manage the effects of pressure and anxiety is an essential component of successful sports competition, but many athletes have difficulty with this. For instance, previous research investigating why Olympic athletes seek the assistance of a sports psychologist reported that the majority of such consultations were related to stress or performance anxiety issues (Murphy, 1988). Sports psychology focuses on the study of the psychological factors that affect performance in athletics, physical activity, and exercise and applies these factors to improve individual and/or team performance. The major focus for increasing performance is by managing emotions and affect as well as diminishing the psychological effects of prior poor performances or injuries. Due to the complexity and impact of anxiety on sports performance there has been a great deal of research in sports psychology investigating the relationship between anxiety and athletic performance. This paper will review the issues from a cognitive-behavioral perspective as well as discuss the efficacy of cognitive-behavioral treatments used by sports psychologists for dealing with performance anxiety. Before discussing the techniques of managing anxiety as utilized by sports psychologists, it is first important to examine the conceptualization of anxiety and it's relation to human performance.
Anxiety has long been known to affect performance on a number of tasks and in a number of situations. The general perception is that anxiety has a negative effect on performance, but this is a misperception. One of the oldest theories in psychological science, the Yerkes-Dodson law (Yerkes & Dodson, 1908), described the relationship between anxiety (arousal) and performance and the results are often depicted as an inverted U-shaped curve indicating that low and high levels of anxiety (arousal) are detrimental to performance and that performance is improved at medium levels of anxiety (arousal). However, the depiction of a strict inverted U-shaped curve as presented in many textbooks and lectures are not accurate. For example, the relationship between anxiety and arousal to performance is much more complex and depends on the type of task involved as well as individual differences in tolerance for anxiety. Very simple tasks are performed as well or better (depending on the task) at high and medium levels of anxiety, whereas performance on more difficult or complex tasks decreases at high levels of anxiety (Anderson, Revelle, & Lynch, 1989). This added variation in the Yerkes-Dodson law, which was described in the original data, explains such phenomena as flashbulb memories that occur during traumatic episodes and fear conditioning in animals and humans. Moreover, the optimum level of anxiety or arousal for task performance is quite variable and will differ from person to person. Nonetheless, the Yerkes-Dodson law has been very resilient and has been supported by empirical research including much-cited recent studies investigating the effects of glucocorticoid levels and human memory performance. Higher and low levels of glucocorticoids (hormones produced by stress) were associated with decreases in long-term potentiation (the neural process of forming long-term memories) producing a memory performance resembling the inverted U-shaped curve described by Yerkes and Dodson across individuals (Lupien, Maheu, Tu, Fiocco, & Schramek, 2007).
While the Yerkes-Dodson law has been helpful in assisting to understand how arousal levels affect performance, an issue with the prior research on the relationship between anxiety and performance is that the concept of anxiety is often not satisfactorily defined. Often terms like stress, anxiety, arousal, and activation are used interchangeably, but in reality there is a progression from stress to arousal to anxiety. For current purposes we will define stress in terms of Jones (1990) as a state that results from demands placed on a person that require them to instigate some form of coping behavior. Arousal is a signal (physical, affective, and cognitive) that the person has encountered a state of stress, whereas anxiety occurs when the person doubts their ability to cope with the stressful situation (Hardy, Jones, & Gould, 1996). The relationship between anxiety as a state and as a trait is also important. State anxiety is situational in nature and often associated with autonomic nervous system arousal, whereas trait anxiety is more global and represents an individual world view used for more general coping and responding (Spielberger, 1966). Individuals with high trait anxiety will focus on the effects of state anxiety such that when people high in trait anxiety experience state anxiety they often attend to threat-related information, whereas those low in trait anxiety who are state anxious will focus away from such threat-related information (MacLeod, 1990). Thus, an athlete who is low trait anxious would find moderate to high state anxiety conducive to performance (via the Yerkes-Dodson law), but athletes that are high trait anxious would experience a detrimental performance related to state anxiety at moderate to high levels (Hardy et al., 1996).
When anxiety interferes with performance it does so by diverting concentration, decreasing confidence, and disrupting emotional control. Choking under pressure is defined by Baumesiter (1984) as decrements in performance that occur under circumstances that increase the importance of good performance. Competition would be such a situation. Baumeister implies that the pressure (stress) increases the conscious attention to the performer's own performance, reduces confidence (increases anxiety) and this increased conscious attention disrupts the automatic or over learned nature of the sports execution. In a series of experiments he found that individuals low in dispositional self-consciousness were more susceptible to choking under pressure than those high in dispositional self-consciousness. In order for a situation to induce a stress or choking response, it has to be interpreted as being novel, and/or unpredictable, and/or out of the individual's perceived locus of control, and/or executed in the presence of a social evaluative threat (Lupien et al., 2007).
Sports psychology researchers attempted to account for the differences in the performances of individuals related to anxiety via several models and theories. These models include multidimensional anxiety theory (Martens, Burton, Vealey, Bump, & Smith, 1990), catastrophe models (Hardy, 1996), reversal theory (Apter, 1982), and zones of optimal functioning models (Hanin, 1986). Despite the model of used to conceptualize how individuals react to anxiety the research it is clear that athletes need to be able to control their anxiety in order to produce peak performances during competition. Often when an athlete demonstrates a large divergence between practice performance and performance during competition this suggests that the athlete is having a hard time achieving an appropriate level of arousal or is being affected by performance anxiety (Butler, 1996).
It is plain that high levels of anxiety exert a mixture of different effects on athletic performance that vary based on the particular sport, the athlete's gender (males appear to have more difficulty with performance anxiety than females, Jones, Swain, & Cale, 1991), and the experience level of the athlete. In order to assist in obtaining peak performances by athletes, sport psychologists need to concentrate on the three different factors discussed earlier: stress, arousal, and anxiety. A good deal of research suggests that athletes who interpret their anxiety as being conducive to their performance often have higher scores on measures of self-confidence and lower scores on measures of stress and arousal (Jones, Swain, & Cale, 1996). A goal for the sports psychologist would be to work towards achieving this balanced mental state in their clients. There are a variety of treatment approaches that are available for the treatment of performance anxiety in athletes, but most focus on cognitive-behavioral methods.
Males and females differ in the factors that increase their stress, arousal, and anxiety levels. In males, their anxiety appears to be more dependent by their perception of their opponent's ability level and his probability of beating them, whereas, in female athletes their anxiety levels appear to be determined by their perceptions of their readiness to perform and the significance that they personally placed on performing (Jones, Swain, & Cale, 1991). These gender differences indicate that when developing interventions for performance-related anxiety they need to be tailored to the individual's need and consider multiple factors.
Prior research has examined the effectiveness of cognitive-behavioral interventions for performance anxiety. The initial research was based anxiety reduction in clinical settings and later research looked at how these programs could be applied to athletes in specific sports. Most of the research has suggested that successful cognitive-behavioral treatment for performance anxiety improved athletic performance by reducing anxiety and improving self-esteem in athletes (e.g., Holm, Beckwith, Ehde, & Tinius, 1996; Meyers, Schleser, & Okwumabua, 1982; Savoy, 1997). It may be that the individualized nature of the treatment led to improvements in self-confidence as when group treatment is compared to individual treatment the increase in self-confidence abates (e.g., Savoy & Beitel, 1997). This may suggest that individualized treatment programs are beneficial for athletes with low self-confidence, whereas, other factors associated with performance anxiety can be addressed in a group format.
Several specific techniques are commonly used in cognitive-behavioral management of performance anxiety. Relaxation is a technique often used for reducing arousal and anxiety. The use of progressive muscle relaxation is most often recommended (Butler, 1996). Imagery and mental rehearsal are also beneficial to…