An Overview Of Sports Performance Anxiety Disorder

As many people may know “Anxiety is the mind and body's reaction to stressful, dangerous, or unfamiliar situations. It's the sense of uneasiness, distress, or dread you feel before a significant event”. In simpler terms anxiety is a distress characterized by behavioral conflicts. Anxiety disorders are serious medical illnesses that affect about 19 million Americans. One of the most common, yet least talked about disorders is sports performance anxiety disorder. Also known as competitive anxiety which is something that nearly every athlete faces some time in his or her career. It usually happens when the difficulties of training or competition go beyond an athlete's apparent ability and their stress level raises, anxiety is the unavoidable result. Sports performance anxiety disorder is the feeling of stress and pressure right before a competition that can be detrimental to athletes and if it’s bad enough, can even lead to an athlete quitting a sport altogether or potentially lead to depression.

Competition anxiety symptoms are individualized to each athlete but can be seen on three levels. These three levels are Cognitive, Somatic, and Behavioral Symptoms. Cognitive symptoms relate to particular thought processes that include confusion, indecision, negative thoughts, poor concentration, loss of confidence, and fear. The cognitive component is represented by worry. Athletes may be worried that they may not perform as well as they can. Cognitive anxiety is when a person may think unpleasant thoughts in terms of underachieving. Cognitive is often the state before somatic anxiety. Somatic symptoms are physical which include, sweating, increased blood pressure, adrenaline boost, yawning, diarrhea, muscular tension, sleeplessness and increased heart rate. Somatic anxiety is the result of a competitor’s negative view to the body's physiological response to stress. Behavioral symptoms relate to types of behavior such as fidgeting, biting fingernails, avoidance of eye contact, and sluggish movements.

State and Trait anxiety are two other ways anxiety can be seen. State anxiety can either be a somatic state anxiety or cognitive state anxiety. State anxiety has to do with people being more nervous than others in particular situations. Trait anxiety deals with the person's typical behavioral trend to become worried about the environment. Trait anxiety normally relates to people who have a predisposition to overreact and frequently develops high levels of excitement quickly and easily.

There are many causes of anxiety such as intense pressure to perform, the pressure of being observed, expectations from themselves, expectations from their parents and their coaches, the fear of failure and the right before a competition begins. Playing a sport offers a significant amount of uncertainty. For example, the time a basketball player shoots the ball, or a soccer player kicks to score a goal; the outcome is unknown. Uncertainty is therefore connected with the stress the sport provides. An athlete’s level of anxiety is increased due to many important factors. For example, stress is greater when the competition has higher value. Anxiety is also more susceptible to the competitor. Viewers also have a large influence on how players feel. “Studies of the home advantage phenomenon show that teams playing at their home venue win on average, around 56-64% of the time, depending on the sport”. For example, where the Olympic Games have been hosted had an effect. The remarkable record-breaking collection of medals won by Australia in “Sydney 2000” and by Greece in “Athens 2004” demonstrate this. The possibility of getting hurt can also be a cause of anxiety, for athletes in contact sports like basketball, wrestling, and boxing have a higher risk of injury. The anxiety faced can also affect performance and technique. For example, basketball players could have bad form in their shots, play sloppy defense, or can cause more fouls. Another issue that causes anxiety trying is the idea of being successful. For example, “The expectations held by British tennis fans for Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski to win the men’s singles title at Wimbledon have hung over these players like a dark cloud”. Athletes are constantly put under pressure from outsiders and the idea of being the best circles their heads.

It is interesting to note there is a difference of anxiety in team sports vs individual sports. Participants in individual sports have been shown more often than not to suffer more anxiety before, during and after competition than members of team sports. Seclusion is much greater in sports such as golf than in the team sport. Being part of a team helps to control some of the burden put on you instead of making you feel completely alone. Evidence also shows that in team sports the away games anxiety levels tend to be higher than when your team is playing at home. This is because anxiety is lowered when being in a familiar place and having fans that are supporting you.

Some signs of anxiety are fast breathing, elevated heart rate, sweating, butterflies in the stomach, muscular tension, negative self-talk, poor concentration, nausea/vomiting, and feelings of weakness. People who have competition anxiety are more hesitant to seek therapy than general anxieties. Intervention is how people can overcome sports performance anxiety disorder. One way of gaining assistance is through sport psychologists. They can greatly affect the performance development and personal progress of an athlete. Many anxiety interventions emphasize on ways that athletes can keep a “cool head”. They usually focus on controlling our physiology. Relaxation Training such as yoga/meditation, deep breathing, classification, and thought stopping are great ways to overcome anxiety. Controlled breathing can have a great number of benefits. The biggest benefit is the instantaneous outcome that has to do with physiology. For example, you can see how your heart rate rises and your breathing becomes more erratic, if you feel yourself becoming stressed. You will feel calmer and in control of your mind and body if you concentrate on your breathing and try to slow it down. “This type of breathing allows us to “hijack” the body’s natural blood pressure regulation system and to increase our heart rate variability. Heart rate variability is the varying interval in our heart rate, where the increase is reflective of a greater capacity to deal with stress”. Our heart has to adjust rapidly to the surrounding difficulties. So, this needs to be done to help other functional systems like oxygen going into our muscles. A person is more adaptable to stress faced at a certain time if your heart can go from slow to fast rapidly. This is why using heart rate variability is very beneficial.

The goal of using heart rate variability biofeedback is to teach athletes to control their breathing without a visual. “When athletes feel under pressure, they have a go-to intervention which helps them return to their ideal performance state. It also allows them to focus on what is important in the environment and in their mind — positive, logical, helpful, and controllable thinking”(Shearer 12). This technique is very helpful to athletes preparing for a competition and during it. This can be seen in sports that go through the “taper” period like in swimming. The taper period is the last training phase before a big event. It is where the volume of training is lessened. This “tapering” period is also seen in long distance sports such as cross country.

Heart rate variability is typically used for professional athletes, but the benefits of heart rate variability biofeedback are not only for professionals. Anxiety occurs for any person during their everyday life. “Evidence indicates that adopting a regular, long-term schedule of breathing practice at around six breaths per minute for 10 minutes every day could help improve the body’s ability to manage stress. Simple breathing pacer apps on smartphones, or reasonably priced heart rate monitors, can be used to practice becoming more aware of your breathing, and controlling your heart rate”. During times of anxiety in everyday life, breathing can help. Sports competition anxiety is a huge problem for many and is seen throughout daily life.

Michael Phelps is the world's most-decorated athlete and swimmer in Olympic history, winning 28 Olympic medals, 23 of them being gold. Yet, despite all those medals and honors, Phelps has struggled with anxiety and depression throughout his career. At a conference in New York City held by an online counseling service “Talkspace”, Phelps talked about his struggles. Michael Phelps opened up to the public and said that in 2014, his anxiety and depression got so bad that that he locked himself in his bedroom and stayed there for days. He stated 'During those days, I had thoughts of not wanting to be alive. The longer I stayed in my room by myself, I thought there has to be another way'. Phelps decided to check himself in for inpatient mental health treatment. He spoke about how as an athlete, he thought he was supposed to be that person that doesn't have any problems and did not show weakness. He knows it is not a bad thing to get help. He's also learned that depression and anxiety will be a continuing challenge for him. Phelps today takes pride in helping other people realize that they're not alone and this brings him a great deal of happiness.

Sports competition anxiety is a real thing and many people suffer from it. It is typically caused by fear of failing or bad performance, fear of bad feedback, fear of the competition, or fear of an injury occurring out of your control. Almost every athlete from professional to youth face competition anxiety. If not treated more problems can arise. In fact, as many as one in four athletes who suffer from depression, were caused from anxiety problems. Individuals can seek therapy in order to overcome anxiety, as well as relaxation training such as meditation and deep breathing. Sports competition anxiety is often overlooked, yet this is a serious issue that many athletes face today.

16 August 2021
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