In the past, anxiety has been defined as “an expression of an individual’s personality” (Singer, 1975, p105). This may appear to some people as a very vague representation; however it may prove not to be that bad after all. Everybody becomes anxious from time to time, but the way we interpret this anxiety varies from person to person depending on several factors linked to personality. Some people may say that a more accurate and up to date definition would be that anxiety “is a negative emotional state characterised by nervousness, worry and apprehension” (Weinberg & Gould, 2003, p79). This is a far more concise illustration, yet it clearly states that anxiety is a ‘negative’ factor, while it has also been proven to produce positive outcomes. Anxiety is only negative when individual perceives it as being negative.
The level of anxiety in a situation relates to the amount of stress involved, skill level and the nature of the activity. For example, performers may gain anxiety from the crowd or opponents they fear, if their mind focuses on this, or they may simply just not feel like taking part in the event. State anxiety refers to this “ever-changing mood component” (Weinberg et al 2003, p79). These components could be for example state of mind on day, environment, situation, or the weather. All these factors will play a key role in the way that we interpret our anxiety. In the Journal ‘Anxiety and the Ironman’ by Hammermeister and Burton, they talk about an experiment where they tested the anxiety levels of triathletes. Through this they found out that anxiety was interpreted in several different ways.
For example, some triathletes saw the excruciating events as a “tremendous challenge”, whereas others perceived it as a “threatening experience”. This underlines my point that anxiety is not necessarily a bad thing and that it is only negative when we recognise it as a negative factor. In separate experiments in 1965 and 1967, Epstein and Fenz studied the correlation between novices and professionals. They used 33 beginners, and 33 experienced parachute jumpers and tested their anxiety levels from a week before the jumps. They found that the novices apprehension gradually built up throughout the week reaching its optimum seconds before the jump, whereas the professionals portrayed their biggest amount of anxiety on the morning of the jump and this decreased until the event.
This indicated to me that “high arousal is experienced as pleasant excitement” (Kerr, 1997), within elite performers and that cognitive anxiety is reduced when you are experienced in your field. In 1990, Martens, Vealey and Burton came in with the competitive state anxiety in inventory-2 (CSAI-2) to differentiate between cognitive and somatic components of state anxiety. It has been proven to be the most accurate and reliable sports anxiety theory to date as it found out that cognitive anxiety remained stable prior to competition while somatic anxiety increased significantly just before the event. Notice this is similar to the way the experienced parachute jumpers handled their anxiety in the test by Epstein et al. The point I’m attempting to get across is that it is the way a performer can turn a negative into a positive, just by their state of mind.
Some sportspeople are better at controlling anxiety than others, sometimes due to their genetics. This is known as trait anxiety. Individual traits and the way performers react to different situations, can seriously affect the way an athlete handles anxiety. Strong-minded individuals can overcome anxiety and use it to their advantage by using various methods including rational thinking, self talk and visualisation, a point briefly addressed by Giacobbi and Weinberg in 2000.
These are the type of athletes who use anxiety as a catalyst to improve their performance. They may do this by using selective attention, shutting out all external factors and focusing on their own personal performance. The somatic anxiety that builds up just before an event, like butterflies or sweaty palms have been proven to enhance performance. From a personal point of view I can clarify this, as I have experienced these physiological values from anxiety in past experiences. Whilst being an elite 800m runner, I would experience both cognitive and somatic anxiety prior to a prestigious event. Days before, I would become apprehensive and perceive injuries such as muscle strains, which probably weren’t really there.
My race plan would be continuously playing in my mind which subconsciously produced more anxiety. However when it came to the day, I would often perform well and use that anxiety to increase my level of performance. Without the anxiety that had gradually been increasing throughout the week, I do not feel that I would have ever produced the regular adrenalin rushes present in many of my performances. The anxiety helped me to achieve numerous personal best times and assisted in the many titles I won during my short career. For example, if I was running in my school sports day I would not become anxious and alert, as I knew it was a race I can easily win. However, this had negative effects as I rarely ever ran a good race without any pressure.
There is a lot of evidence to suggest that anxiety does indeed produce positive effects on performance. Sports psychologists have been researching the effects of anxiety on performance, and yes they have reported mixed results, but overall they revealed “several implications of helping people psych up and perform better – rather than psyching out and performing poorly” (Weinberg et al, 2003, p85). In 1977 Mahoney and Avener did extensive research regarding the anxiety levels during the gymnastics qualifying for the Olympics. In a statement they suggested that “gymnasts chosen for the Olympics reported greater anxiety than those that did not qualify”.
This is startling evidence which confirms that anxiety plays a big part in the enhancement of explosive sports. Another explosive sport which has been proven to be improved by anxiety is rugby. Former England goal kicker Rob Andrew once said after a defeat by Scotland; “strange, but I didn’t feel as nervous as I thought I would. Perhaps this was the trouble” (Bull, Albinson & Shambrook, 1996, p106). So it has been proven that explosive sports require anxiety to achieve an optimum level of performance, however I feel that sports such as shooting and snooker would require substantially less anxiety due to the calm nature of the sport.