Anxiety can be the main cause of poor sports performance. It spoils enjoyment, it prevents you from thinking straight and a negative state of mind can often lead to you simply 'giving up'. Dr Mark Chadwick and Marc Laithwaite discusses 'Evaluation Apprehension Theory' and mastering your arousal for optimal performance on race day.
The power of others to influence an individual’s behaviour is readily apparent in competition. Believe it or not, arousal is key to your success in sport, or perhaps I should say, your ability to manage your levels of arousal is crucial to be able to perform at your optimum. However, arousal is determined by psychological processes such as emotions, which, in turn, depend on higher cognitive functions like thoughts. In triathlon and other sports, arousal is usually linked to anxiety.
Anxiety is a negative emotional state with feelings of worry, nervousness and apprehension that is associated with the arousal and activation of the nervous system. Many of you will have experienced the classic signs of pre-race anxiety, clammy hands, dry mouth, butterflies, difficulty sleeping the night before, negative self-talk (what if I perform really bad, they are better than me, he/she’s trained harder than me, they’ll be looking at my splits afterwards, what will people think?).
Cottrell (1968) proposed that the drive increment resulting from the presence of others is produced by the performer’s concern that these others will be evaluating his or her performance. In other words, the increase in an athlete’s arousal is generated by evaluation apprehension. Let’s put this in simple language… When people are anxious, it’s commonly because they’re worried what others think of them.
The ‘Evaluation Apprehension Theory’ was proposed by Cottrell in the 70’s and is still well regarded today both in business and sport. He argued that we quickly learn that social rewards and punishments (for example, in the form of approval and disapproval) that we receive from other people are based on their evaluations of us. On this basis, our arousal may be modulated. In other words, performance will be enhanced or impaired only in the presence of persons who can approve or disapprove our actions.
A race is no more than swimming, cycling and running as fast as you possibly can. This is something that you do regularly in your training sessions, so as an athlete, you should be used to discomfort. What changes on race day is the fact that there’s other people watching and directly comparing you against other competitors. It’s probably not the activity or the thought of suffering which makes you anxious, it’s the thought of others judging you.
The effect of having others present during performances can be either positive or negative. An audience generally affects a person’s ability to carry out a task, either by making their performance improve (social facilitation) or by making it deteriorate (social inhibition). If you are confident in your ability, then being watched makes you perform well, because, in effect, you are showing off. But if you are not confident, then you will constantly be worrying about being evaluated which can lead to feelings of embarrassment and/or self-consciousness.
Let’s consider the classic ‘pot hunter’, best defined as the ‘talented athlete’ who only ever seeks out events where they know the competition will be inferior, or only trains with athletes of lower ability. We all know them, they seek easy events as the positive feedback from winning gives them a huge boost, even if they were never physically tested. Then every now and again, an unexpected elite competitor shows up at the same event and their success is no longer guaranteed. The swing in confidence can be dramatic, because the positive feedback is now in danger.
Anxiousness arises from the thought of being negatively rated or not receiving positive feedback. For example, a relative ‘newbie’ to triathlon may feel a heightened sense of arousal not just because others are around, but because of the fear that others are observing their performance and are possibly ridiculing them. This can lead to an over-aroused state which leads to heightened anxiety and potentially impaired performance.
The thing is… we all know that at triathlon events or running events, people don’t ridicule newbies. Pretty much all events have people of all abilities and they’re extremely friendly and supportive. But here’s the thing… you know that because you’ve done them many times. Newbies don’t yet have enough experience, so they have to create a picture in their mind of what to expect and that picture can often include them looking ridiculous. Once they’ve took part a few times, their experience means they can relax a little more. That said, every new event is a new experience, with no prior history. Any new or unfamiliar situation has the potential to cause anxiety.
However, it’s not just the newcomers to the sport or the inexperienced that can be affected by the effects of this. Heightened arousal states and anxiety can affect even the most experienced and seasoned athletes. When an athlete develops a reputation based on previous performances, we place expectations upon this individual to achieve at a consistently high-level race after race
If you thought that the best or the most experienced competitors are the ones who don’t get nervous, you definitely need to think again. If you’re the guy who has won his age group year after year, or the girl who has qualified for Kona multiple times, these things bring their own pressures. Evaluation apprehension puts you in the high-risk category, as you are the person that everyone is expecting to perform. When people look at the results sheet, your name is the one they’ll search for and then judge your performance. You’re also perhaps the person that everyone would like to beat, you’re always a target.
Evaluation apprehension has of course moved into a whole new world over the last 20 years with the introduction of social media. Now everyone can see what you’re doing, 24/7 and they’re happy to judge you on it, by choosing to like or not like. Hence people feel the urge to crop, manipulate and filter their life and their training data to enhance social facilitation. But that’s a whole other discussion.
Now take note, it is the athletes who are the most skilled at regulating their levels of arousal who are the ones able to maintain a high level of performance time and time again. This process of regulation becomes a well-rehearsed and habitual skill. You may be pleased to know, effective strategies to help optimise levels of arousal can be applied to all, regardless of your ability.
So, what will others think of me? The big question is… does it really matter? Why do you care so much? It’s an easy thing to say, but unfortunately, we have become ‘socialised’ in recent years ever more so, to worry about others opinions.
Focus on the things that are in your control, prepare well and apply strategies to discover your optimal level of arousal so your performance is enhanced. There’s a whole host of things you can do to control anxiety and in coming weeks, we’ll outline some simple, practical things which you can apply on race day.
Dr Mark Chadwick is a Chartered Psychologist registered with the HCPC, a GB age-grouper and a member of Wigan Wheelers and Triathlon Club. Marc Laithwaite is an Ironman Age Group champ, owns The Endurance Store and has coached triathletes for 20 years.