulting in a change of attention which affects information processing, due to symptoms that reflect worry about performance triggers which are worry, stress, mumbling, speechless as well as many more such as hyper ventilating.
It may be hard at first to handle these responses but through exposure to competition and by practice under pressure/ using mindfulness/ awareness and shifting perceptions of being anxious to feeling excited, the athlete is more likely to perform better on the day.
Inverted – U Theory of Arousal
You may already be familiar with the Inverted-U Theory, it does a good job of relating performance and pressure/ arousal. In the Inverted U theory, there is a steady fall-off in performance following over-arousal.
This is because sports psychologists have noted that performance does not always gradually decrease as arousal increases, as shown in the inverted ‘U’ theory.
You will notice that the curve reveals that performance lags behind when there’s little pressure, and that performance is positively influenced when there’s some more pressure. If even more pressure is added, performance is negatively influenced and efficiency decreases.
If the athlete is too stimulated, on the day or during their warm up they may reach peak arousal too soon, which is something to consider in a pre competition warm up routine.
Being too relaxed during the warm up or on the start line will also bring undesired results, many athletes I’ve met try to play down their arousal levels and stay calm and this doesn’t trigger the intensity needed to compete well.
Catastrophe Theory of Arousal
There is also the Catastrophe theory, which is a development of the Inverted U theory. The Catastrophe theory explains how over arousal predicts a rapid decline in performance resulting from the combination of high cognitive anxiety and increasing somatic anxiety.
If cognitive anxiety is high, the increases in arousal pass a point of optimal arousal and a rapid decline in performance occurs (the catastrophe). It would be very difficult to recover from this point.
Which is why we see top sports people ‘go to pieces’ in the big event.
Understanding when your body and mind are eliciting these responses, so it is always important to stay mindful and check in from time to time.
Practically Applying this Information
So this is where I summarise, all the information above is useless if an athlete is unaware of the tools available to assist them in overcoming anxiety from pressure.
The best athletes are able to keep their arousal levels under control on competition day, they rise to the occasion by using their ‘nerves’ and not hiding away from them.
If you suffer from performance anxiety, it would be worthwhile reprogramming your perception of these cognitive/ somatic responses as excitement rather than anxiousness/fear.
Reduce as much stress as possible
Do you best to avoid any arguments/ over reactions.
When you’re warming up, focus on yourself
Focus on how your body feels, this is something that I’ve noticed the best athletes do.
Mentally rehearse your race plan or technique
(this is really important) and check which lane you are in as soon as the information is out.
Sign in as early as possible to minimise stress and set up space to remain calm and lose track of time until your warm up starts.
I recommend setting an alarm for when to warm up, that way you won’t be distracted by checking the clock every 10 minutes.
Stay positive and confident
Remind yourself you deserve to be on that start line as much as anyone else.
Find confidence in your race plan.
Be self aware and mindful.
If any physiological or psychological symptoms arise, focus your breath and shift your perception of anxiety to excitement.
Interview with Cameron Chalmers, 1/4 of the Great Britain Relay Team at the 2019 World Championships – 5mins
If you’re interested in what a 400m British Champion and 45 second 400m sprinter does during his warm up and how he approaches competition, check out the video below.
Bristol & West A.C Performance Advisor.