Competition can make athletes react both physically (somatic) and mentally (cognitive) Essay

What are stress, anxiety and arousal? People often confuse these three and put them together as being the same. For the purpose of sport psychology they must be looked at as three different entities.

Competition can make athletes react both physically (somatic) and mentally (cognitive), stress, arousal and anxiety are terms used to describe this.

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> Arousal: general physiological and psychological activation varying on a continuum from deep sleep to intense excitement.

> Anxiety: negative emotional state with feelings of nervousness, worry and apprehension associated with activation or arousal of the body.

> Stress: state of tension that is created when a person responds to the demands and pressures from external sources, e.g. work and family, as well as those that are internally generated from self-imposed demands, obligations and self-criticism. There are two other kinds of stress:

1. Eustress: positive stress resulting in feelings of joy and happiness; e.g. winning an important competition.

2. Distress: negative anxiety response when we feel we can’t cope with demands.

There are four different kinds of anxiety:

1. State anxiety: temporary ever changing emotional state with feelings of apprehension and/or tension.

2. Trait anxiety: a feature of personality. Person perceives non-dangerous circumstances as threatening and responds with state anxiety reaction.

3. Cognitive state anxiety: the degree to which one worries or has negative thoughts.

4. Somatic state anxiety: concerns moment changes in perceived physiological activation.

Anxiety can be caused by a number of determining factors. Different athletes from different walks of life have different forms of anxiety. An athlete from a third world country may be competing in order to feed his family, this could put a great amount of pressure on the athlete to perform to the best of his ability, while athletes from more developed countries may be competing for the excitement of the sport.

In the case of a runner anxiety and arousal can greatly affect performance. Before an event if a runner is getting anxious they will start showing some of the symptoms:

; Cognitive (mental) symptoms:

Feeling heavy

Negative thoughts

Poor concentration

Fear loss of confidence

; Somatic (physiological) symptoms

Increased blood pressure

Pounding heart

Increased respiratory rate


Increased adrenaline

Muscular tension

Feeling weak



All of these reactions of anxiety can lead to a depleted performance, they will affect energy levels and lead to a decrease in energy levels and hydration, so it is important that an athlete is able to control their levels of anxiety or they risk not performing to their potential or being unable to finish a race.

There are few theories that have been designed in order to try and link performance anxiety and arousal:

; Inverted ‘U’ theory. (Landers and Boutcher, 1998)

This theory states that as arousal levels increase so will the level of performance, but only to a certain optimal level of performance. Beyond the optimal level, performance will get worse if arousal levels increase.

Catastrophe model (Hardy, 1996)

Similar to inverted ‘u’ theory, however beyond optimum level of arousal, performance drops away completely not just in little amounts.

Drive theory (Spence and Spence, 1966)

According to the Drive Theory if an athlete is appropriately skilled then it will help them to perform well if their drive to compete is aroused – they are “psyched up”. As arousal increases, performance increases.

There are few examples of athletes being affected by anxiety and stress:

; Paula Radcliff (Olympic marathon Greece 2004)

Everyone was giving overwhelming backing to one British athlete to come home with the gold, Paula Radcliffe. It apparently seemed people thought all she had to do was turn up in order to win the gold. These expectations were not even based on evidence that she was as fit as she had been in previous competition. Because of vast pressure and media attention she decided to train alone in the south of Spain instead of at the British team’s training camp. Throughout her career she has won races by going to the front and basically trying to burn the opposition away, but it didn’t happen this time, they stayed with her and then started to go in front. With not being totally confident in her own form she gave up around the 23 mile mark, falling to the wayside in tears having to be supported by fans.

After failing to achieve gold in the marathon Paula decided to go ahead with running the 10000m. Deciding to run the 10000m is seen as a big mistake by many, there was no way she was going to be able to run a full 10000m against people with fresh legs, having run 23 miles in the week followed by huge emotional trauma. Before the 10000m Paula’s arousal levels would have been very high, thinking if she would finish or even get a podium finish, hence, according to the inverted ‘u’ theory, the fall in her performance was due to over arousal.

> Lasse Viren, David Bedford and Mohamed Gammoudi (Olympic 10000m Munich 1972).

David Bedford was the Paula Radcliffe of 1972; there was a vast amount of pressure on him going into this race as the big ‘British hope’. Having set three British records at three different distances he went into this race as a favourite. During the heats he looked like a medal hope but finished a disappointing 12th in the actual race.

The Olympic heats were the Olympic debut of an unknown athlete by the name of Lasse Viren.

Just before the halfway mark the 23 year old stumbled and fell, and it seemed like his chances of winning also fell. Traditionally if a runner falls during a race it has a catastrophic affect on the runner, but Viren got to his feet kept running and went on to break the world record as well.

When Viren fell another athlete fell over the top of him, Mohamed Gammoudi. In complete contrast Gammoudi, 5000m gold medallist in 1968, gave up two laps after he fell, when a 100m gap had opened up between him and the front pack.

In order to give you an idea of how big an achievement it is to get up and win a race after falling, it has been voted the no. 1 comeback of all time in the Observer.

In the case of Lasse Viren I think his optimal level of arousal was higher than that of Mohamed Gammoudi and therefore his performance increased to his optimal level, whereas Gammoudi went into over arousal and therefore his performance decreased.

In my own personal experience the link between anxiety, arousal and performance is clearly evident.

Throughout my school years I won the cross-country from 2nd year right through to 5th year. Won the 800m metres from 2nd through to fourth year and won the 1500m from 3rd year through to 5th year. In school competition I felt at ease participating against peers and without much of an audience.

When it came to inter school competition where the races became more important to me and there was also a large audience of other athletes my personal performances never really got to a level of which I was happy.

I think this can be best explained by the ‘social facilitation theory’ (Zajonic, 1965):

> Audience increases arousal level of a performer.

> This has a positive affect on simple tasks or for an unskilled performer.

> However, even for a skilled performer, audience effect is not always positive.

In the case of my own personal performance I don’t believe it was that I was an unskilled performer but the audience had a negative affect on me, but it could also have been because of the increased importance of the events that meant I was then over aroused and therefore my performance was not as good as it possibly could have been.

For an athlete there are some cognitive control strategies available:

; Mental imagery

; Self talk

; Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR)

Mental imagery involves the athlete visualising themselves reaching their goals and putting in a brilliant performance. Mental imagery can help to:

; See success

; Motivate

; Perfect skills

; Familiarise

; Set stage for performance

; Refocus

Mental imagery will help the athlete to think through how they are going to perform and build up their confidence. It can also help during an event if an athlete has a problem performing with an audience or even if they feel pressure from coach and media, especially in sports that require total concentration such as throwing penalties in basketball.

In the case of a runner mental imagery could be utilised to good effect at the start of a race when all the athletes are standing shoulder to shoulder. It will help a runner focus on running his own race and block out the stress of falling behind the leaders or even if they are the leader it will stop them feeling under pressure to run harder to maintain their lead.

Self-talk is another method of trying to boost confidence. It involves:

; Telling yourself the way that your are going to perform

; Telling yourself you are the best there is

; Telling yourself that you can cope with pressure

This is best utilised before an event when tension is mounting and arousal is increasing.

Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR)

This is the process of tensing and relaxing most of the muscles in the body one by one and then relaxing them. This trains the mind to eventually be able to relax muscles when needs be.

Can be useful for an athlete who has trouble sleeping the night before an event.

Both self-talk and mental imagery are best utilised in conjunction with PMR because the mind becomes more open to suggestions when body and mind are at ease.

Another technique many athletes swear by is that of ‘personal performance routines’. Many athletes have done this:

; Linford Christie: when standing at the start line of the 100m, would leap in the air six times and then crouch from a standing position six times.

; Long jumpers are also an example of personal performance routines in action; most of them stand before going down the runway and clap their hands in an effort to get the support of the crowd for their jump.

; Jon Drummond: his personal performance routine used to annoy his fellow competitors; he would stand at the start of the race yelping, dancing and working the crowd. He once ran a relay race with a comb in his hair and after that he has a comb in possession while he races, he claimed that the Europeans went crazy when they saw him with his comb before a race.

; Many cross country runners, and track athletes, crumple their number up before a race it is a good luck gesture.

; Some runners even wear the same clothes for a race by way of superstition, one female runner from America, Jeannie Craig, always wears the same sports bra in competition because she has never had a stitch while wearing it, she also ties a four leaf clover charm to her trainers which was a gift from a fellow runner.

Many runners have superstitions whether it be jumping on a hotel bed several times while at races away from home or keeping one sock rolled down during a race, these are ways of associating certain things with races that have brought them luck or certain things they have done just before they have won a race.

Underlying is a list of the resources I used to compile this task:

Sports management volume 8,2004