Overcoming fear in Sport: Creating a mastery environment1 Opinion
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About Spencer Vickery
I currently holds a bachelors and masters degree in sport and exercise psychology, this combined with 7 years experience as a professional golfer competing throughout the UK and Europe gives me an almost unrivalled amount of knowledge and understanding about the psychology behind performing under pressure and how the brain works during these pressure situations. I am always happy to answer any questions
This article discusses the interventions that can be put in place to help performers to adopt a healthier attitude towards their sport. It follows on from a previous article ‘Motivation & Fear of Failure’ (February Articles) which discussed performers’ goal orientations, these being either dominantly task, or ego orientated. As research points out being highly ego orientated towards your sport can have negative consequences, with performance anxiety and fear of failure being the most commonly experienced symptoms. Task orientated athletes on the other hand are said to take a greater amount of enjoyment from their sports, play for personal satisfaction, learning, and development purposes. These players constantly experience the greatest levels of success, and reduced levels of fear and anxiety.
A performers goal orientations or motives to perform are strongly influenced by the environment he or she is subjected to over long periods of time. Parents, coaches, friends can all unknowingly be shaping the performers motivations and orientations for taking part in sport, this is especially the case through childhood and adolescents as we are more susceptible to learning at this age, however this is also the case in adulthood although the change process may be lengthy.
Ego orientated athletes who tend to experience the greatest ups and downs in their game, struggle to perform on the big stage yet are super stars during relaxed play, and who often experience the highest levels of performance anxiety and fears which often leads to drop out, tend to be subjected to an environment whereby the focus is dominated by results, beating their opponents with little effort, looking good, and having high social status. For example a coach who promotes an ego orientation may tell his players that “you have to win today, whatever it takes”, “you’re the best player/team here, there is no excuse not to win”, “You are ranked better than him, winning should be easy”. Often teams who don’t win at the weekend are made to do gruelling runs in training the following week as punishment, thus reinforcing that outcome or result of a game is the defining factor in success. Further reinforcement from parents when the performer walks through the door after a tournament is also very common, athletes can be bombarded with results focused questions such as “Did you win?”, “Did you score?/What was your score?”, and even if the player didn’t win… “Atleast you scored, it wasn’t your fault you lost” and “O well at least you beat Joe Bloggs from the other club”. Unknowingly everything that the performer is subjected to is outcome focused. The question that these performers end up asking themselves is “What if I don’t win?” this can act as the seed of doubt that soon becomes fear and anxiety.
However if we consider the motivational climate that the most successful teams and players are consistently subjected to it is very different indeed. It may surprise many people to know that winning and results is not the key point of focus here, instead success is defined as something different all together. Task orientated performers are taught by coaches and parents that success is going out and giving 100% effort for the whole game or on every shot, they are told that working hard with high levels of quality, and being the best that they can possibly be is being successful. Leaving no stone unturned in the pursuit of development and learning of ways to improve is what players who are free from fears and anxieties focus on. Parents who promote task orientation in their children ask questions such as “Did you have fun today”, “Did you enjoy it?”, “Did you try your hardest” and “What did you learn?”, often results aren’t even discussed. What the coaches and parents who promote these mastery environments relies is that winning and results are just a bi-product of controlling all the things that the performer can control, for example perfecting a golf swing, giving 100% of effort at all times, being totally prepared before a game, and working hard during training are all within the control of the performer, unlike ego orientated athletes who’s focus is on winning, looking good, and the outcome all of which are not under his or her control and therefore leads to anxiety due to a low locus of control over their performance. The essence of a task orientated performer and their core motives to perform are often summed up in the phrase “Be the best that I can be”, this statement is often never far away from the lips of top athletes and captures much of the traits of being task orientated.
It is important to be aware that change is not a quick process, with the best mastery environment in place reduced fear of failure and anxiety can be experienced over the course of a season but discipline is vital as relapses back to an ego orientation are commonly experienced early in the change process