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Understanding athletic performance and its relationship to stress, as well as how the two interact, is a necessary foundation for future objectives and studies. Currently, research only touches on the impacts of stress on athletic performance, but there is no clear prognosis on the various aspects that impact an athlete's performance, either favorably or adversely, providing additional barriers to understanding the issue. Evaluating multiple studies on the relationship between the two and identifying a link that exists between them is a definite start in understanding how stress affects athletes' performance. Stress and anxiety are the most basic forms of challenges that all athletes are faced with. These two problems are common in a daily life of any athlete, and since each athlete reacts to either of the two differently, the scope on how they affect an athlete’s performance is varied and broad. However, there is need to understand some reviews which have touched on the topic to gain a deeper understanding.
Stress and Anxiety in Sports
Despite numerous attempts to clearly define stress, the most common depiction of the term is that it is a physical, cognitive or emotional demand which is inclined to affect the homeostasis of the body. Without stress, the body would probably become less useful since it is its presence in life and sport which make them perform at different levels. In most presence, the term relates to any form of pressure from a wide range of factors work, marriage, illness, or death of a loved one (Bali, 2015). However, most researchers point to change as the most common denominator in all these forms of pressure. Through the loss of familiarity with what most people have gotten used to in their daily life routine, it breeds anxiety and with any change being viewed as a threat.
Performance in sports is not only a product of physiology and biomechanical factors, but psychological factors have a role to play in determining performance. Despite this, it is important to note that every player has a certain stress level required to optimize his or her game. Past experiences, coping responses and genetics are all determinants of different athletes stress levels on how their performance is affected. As with the case in life, stress in sports may be acute, episodic or chronic. Due to the nature of sports athletes’ professionalism which is not always continuous, stress in the area is mostly episodic, whether during a competitive match or championship game. Acute stress on the other hand, if not well exploited and managed it can evolve into an episodic stressor that can affect an individual in the long term as well as hampering one’s performance.
Psychological readiness has been an omitted aspect by most coaches and athletes who focus more on the physical preparedness part as opposed to the latter before any competition. However, in recent years athletes have been known to credit mental preparation as the most important factor in their performance success. 50% of discussions among athletes at an Olympic festival are related to stress and anxiety related problems (Humara, 1999). It is clear that athletes have become more aware of how their mental/psychological state is affecting their importance and the fact that they are asking more advice or dedicating more time in understanding this aspect is reason enough of its importance in their profession. Concerning performance to the genre of emotions, 70% of the questions raised or debated upon at international conferences and seminars on sports psychology relate to anxiety and aggression (Bali, 2015). The effects that the challenge has on athletes are an open secret with stresses resulting from non-fulfillment of needs; continued stresses create anxieties, and anxiety leads to tension.
Regardless of an athlete’s skill, cognitive anxiety has been found to exert a powerful influence on performance while somatic anxiety remains the same. For example, athletes competing in a high critical match or tournament are considered to poses significant levels of cognitive anxiety including, feelings of nervousness, fear, and apprehension. It is, therefore, clear that the mental interpretation that an athlete gives to a situation influences an effect on their performance and how they are going to deal with the situation. Also, successful athletes interpret arousal to be facilitative. Further studies have established that the strongest predictor of cognitive anxiety is years of experience such that an individual who has had numerous previous expertise in a particular sports tournament has a lower level of cognitive anxiety. This is common among athletes in swimming and basketball sports where skilled athletes cope well under existing pressure, unlike rookies. Hence, cognitive anxiety is best predicted through a detailed evaluation of previous performances, goal setting and individual’s perception of preparedness.
The stress response curve developed by Nixon P. in 1979 is another aspect which has over the years established a fundamental understanding on stress and performance levels. The curve developed explains the interaction between the two adequately in theoretical terms. As the degree of stress increases so does performance up to the point of healthy tension. It is common that most individuals have a comfort zone where stress is manageable and can be handled well without issues, but the problem starts when stress becomes overwhelming once this takes place an individual either becomes exhausted, ill health or breaks down (Bali, 2015). On the positive side when stress management is effective within an individual performance level increases which benefit the individual. When an athlete is under pressure to meet certain goals or win a tournament, such stressors facilitate better stress response thus high levels of performance. For example, the audience in a given tournament acts as demand stressor pushing the athlete to run faster and become more active and in turn succeeds in it because of the pressure obtained.
However, the stress curve also points out to some negative impacts that stress has on athlete’s performance. Stress sometimes can be uncontrollable or unmanageable which induces a drastic decrease in performance levels. Athletes decline in productivity and enthusiasm to perform when stress becomes overwhelming, for example, too many expectations that are unrealistic, sick relatives among other things. The stressors influence bad relationship and if not carefully managed they take effect on the athlete and limit their performance until resolved.
The self-confidence that individual athletes possess significantly differ among elite and novice athletes. Advanced athletes have significantly higher levels of self-confidence. Most researchers focus on the perception of preparedness and external conditions as predictors of self-esteem while in others, the amount of ability that an athlete believes he or she possess has been a significant determinant. Such a depiction makes sense due to the individual’s previous experience which acts as a confidence builder for most athletes where they get better in every challenge they face. While somatic and cognitive anxiety both account for a greater proportion of inconsistency in performance, so does self-confidence. For high performing athletes, self-confidence acts as a protective factor against cognitive stress which might lead to tension and physical anxiety experiences (Cowden, Fuller, & Anshel, 2014). While some research focuses on single variables, a better understanding of the effects of anxiety and stress on athlete performance calls for a multidisciplinary approach. Athletes with low somatic and cognitive anxiety but a high self-confidence perceive their overall stress levels as facilitative of athletic performance. Furthermore, team sports athletes have greater confidence and lower somatic anxiety as opposed to individual sports where the perception is vice-versa. Diffusion of responsibilities occurring in teamwork sports as opposed to individual sports is an explanation of such results (Parnabas, Mahamood, Abdullah, & Shapie, 2014). Gender differences also play a part in the relationship between the varying anxieties. Females have a lower self-confidence and higher somatic anxiety than males do (Fernandez-Fernandez et al., 2014). Furthermore, the location of the sports event has also seen studied in various studies, finding that away games result in increased somatic anxiety and lower self-confidence.
Adolescents regardless of gender have a significantly high level of cognitive and somatic anxiety and lower levels of self-confidence as the ability of opponents’ increases. Male adolescents’ cognitive and somatic anxiety is more strongly affected by their awareness of opponents’ ability and the probability of winning. Hence, male adolescents’ pressure points fluctuate when depending on their opponents’ expertise or skill in a given field of sport as well as their success rate. On the other hand, female self-confidence and cognitive anxiety are determined by their readiness to perform and the perks that come about from performing well.
All these indifferences on anxiety and stress in athlete performance with variables ranging from gender and experience indicate the need for the development of interventions tailored individual needs. It is clear that tension exerts a variety of effects on athletic performance and these effects vary, therefore, considering all the types of anxiety in any intervention is critical.
Diaphragmatic breathing and relaxation techniques are essential when it comes to preventing anxiety in sports performance. Both methods require simple practice to learn, and their application does not require specific regulations to adapt to. There are different relaxation techniques, however, to help in preventing various causes of anxiety from increased heart rate, blood pressure, or difficulty in breathing. Additionally, relaxation reduces both somatic and cognitive anxiety thus underpinning its importance. Their scope also goes beyond before competition preparation but after the end of the performance as well when athletes are faced with difficulties in reducing their arousal levels once the competition has ended. For example, progressive muscle relaxation has gone a long way in helping athletes with sleeping difficulties before and after games due to fatigue. Other studies have also pointed the importance of the collaborative use of different techniques to become more effective. Imagery focusing on relaxation coupled with other relaxation techniques works efficiently as well. It helps athletes grasp the whole concept of relaxation and the needs it helps the body meet to fight off somatic and cognitive anxiety.
Imagery and mental rehearsal of tasks are also beneficial and seek to improve individual athlete performance. It allows athletes to become more familiar with the task ahead and provides positive feedback of their imagined performance on what to change, how to overcome certain issues among other things. Collegiate athletes have been successful applicants of this intervention with most individuals participating in the model having a significantly greater increase in sports performance and competition anxiety as opposed to other methods (Curtin, Munroe-Chandler, & Loughead, 2015). Visual imagery function effectively especially in helping prevent cognitive anxiety since its predictors are both visual and motivational arousal imagery, both of which are components of the intervention. Additionally, visual imagery is also predictive of somatic state anxiety, and motivational mastery imagery is predictive of self-confidence. All these factors attribute to all round athlete performance and help prevent critical pressures that athletes face including stress, anxiety, and self-confidence.
Bali, A. (2015). Psychological Factors Affecting Sports Performance. International Journal Of Physical Education, Sports And Health, 1(6), 92-95. Retrieved from http://www.kheljournal.com/archives/2015/vol1issue6/PartB/1-5-77.pdf
Cowden, R., Fuller, D., & Anshel, M. (2014). Psychological Predictors of Mental Toughness in Elite Tennis: An Exploratory Study in Learned Resourcefulness and Competitive Trait Anxiety. Perceptual And Motor Skills, 119(3), 661-678. http://dx.doi.org/10.2466/30.pms.119c27z0
Curtin, K., Munroe-Chandler, K., & Loughead, T. (2015). Athletes’ imagery use from a team-level perspective and team cohesion. International Journal Of Sport And Exercise Psychology, 14(4), 323-339. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1612197x.2015.1036096
Fernandez-Fernandez, J., Boullosa, D., Sanz-Rivas, D., Abreu, L., Filaire, E., & Mendez-Villanueva, A. (2014). Psychophysiological Stress Responses during Training and Competition in Young Female Competitive Tennis Players. International Journal Of Sports Medicine, 36(01), 22-28. http://dx.doi.org/10.1055/s-0034-1384544
Humara, M. (1999). The Relationship Between Anxiety and Performance: A Cognitive-Behavioral Perspective. The Online Journal Of Sport Psychology, 1(2). Retrieved from http://www.athleticinsight.com/Vol1Iss2/CognitivePDF.pdf
Parnabas, V., Mahamood, Y., Abdullah, N., & Shapie, M. (2014). Cognitive Anxiety and Performance on Team and Individual Sports Athletes. International Colloquium On Sports Science, Exercise, Engineering And Technology, 301-308. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-107-7_32
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