Coping with Stress and Anxiety in Sport: All you need to know
When participating in your sport, can you think of any specific examples of where you have felt stressed and anxious to perform?
How did it make you feel?
Did you feel you were able to cope positively with the stress and anxiety?
Did it have a negative or positive effect on your performance?
I have definitely struggled with feelings of stress and anxiety when playing sport. Specifically, in the most important moments, when performance needed to be optimal. Even playing low level football, cup finals and penalty shoot-outs still make me feel extremely anxious due to my desire to win. High levels of anxiety and stress experienced during a cup final resulted in me not having the best performance, despite the significance of the game. I allowed those feelings of anxiety and stress to get the better of me. I wish back then, I understood why I was feeling that way and known the strategies I could have put in place to help optimise my performance and cope with the emotions.
The blogs aims to:
1. Help athletes across all sports and levels to understand and cope with stress and anxiety they may feel prior or during a game.
2. Allow coaches to recognise athlete’s stress and anxiety during games and provide useful support.
I think it is best to start with understanding what stress and anxiety actually is, and how it may affect our performances.
What is Stress and Anxiety?
Stress refers to the relationship between an individual and the demands associated with sport performance (1). These are called stressors. In order to prevent negative effects on performance, athletes must have sufficient resources to cope with the perceived stressors (2).
Different types of stressors effect sports performance (1):
Competitive Stressors refer to the demands within competitive performances. Examples include (1):
Physical preparation of the athlete
Level of opposition
Pressures and expectations to perform
The nature and importance of the event
Organisational Stressors refer to demands within the organisation/team you operate within (3):
Competitive team selection
Managers and coach’s leadership styles and relationships with players.
Team cohesion and atmosphere
Personal Stressors refer to demands the athlete has outside of their sport. Examples include:
Career or academic commitments
Traumatic life events
Competitive anxiety is a specific negative emotional response to competitive stressors (1) in which feelings of nervousness, worry and apprehension are associated with activation or arousal of the body (4). Anxiety symptoms can be recognised on three different levels:
Cognitive – Psychological responses.
Somatic – Physiological responses.
Behavioural – Patterns of behaviour.
The effects of stress on performance
Historically, stressors and associated anxiety responses have been perceived as negative and detrimental to sports performance. However, research has shown this is not the case. Anxiety can either be positive or negative to sports performance. A model was introduced that suggests there is a notion of direction (5). Directional interpretations refer to how the individual perceives their cognitive and somatic symptoms of anxiety. Whether facilitative (positive) or debilitative (negative) towards their performance.
The model of debilitative and facilitative competitive state anxiety shows how this occurs:
The model above explains that individuals that perceive to have a degree of control over a situation are better able to cope with their anxiety and have a positive expectancy of achieving their goals. They were predicted to interpret symptoms facilitative (positive) to performance. A good example shown was a study investigating elite female hockey athletes, and their interpretations of their anxiety symptoms (6). A quote selected from the study displays facilitative interpretations:
“The nerves and anxiety are actually positive because if I’m nervous and anxious I become more focused. It’s a way of helping that nervousness, because if I’m anxious I feel focused, and if I’m focused the nerves are controlled. So, it’s important for me to feel nervous because then there is a point behind why I’m doing it”.
However, individuals that appraise to have no control, could not cope with the situation at hand and possessed negative expectancies regarding goal attainment. They were predicted to interpret symptoms as debilitative (negative) to performance. An example of this was shown by Steven Gerrard quoted after he missed his penalty against Portugal in the 2006 World Cup (7). The quote shows he felt lack control and struggled with the stress of the penalty shoot-out.
“Why do I have to wait for the bloody whistle? Those extra couple of seconds seemed like an eternity, and they definitely put me off”
Evaluation of stressors occur in two stages (8):
1. Primary appraisal: the evaluation the athlete makes about how significant the demand is.
2. Secondary appraisal: based on the evaluation, does the athlete possess enough resources to cope with the stressor.
Athletes then go through the process of reappraisal. This is an ongoing process, involving continually reappraising both the nature of the stressor and the resources available for responding to it.
The extent to which we expect to control various competitive stressors depends on our trait anxiety (5;9). A degree to which individuals are predisposed to feelings of anxiety. Factors include personality, upbringing and past experiences. This is referred to as individual differences, making each of us unique and will vary from person to person.
The effects of anxiety on sports performance
Not only is it important to understand the relationship between stress and sports performance, but also anxiety and sports performance. It is important to remember that symptoms of anxiety lead to arousal of the body when discussing anxiety theories. One of the earliest theories of anxiety is the Inverted-U hypothesis (10). It suggests optimal performance occurs when the performer reaches an optimal level of arousal.
The graph shows as an athlete’s arousal increases, so does their performance. However, only to a certain point. Once arousal exceeds the optimal level, performance levels deteriorate and consequently underperform.
Specific factors challenge the initial inverted U and should be considered when understanding what level of arousal is needed for optimal performance. Two factors include performance levels and sport specific differences (11).
It is suggested that beginners and lower skilled performers require lower levels of arousal. Reason being, they require more concentration on task and environmental cues than expert performers.
High levels of arousal can cause a decrease in focus on essential cues in beginners therefore negatively effecting performance. Whereas experts perform skills and pick up on environmental cues automatically, allowing more arousal.
Sports specific differences include differences in movements. It has been suggested the sports that incorporate major muscle groups such as weightlifting, and rugby will benefit from higher levels of arousal. Whereas, sports that incorporate finer skills, such as snooker or darts benefit from lower levels of arousal, due to increased need for concentration. However, it’s important to understand that it is movement specific, some sports are gross in nature but require movements that are quite fine. Example is basketball, features major muscle groups, but performer would benefit from lower levels of arousal when taking a free throw.
If you were to apply this to your sport:
What movements would you associate with needing high and low levels of arousal?
Key messages to remember:
Stressors are not always negative; it is dependent on whether the individuals perceive they can cope with the demand or not.
Anxiety and arousal can actually be beneficial to performance up to a certain point whereby extreme levels of arousal can have detrimental effects on performance.
How can I manage my stress and anxiety?
There are a number of coping strategies to practice and apply. The strategies mentioned bellow aim to turn negative appraisals into positive ones. To gain control over a situation you initially perceived to have no control of. To reduce arousal and anxiety when exceeding your optimal level and it starts affecting your performance. Ultimately, the goal is to interpret stressors as facilitative (positive) to performance and achieve your optimal arousal.
Self-talk refers to what people say to themselves (12). It is common to do this during a game, and you have probably done this yourself at some point, either silently or aloud. Often you say things to yourself as a reflection of something that has just happened (“that was a good shot”, “how did I miss that?”) or things that are happening to provide direction or express how you’re feeling (“I can’t concentrate”, “I feel confident”).
Linking this back to the model of stressors, positive self-talk can be implemented in a strategic way to interpret stressors as facilitative. By saying positive affirmations to yourself can help turn your negative thoughts concerning performance to positives one’s. For example: “I am confident I will score this penalty”, “I feel mentally strong, I will stay positive throughout competition”.
Task for you:
Think of some positive affirmations that you could use in your sport to combat the stressors encountered during competition.
This involves visualising an experience in your sport using a combination of different senses. Research shows that we can be aware of seeing and feeling movements as an image without actually experiencing the real thing (13). A popular strategy used by, Ronaldinho, one of the best footballers of this generation, who discussed his use of imagery and its benefits for him prior to the 2006 World Cup:
“When I construct those plays in my mind, I take into account whether one team-mate likes to receive the ball at his feet, or ahead of him; if he is good with his head, and how he prefers to head the ball, if he is stronger on his right or left foot. That is my job. That is what I do. I imagine the game”.
Linking back to the model of stressors, research indicates imagery to be associated with successful performance and increase an individual’s perception of control over a situation (14). Thus, allowing performers to interpret stressors as facilitative (positive).
To use imagery effectively, the PETTLEP acronym provides a checklist on how you can implement it to your own sport (15). For this example, I will use a striker in football trying to beat the defenders and score a goal.
Physical – the imagery should closely reflect the physical performance of the skill, e.g., a footballer will have the ball at his feet and wearing the kit when imaging the skill.
Environment – the imagery should take place in the same environment as where the skill would take place, e.g., standing on a football pitch in an attacking area.
Task – imagery should contain the same movements and techniques that an athlete would normally perform in a game, e.g., making specific runs in between defenders, kicking the ball in a specific area of the goal.
Timing – the imagery should be replicated at the same pace as what a game would be played at, e.g., not imagining the time it takes to have a shot in slow motion.
Learning – only imagine skills within your skill set, do not be over ambitious. Once a new skill is learned, imagery can take on that new skill. E.g., you might imagine performing a couple of step-overs before going round the defender. Instead, simply knock it around them until step-overs have been learned.
Emotion – you should include imagining the emotions you normally feel during the game. E.g., linking back to the model of stressors and inverted U, imagine what your optimal arousal is and the types of stressors that you may encounter.
Perspective – use imagery from your own point of view rather than from a third person perspective.
Task for you:
Have a go on a piece of paper, go back through the checklist and write down what imagery would look like in your sport and position.
Relaxation techniques are used in sport for several beneficial reasons. It has enhanced self-confidence, concentration, increase performance levels, reduced anxiety and stress and also release muscular tension (4).
Linking this back to the inverted U hypothesis, when arousal levels have increased beyond an individual’s optimal limit and feelings of anxiety are negatively affecting performance you can confidently implement this strategy to reduce your anxiety and arousal back to an optimal level, performing well again. It initiates and enables refocus mid-game.
To adopt this strategy, a common technique is the 4:7:8 (16).
1. Empty the lungs of air.
2. Breathe in quietly through the nose for 4 seconds.
3. Hold the breath for a count of 7 seconds.
4. Exhale forcefully through the mouth, pursing the lips and making a “whoosh” sound for 8 seconds.
5. Repeat cycle up to 4 times.
Task for you:
Have a go at this technique now, wherever you are, and note down how this makes you feel.
Take Home Messages
This blog has aimed to provide athletes across all different levels and sports with information on stress and anxiety. After reading this, you should understand what stress and anxiety is. How it effects performance and some effective coping strategies to prevent the negative effects stress and anxiety can have on performance.
I hope you found this blog insightful and beneficial in helping you or others cope with stress and anxiety. Any thoughts, comments or ways that the blog has helped you can be put in the comment section below. I look forward to your responses.
Author: Oliver Wright (MSc Sport and Exercise Psychology at Loughborough University).
1. Mellalieu, S. D., Hanton, S., & Fletcher, D. (2009). A competitive anxiety review: Recent directions in sport psychology research. Nova Science Publishers. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Stephen_Mellalieu/publication/287247197_A_competitive_anxiety_review_Recent_directions_in_sport_psychology_research/links/571fde5b08aed056fa235adb/A-competitive-anxiety-review-Recent-directions-in-sport-psychology-research.pdf
2. Weinberg, R. S., & Gould, D. (2018). Foundations of sport and exercise psychology, 7E. Human Kinetics. https://books.google.co.uk/books?hl=en&lr=&id=ACBwDwAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PR1&dq=weinberg+and+gould+2018+&ots=l83yGmzRPD&sig=ONg075ZIaHX-kJH1a1CXExTkn88&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=weinberg%20and%20gould%202018&f=false
3. Arnold, R., & Fletcher, D. (2012). A Research Synthesis and Taxonomic Classification of the Organizational Stressors Encountered by Sport Performers. Journal Of Sport And Exercise Psychology, 34(3), 397-429. https://doi.org/10.1123/jsep.34.3.397
4. Weinberg, & Gould, D. (2011). Foundations of sport and exercise psychology. Human Kinetics.
5. Jones, G., & Swain, A. (1992). Intensity and Direction as Dimensions of Competitive State Anxiety and Relationships with Competitiveness. Perceptual And Motor Skills, 74(2), 467-472. https://doi.org/10.2466/pms.19184.108.40.2067
6. Thomas, O., Hanton, S., & Maynard, I. (2007). Anxiety responses and psychological skill use during the time leading up to competition: Theory to practice I. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 19(4), 379-397. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10413200701599132?casa_token=ZK3O3Y--uRYAAAAA%3AH92S41zztc1AoyFBbgWolvVWCBD754MCauT5Qo-gFu2EKr-vMCsycX95fO9LVHT8zaF2bctgCjRz-w
7. Jordet, G. (2011, August). Performing under pressure: What can we learn from football penalty shoot-outs?. The British Psychological Society. https://nih.brage.unit.no/nih-xmlui/bitstream/handle/11250/170990/Jordet%20SportExercPsycholRev%202011.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
8. Lazarus, R. S. (1966). Psychological stress and the coping process. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1966-35050-000
9. Whiteley, G. (2013). How trait and state anxiety influence athletic performance (Doctoral dissertation, Wittenberg University). https://etd.ohiolink.edu/apexprod/rws_olink/r/1501/10?clear=10&p10_accession_num=wuhonors1399285181
10. Yerkes, R., & Dodson, J. (1908). The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation. Journal Of Comparative Neurology And Psychology, 18(5), 459-482. https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.920180503
11. Arent, S., & Landers, D. (2003). Arousal, Anxiety, and Performance: A Reexamination of the Inverted-U Hypothesis. Research Quarterly For Exercise And Sport, 74(4), 436-444. https://doi.org/10.1080/02701367.2003.10609113
12. Hatzigeorgiadis, A., Zourbanos, N. I. K. O. S., Latinjak, A., & Theodorakis, Y. (2014). Self-talk. Routledge companion to sport and exercise psychology: Global perspectives and fundamental concepts, 372-385. https://books.google.co.uk/books?hl=en&lr=&id=_zYsAwAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PA372&dq=Hatzigeorgiadis,+A.,+Zourbanos,+N.+I.+K.+O.+S.,+Latinjak,+A.,+%26+Theodorakis,+Y.+(2014).+Self-talk.+&ots=ql90yvnklS&sig=406TQ2PMHZ2YWQAH_HxJPPkv7fo&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false
13. White, A., & Hardy, L. (1995). Use of different imagery perspectives on the learning and performance of different motor skills. British journal of Psychology, 86(2), 169-180. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.2044-8295.1995.tb02554.x?casa_token=b-8sBpTpKtwAAAAA:mMnbbDTIqrbMWHZ9scPzLFS50uy-LrT4tFORL85eAzAo_i-eS0GKW6HCShvK2JHPdh5ubdkm0MX-h2o
14. Hall, C. R., Mack, D. E., Paivio, A., & Hausenblas, H. A. (1998). Imagery use by athletes: development of the Sport Imagery Questionnaire. International Journal of Sport Psychology. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1998-04132-006
15. S. Holmes, David J. Collins, P. (2001). The PETTLEP Approach to Motor Imagery: A Functional Equivalence Model for Sport Psychologists. Journal Of Applied Sport Psychology, 13(1), 60-83. https://doi.org/10.1080/104132001753155958
16. Weil, A. (2017). Three breathing exercises. DrWeil. com. https://nmccenters.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Breathing-Exercises.pdf