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May 26, 2021

Techniques to Control Stress and Anxiety in Sport

Health and Wellness

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Anxiety and stress are two terms that we are unfortunately getting too used to hear. Fast-paced lifestyles and high demands from several fields lead to negative consequences on our mental health. In the case of high-performance athletes, this demand is also increased by multiple factors associated with their sports practice.

However, anxiety disorders or stress effects are not the result of a specific stimulus. In the same situation, different athletes will end up achieving different results. Even the same person will face it differently, in different moments in their life, following numerous strategies to cope with what many people have called the 21st century disease. Could anxiety become an unexpected ally of athletes?

What do we mean when we talk about anxiety and stress?

It comes as a surprise to see that anxiety by itself is not negative for our body. In fact, it is an emotion that prepares us for something important, causing an important activation at a mental and physical level. As simple as that. The objective of this reaction is none other than to “wake up” our body for an immediate response to that event that is not necessarily bad. The night before a game can trigger our anxiety in the same way than witnessing a dangerous event or imagining that we are going to fly by plane. Consequently, anxiety is not only a completely normal emotion, but it is also necessary for our body’s proper functioning. Intending for it to disappear is one of the most common mistakes of those who are affected by it.

Something similar happens with stress. Stress is generally the mechanism by which we prepare ourselves to face a new, demanding, or dangerous situation. Whether such definition is familiar to you or not, it is not by a feeling of déjà vu: anxiety could be defined as the emotional response caused by stress, although they are not exactly the same. Authors such as Dr Antonio Cano Vindel, president of the Spanish Society for the Study of Anxiety and Stress (SEAS), explain that “stress is what we experience when we have to solve a problem, and anxiety occurs when we anticipate obtaining a negative result”. Seen that way, good anxiety and stress management can be useful. And this is a key learning for any elite athlete. An excessive level of activation—and, therefore, anxiety and stress—can cause a significant decrease in sports performance: lack of concentration, tachycardia, etc. However, it is of no concern whether this level of activation is too low or not since our reaction capacity will decrease accordingly. The objective must be to strike a balance so that our activation values are tolerable and allow us to make the most of our performance:

 

Source: retrieved from Yerkes & Dodson (1908)

In normal values, anxiety helps us face an eventual risk, and it allows us consequently to maintain some control over our body or mind in order to deal with this new situation. Precompetitive anxiety can be good if we use it for training or to visualise the game. Thus, perfectionism becomes the driving force behind our continuous improvement as well as anxiety and stress. If perfectionism is extreme and turns into neurosis, the search for our best version will lead to low levels of self-esteem, feelings of guilt or shame. Authors such as Jones (2003) state that levels of anxiety and stress are not decisive, but the way in which the athlete perceives it, whether as something favourable or unfavourable.

Controlling anxiety

If an athlete feels that they are losing the battle against anxiety, it is important to devise a strategy to turn the tables and get them to take advantage of it. And probably, the best first step we can take is to accept that anxiety has overcome us and to seek help from someone. Whether it is the coach or the psychologist, an appropriate psychological intervention in order to identify the problem, understand why it is happening and think about the best technique to deal with it is a key factor in the recovery of the player’s performance and mental health. Later, the application of these coping strategies will come, but never alone.

And what strategy is the best? There are general guidelines, but every strategy must be devised taking into account each person’s potential. There will be some for whom it will be easier to reflect on external factors, trying to find the origin of the problem so that they can channel their energy into understanding the reason for this anomalous situation and change it from its roots. Other people will choose to reflect on more external factors in order to mend the way changes in their environment will affect them, and thus prepare themselves for what the future holds. On the other hand, there will be people who will reflect in both ways.

 

Source: adapted from Anshel et al. (1997)

Among elite athletes, it is very common to detect strategies such as thought control, targeting of actions or emotional and behavioural management. In regard to specific techniques, some people lean towards internal dialogue, meditation, control of negative thoughts or damage, threat, or challenge assessment. All of them are useful when they are correctly applied and controlled by a professional.

However, there are other strategies that, despite being based on science, attract attention due to their peculiarity. For example, doing things wrong. It may sound strange, but it makes perfect sense. In many situations, the athlete senses that familiar feeling of being paralysed by analysis. In many cases, excessive perfectionism implies indecision, which makes our mind go blank. Many times, doing the opposite—accepting that things can be done badly, and nothing will happen—it will set our mind free from such burden and will make our decision making faster in any field, including sports.

Another technique contemplates waiting for worrying. Instead of getting worried in the face of any situation, it is recommended to avoid such behaviour until after a while. It may be not more than ten minutes, but that simple action will allow us to see things with a different perspective. Consequently, that thing we thought about as something disastrous will be less serious. After all, anxiety and stress should not be almighty. In fact, with the right help, there will always be a way to diminish them.

 

 Jose Valenzuela

 

Bibliography

Anshell, M.H., Williams, L., & Hodge, K. (1997). Cross-cultural and gender differences on coping style in sport. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 28, 141-156.

Jones, M. V. (2003). Controlling Emotions in Sport. Sports medicine, 17(4), 471-486.

Yerkes, R.M., & Dodson, J.D. (1908). The Relation of Strength of Stimulus to Rapidity of Habit Formation. Journal of Comparative Neurology & Psychology, 18, 459–482.

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