Are Your Players Suffering From Competitive Anxiety?

Brian Mackenzie examines why competition can cause athletes to react both physically (somatic) and mentally (cognitive) in a manner which can negatively affect their performance abilities.

The major problem in competition is letting your mind work against you rather than for you. You must accept anxiety symptoms as part and parcel of the competition experience; only then will anxiety begin to facilitate your performance. Gallwey (2000)[1] describes performance as the athlete’s potential minus their mind’s interference. (Performance = potential – interference)

Anxiety & Performance Relationship Theory

There are several theories associated with the performance-anxiety relationship. According to the Drive Theory (Zajonc 1965)[2] if an athlete is appropriately skilled then it will help them to perform well if their drive to compete is aroused - they are "psyched up".

An alternative approach to Drive Theory is known as the Inverted-U hypothesis (Yerkes 1908)[3] that predicts a relationship between arousal and performance approximates to an inverted U shape. The theory is that as arousal is increased then performance improves but only up to a certain point (top of the inverted U). If the athlete's arousal is increased beyond this point then performance diminishes.

Other drive theories include Multi-dimensional Anxiety Theory (Martens 1990)[4] which is based on the distinction between cognitive anxiety and somatic anxiety and Hardy’s (1987)[5] Catastrophe Theory.

How do you measure Anxiety?

A range of psychometric tests or sport anxiety questionnaires (SAQ) have been used by sports psychologists to understand and measure this condition. Spielberger (1966)[6] argued that it was necessary to make a distinction between momentary states and more permanent traits.

• Anxiety states (A-state) is our response to a situation (i.e. sky diving)
• Anxiety traits (A-trait) are the characteristics of our personality, our general anxiety level

Martens (1990)[4] developed anxiety traits (A-trait) questionnaires that were tailored specially to sport known as the Sport Competition Anxiety Test (SCAT). Martens (1990)[4] recognised that any measure of sport anxiety must take into consideration cognitive anxiety (negative thoughts, worry) and somatic anxiety (physiological response). The Competitive State Anxiety Inventory or CSAI-2 considers the difference between A-state and A-trait and distinguishes between cognitive and somatic anxiety.

Symptoms of Anxiety

Anxiety can be recognised on three levels (Karageorghis 2007)[7]

• Cognitive - by a thought process
• Somatic - by a physical response
• Behavioural - by patterns of behaviour


• Indecision, sense of confusion, feeling heavy, negative thoughts, poor concentration, irritability, fear, forgetfulness, loss of confidence, images of failure, defeatist self-talk, feeling rushed, feeling weak, constant dissatisfaction, unable to take instructions, thoughts of avoidance.


• Increased blood pressure, pounding heart, increased respiration rate, sweating, clammy hands and feet, butterflies in the stomach, adrenaline surge, dry mouth, need to urinate, muscular tension, tightness in neck and shoulders, trembling, incessant talking, blushing, pacing up and down, distorted vision, twitching, yawning, voice distortion, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, loss of appetite, sleeplessness, loss of libido.


• Biting fingernails, lethargic movements, inhibited posture, playing safe, going through the motions, introversion, uncharacteristic displays of extroversion, fidgeting, avoidance of eye contact, covering face with hand.

How can we control Anxiety?

As we can see anxiety includes state and trait dimensions both of which can show themselves as cognitive and somatic symptoms. An athlete with high anxiety trait (A-trait) is likely to be more anxious in stressful situations. To help the athlete control competitive anxiety, somatic techniques (relaxation) and cognitive techniques (mental imagery) can be used.

The five-breath technique

This exercise can be performed while you are standing up, lying down or sitting upright. You should inhale slowly, deeply and evenly through your nose, and exhale gently through your mouth as though flickering, but not extinguishing, the flame of a candle (Karageorghis 2007)[7]

• Take a deep breath and allow your face and neck to relax as you breathe out
• Take a second deep breath and allow your shoulders and arms to relax as you breathe out
• Take a third deep breath and allow your chest, stomach and back to relax as you breathe out
• Take a fourth deep breath and allow your legs and feet to relax as you breathe out
• Take a fifth deep breath and allow your whole body to relax as you breathe out
• Continue to breathe deeply for as long as you need to, and each time you breathe out say the word 'relax' in your mind's ear

Benson's relaxation response

Benson's technique is a form of meditation that can be used to attain quite a deep sense of relaxation and can be ideal for staying calm in between rounds of a competition. It can be mastered with just a few weeks' practice and comprises of seven easy steps (Karageorghis 2007)[7]

1. Sit in a comfortable position and adopt a relaxed posture
2. Pick a short focus word that has significant meaning for you and that you associate with relaxation (e.g. relax, smooth, calm, easy, float, etc.)
3. Slowly close your eyes
4. Relax all the muscles in your body
5. Breathe smoothly and naturally, repeating the focus word
6. Be passive so that if other thoughts enter your mind, dismiss them with, 'Oh well' and calmly return to the focus word - do not concern yourself with how the process is going
7. Continue this for 10 to 15 minutes as required.

1. GALLWEY, W. (2000) The Inner Game of Work. New York: Random House
2. ZAJONC, R. B. (1965) Social Facilitation. Science, 149 (1965), p. 268-274
3. YERKES and DODSON (1908) The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit formation. Journal of Neurological Psychology, (1908)
4. MARTENS, R. et al. (1990) The Development of the Competitive State Anxiety Inventory-2 (CSAI-2). Human Kinetics
5. HARDY, L. and FRAZER, J. (1987) The Inverted U Hypothesis: A catastrophe for sport psychology? British Association of Sports Science, monograph no. 1, NCF, 1987
6. RSPIELBERGE, C. D. (1966) Anxiety and behaviour. Academic Press, New York
7. KARAGEORGHIS, C. (2007) Competition anxiety needn't get you down. Peak Performance, 243, p. 4-7

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