Anxiety is a state consisting of psychological and physical symptoms brought about by a sense of apprehension of a perceived threat. However, levels of anxiety can differ according to situation and the individual. Trait anxiety relates to an aspect of personality in which nervousness is a stable personality trait. State anxiety refers to temporary feelings of anxiety in a particular situation. Pre-competition anxiety is commonly experienced by athletes at all levels of ability, but at events perceived as more intimidating, perhaps due to the nature of the competition, anxiety levels can fluctuate.
Anxiety can affect both psychologically (cognitively) and physiologically (somatic). Poor concentration, lack of confidence, increased heart rate and feeling of apprehension or sickness are common negative effects of anxiety. There are various strategies you can employ to help you control pre competition anxiety and overcome any negative side effects.
Relaxation training involves the usage of various routines to help the body relax. Most of this training is required prior to competition in the form of Yoga or Pilates classes, from which you can implore techniques in the build up to competition. The use of music can also aid relaxation.
Breathing exercises can effectively enable an athlete to relax and prepare for competition, as increased levels of oxygen in the blood can facilitate the working muscles. For it to be effective, deep breathing needs to be practiced over time. This technique is crucial in reducing butterflies in the stomach. For it to be fully effective, first find a quiet place and close your eyes. Regulate your breathing by placing both hands on your stomach and feel it rise and fall as you breathe. Breathe in through your nose and out of your mouth. Recall your best performance and think of the positive feelings you experienced and their physical effects on your body. The more often this is practiced, the more successful it will become in reducing anxiety. Similar exercises can be carried out, picturing yourself at the seaside for instance, or another happy, relaxing place for you.
Goal setting is a simple but useful technique that is important in the reduction of cognitive symptoms. Giving athletes a meaningful direction allows them to focus on achieving their goals. Goals must be agreed with by the athlete and be process related goals and not solely outcome goals. The process of goal setting must be used as a method through which performers develop a route in order to achieve their goals.
Positive self-talk is a simple yet effective method to reduce anxiety, and like breathing techniques requires practice on a regular basis. A positive mind will provide a more balanced approach to competition and therefore provides an improved chance of success. Positive self-talk is the process of channelling your brain and directing thinking to support performance. A key part of anxiety is confidence, or lack of, positive self-talk is one of the most effective methods of instilling self-confidence. This in turn can reduce anxiety, due to the increased levels in self-belief. Having positive statements prepared for when situations of anxiety occur could be the difference between overcoming the anxiety and allowing it to ruin your performance. Positive statements such as “I have done this before, I can do it again” whilst recalling a previous competition that was successful and where you managed to achieve the goals you set out to achieve.
“Labelling” thoughts and feelings related to high levels of anxiety, can be an effective way to prepare athletes for competition. By labelling the thoughts and feelings, athletes can associate them with feelings of preparing for competition, thus removing their negativity and getting athletes “in the Zone”. For example, a swimmer can recognise their increased heart rate as a positive sign that they are well prepared for competition.
Emotional control is crucial for preparing you mentally for competition. It cannot be taught, you need to discover for yourself what situations increase your anxiety etc. The ‘Emotional Thermometer’ is a good method of keeping your anxiety in check. The ‘Emotional Thermometer’ is an imaginary tool that helps assess your level of anxiety and manage it early on, as combatting anxiety early on prevents it progressing and ruining your performance. It is comprised of three stages, much like a traffic light.
GREEN – means you are happy, stress free and able to think clearly.
YELLOW – means you are a little stressed and anxious and your thoughts have become affected by your anxiety.
RED – means you are out of control. Your thoughts are completely irrational and you have feelings of anger, frustration or disappointment.
These levels are subjective, but as long as you are personally aware of which anxiety levels fit in each bracket, through practice during training, the thermometer will be successful.
You should continually take your emotional thermometer prior to and during competition. If you are green, currently you are fine! If you stray into the yellow or red zone, you must have already thought out your plan of action to quickly lower your anxiety levels back to green and prevent detrimental effects to performance. When your emotional thermometer strays into yellow or red, employing some strategies stated above, such as positive self-talk will help you take control of the situation again and return to green levels.
Competition anxiety does not need to be a problem. With practice of relaxation techniques, you can control your pre-competition nerves and prevent them negatively affecting performance, and allowing you to reach your full potential.