Competition provides us with mental and physical challenges and stimulation, but it also provides us with considerable uncertainty.
When we dive into the pool, or kick the football towards the goal, the outcome is unknown. The stress that competition provides us is linked with this uncertainty of the outcome. Part of the reason we all love watching sport is because it is a theatre of unpredictability.
When a competitor ‘freezes’ in the big moment or commits an inexplicable error, anxiety, in one of its many guises, is very often the root cause. The precise impact of anxiety on sporting performance depends on how you interpret your world. Unfortunately, far too many athletes accept high levels of anxiety as an inevitable part of the total sporting experience and fail to reach their potential.
Anxiety is a natural reaction to threats in the environment and part of the preparation for the ‘fight or flight’ response. This is our body’s primitive and automatic response that prepares us to ‘fight’ or ‘flee’ from perceived harm or attack.
It is a ‘hardwired’ response that ensures survival of the human species. Sporting competition promotes similar psychological and bodily responses; it can be physically exhausting, it pitches you against superior opponents, the elements may need to be overcome and your emotional frailties are constantly laid bare for all to see.
Despite this, sport offers participants an opportunity for growth – a chance to push back personal boundaries, and a means by which to liberate the body and the mind.
While there is nothing wrong with the stress associated with competition, how we perceive it has a lot to do with how it affects us. In fact stress can be a very positive influence that leads us to tackle the challenges that make life far more rewarding. However, when we perceive stress to be negative, it causes anxiety and therefore, inhibits our performance.
Anxiety can be recognised on three levels:
*On the cognitive level – ie it can affect our thought processes, we can make pour choices or we can doubt our abilities.
*On the somatic level – ie it can affect our body, we can feel sick and even vomit or we can get the shakes.
*On the behavioural level – ie it can affect our mood, we can become angry and frustrated or we can withdraw into ourselves and hide away.
British sport psychologist Graham Jones developed a model of competition anxiety that has been widely used in the last decade. Jones contends that it is the perception of our ability to control our environment and ourselves that determines the anxiety response.
Hence, if you believe you can cope in a particular sporting situation, you will tend to strive to achieve your goals with positive expectations of success. Having positive expectations will invariably mean that you will be more confident and therefore more likely to perform close to your best.
The feeling that you can control a particular stressor such as a tough rival or a niggling injury will mean that the symptoms of anxiety – butterflies in the stomach, elevated heart rate, sweat secretion, and so on – are interpreted as helpful, and needed for you to perform at your best.
If your judgement is that you do not have control over the situation – that your opponent is too strong or that a sore calf muscle will hold you back – then those same symptoms will be interpreted as debilitative, or likely to impair performance.
The probable consequence is that either interpretation will become a self-fulfilling prophecy and your performance will mirror your thoughts, good or bad.
Here are our top tips to help you control competition nerves:
1. Establishing your ‘winning feeling’
Think carefully about the last time you were performing at the top of your game then list every detail you might associate with your ‘winning feeling’. Pick out the 3-5 most important aspects of this positive feeling and write them out on a piece of paper. You can use your ‘winning feeling’ to help recreate this optimum competition mindset through consciously reproducing those important aspects. Ask yourself the question 'What does good look like?'.
The second technique is known as ‘grounding’, it involves focusing attention on your body, the area just behind your belly button. This is a technique that is particularly effective during sports that have breaks in the action, such as in between sets in tennis, or prior to a penalty in football. Grounding has a calming and controlling effect, providing a simple but effective way to counteract the negative effects of anxiety:
*Stand with your feet flat on the ground, shoulder width apart, arms hanging loosely either side of your body;
*Close your eyes and breathe evenly. Notice that when you breathe in, the tension in your upper body increases, but as you breathe out, there is a calmer, sinking feeling;
*Inhale deeply from your abdomen and, as you do, be aware of the tension in your face, and your neck, and your shoulders, and your chest. As you exhale, let the tension fall away and focus on the feeling of heaviness in your stomach;
*Continue to breathe evenly, focusing all your attention internally on the area immediately behind your navel;
*Maintain your attention on that spot and breathe normally, feeling very controlled and heavy and calm;
*On each out-breath use a word that encapsulates the physical feelings and mental focus that you want eg ‘relaxed’, ‘calm’, ‘focused’, ‘sharp’, ‘ready’ etc.
When you experience a negative or unwanted thought (cognitive anxiety) such as ‘I just don’t want to be here today’ or ‘She beat me by five seconds last time we raced’, picture a large red stop sign in your mind’s eye.
Hold this image for a few seconds then allow it to fade away along with the thought. Then follow this with a positive self-statement such as ‘I've trained hard and I know I can beat her this time!’ Thought-stopping can be used to block an unwanted thought before it escalates or disrupts performance. The technique can help to create a sharp refocus of attention keeping you engrossed in the task at hand.
4. Letting go
You will need to lie down somewhere comfortable where you are unlikely to be disturbed. If you wish, you can also use this exercise to aid a restful night’s sleep.
Allow your eyes to close and let your attention wander slowly over each part of your body – starting from the tips of your toes and working up to the top of your head.
As you focus on each part of the body, tense the associated muscles for a count of five and then ‘let go’. If this does not relieve the tension in a particular body part, repeat the process as many times as you need to.
Once you have covered each body part, tense the entire body, hold for five and then ‘let go’. You will feel tranquil and deeply relaxed.
The major problem in any competition is getting your mind to work for you rather than against you. You must accept anxiety symptoms as part and parcel of the competition experience; only then will anxiety begin to facilitate your performance.
The techniques we have presented above are only a small selection from the vast number of stress management interventions available to you.
You should adapt these techniques to suit your needs or those of your athletes. Remember that pressure is your ally and will invariably bring out the best in you, just as coal under pressure can produce a diamond!
Your perception of the pressure you’re facing and your ability to overcome it are what will decide whether you perform or freeze. Be positive in all your thoughts and actions… you’ve got this!