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Have you ever felt an overwhelming feeling of fear or nervousness, prior to competing in an important event? Did it affect your ability to perform? If so, you may be familiar with performance anxiety. An athlete suffering from performance anxiety often will perceive competitive situations as threatening, which can result in feelings of apprehension, fearfulness and tension (Patel, Omar, Terry, 2010). Interestingly, studies have found the prevalence of sport-related performance anxiety to be much higher in female athletes than male athletes (Thatcher, Thatcher, Dorling, 2004, Patel et al, 2010).
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Thatcher (2004) found that while examining temporal patterning of anxiety and hormonal responses prior to competition, females exhibited an “increases in cognitive and somatic anxiety intensity levels.” These symptoms can often result in performance that is well below demonstrated abilities, injury, or avoidance of participation altogether. The goal of this report is to outline symptoms and effects of performance anxiety, discuss factors that influence the phenomenon, and recommend anxiety-management techniques for female athletes.
Physical and Psychological Effects Athletes suffering from performance anxiety often exhibit cognitive, behavioural, and physiological signs and symptoms (Patel et al, 2010). Some of the main cognitive symptoms include; indecision, poor concentration, feelings of fear, and loss of self-esteem (Cox, 2007, p. 201). Behavioural signs and symptoms often consist of; demonstration of nervous habits, such as biting nails and fidgeting, withdrawal, aggressive or irritable behaviour, and perceived inability to compete. Physiological symptoms include; heightened blood pressure and heart rate, sweating, dry mouth, trembling, blushing and muscle tension (Patel et all, 2010). Hormonal changes can also play a role, as Thatcher (2004) found in his study, a decrease in adrenaline and nor adrenaline can be present in female athletes prior to competition.
Factors and Influences Common factors that can contribute to performance anxiety include; fear of performance failure, negative social evaluation and/or physical harm, as well as disruption of a well learned routine (Cox, p.201, 2007). The effects of these factors can be further heightened in correlation with importance of an event, or the level of competition. These fears and feelings of anxiety may affect the athlete’s perception of their abilities and hinder their self-confidence, which can be detrimental to their performance.
Patterns of perfectionism can also lead to sport-related anxiety, mainly involving setting exceptionally high performance standards of oneself (Cox, p.202, 2007). Setting high standards can often be beneficial to a performance, but athletes that succumb to unrealistic thoughts, that nothing but a perfect/ideal performance is good enough, are more likely to experience negative emotions and heightened levels of anxiety due to the discrepancy between ideal and current self/situation (Koivula, Hassmén, Fallby, 2001). Recommendations
Management of performance and competitive anxiety can be challenging. The first strategy would be to consult with a clinical psychologist, who will often suggest a behavioural approach. These approaches have been found to be the optimal coping strategy for sport-related anxiety, specifically Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) (Patel et al, 2010). CBT examines how attitudes, beliefs, opinions and behaviours are formed, how they affect success, and how changing them impacts on performance (Joseph, 2010, p.2).
The aim of CBT is to target and address negative thoughts and behaviours that underline anxiety symptoms. This is done by enforcing cognitive restructuring such as positive self-talk, modifying negative self talk and challenging negative expectations, as well as implementing relaxation techniques, exposure methods and relapse prevention (Patel et al, 2010). Coaches can also play an influential role in the factors that affect the development of performance anxiety. Athletes who perceive their coaches as supportive of their efforts experience higher levels of sport enjoyment and lower anxiety. (Smith, Smoll, Cumming, 2007)
Conclusion Performance anxiety can negatively affect an athlete’s state of mind, hindering their ability to successfully perform competitively, more commonly seen in female athletes. The physical and psychological effects can cause heightened stress in an athlete which can result in complete withdrawal from competition. Behavioural and cognitive interventions are used to teach the athlete coping skills and enforce relapse prevention plans, in hopes to rid the athlete of performance anxiety sign and symptoms.