Performance Anxiety and the Catastrophe Model

Performance anxiety is something that every athlete has to deal with. No one is exempt from it, but everyone copes with it a little differently. The key is how to control anxiety leading into competition so that it does not negatively impact your performance. Mental anxiety can seem like it is a very personal and individual issue that you alone are dealing with. Whenever dealing with a mental problem, I believe it is helpful to take a step back and analyze it from an objective standpoint. What does research say about performance anxiety?

Miguel Humara compiled an extensive list of research looking into the psychology behind sports performance and anxiety. The research included the Catastrophy Model, which maps the interaction of physical arousal, cognitive anxiety, and performance. Arousal is defined as the physical symptoms the athlete experiences leading up to competition such as increased heart rate for example. Cognitive anxiety is the mental worry that one feels regarding performance, such as the chance of failure.

The Catastrophe Model

In the model shown above, when anxiety is low, performance follows an inverted U path as arousal increases. This means that performance is the optimized at moderate physical stimulation. Even when anxiety is high, if physical arousal is low, such as the day before or morning of competition, performance is not drastically affected. The model states that once physical arousal and anxiety are high, there is a steep drop off in performance, thus the name catastrophe model. The only way to improve performance after the “catastrophe” is to lower levels of physical arousal.

Although knowing all of this might be interesting, the challenge is actually being able to impact and control your levels of anxiety and arousal. Controlling physical arousal can often be decreased by using deep breathing techniques, muscle relaxation, or mental imagery of what you are going to do in competition. Controlling anxiety can be more difficult, but also comes down to simply the outlook you have on both your feelings of anxiety and the competition. If the arousal is stimulated by the goal, it is often portrayed as anxiety. However, if it is stimulated by performance it is portrayed by excitement. Whether anxiety stays controlled or spirals out of control can often depend on the outlook you have on it. When you first recognize that you are anxious, it does not have to be a bad thing. Recognize that it is there, that it is a normal response to approaching competition, and that it just means you are starting your preparation.

The researchers offer cognitive restructuring, or changing the way you view the competition, as a method of coping with anxiety. This could include deciding how much importance the competition actually has on the grand scheme of your life. This does not mean that you should not care about the competition, but that when in the moment it may seems like your entire existence rides on this moment, that is not the case. Decreasing the importance of a competition does not mean that you will not give full effort either, but by lowering the importance of it in your head in the moment, your body will perform more efficiently. The key is to always perform at with full effort and full focus, and if in that moment you are winning, losing, messing up, or executing everything perfectly, your effort and focus will stay consistent.

One aspect of performance the researchers critique the Catastrophy Model of missing is self-confidence. Often self-confidence is the number one antidote to anxiety. It is the belief that your ability is good enough to perform the tasks required of you and reaching the goals you have set for yourself. The research has found differences in self-confidence between men and women. Self-confidence in men is often determined by their perception of their opponents ability, and their probability of winning. In women, self-confidence is more related to their feeling of readiness for the competition, and is often impacted by how important or how much weight the competition has.

Preparing mentally for competition comes down to having a system for how you deal with events or feelings that are either expected or unexpected. If your rival makes a comment and your heart rate starts racing, recognize that and breath deeply. If you start imagining of ways that you can fail, recognize that you are experiencing a little anxiety and focus instead on executing your performance perfectly, and remember how well prepared you are. Controlling your mental state often improves with more experience, but even research done on Olympic wrestlers found that those that performed relaxation techniques and had a process for dealing with anxiety had a greater chance of medaling than those who didn’t. Be confident in yourself and stay positive. Realize that you are not the only one that experiences anxiety before competition, but that you can be the one who is prepared and ready to deal with it.

You can read the research article here: http://www.athleticinsight.com/Vol1Iss2/CognitivePDF.pdf

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