Anxiety in Sport – Research Overview Part One

General Overview

Much of the previous research on anxiety in sport has been based on Martens et al. (1990) multidimensional approach to anxiety. Martens et al. (1990) proposed that anxiety consists of two components: a cognitive component, associated with worry, and a somatic component, associated with nervousness or tension.  Given this dichotomy, it was proposed that in order to reduce anxiety, an appropriate intervention should be used depending on the dominant component of anxiety.  For instance, relaxation exercises should be taught to athletes who suffer form higher somatic anxiety, whilst a self-talk exercise could help athletes with higher cognitive anxiety.  This hypothesis, however, found little support in the literature (Abouzekri and Karageorghis, 2010, Nesti and Sewell, 1997).

Further developments have explored the temporal pattern of anxiety.  For instance, Hanton et al. (2004) demonstrated that the frequency of cognitive anxiety symptoms tends to remain high in the run up to competition, whilst somatic anxiety increases dramatically as the competition nears.

Finally, the issue of facilitative or debilitative anxiety has generated debate amongst researchers where it is proposed that some athletes may interpret their anxiety symptoms as facilitative to performance whilst others may interpret them as debilitative (Jones, 1991).


Areas Of Debate

Labeling of Anxiety Symptoms as Facilitative

Jones (1991) was the first to look at anxiety as being facilitative or debilitative to performance, a component that has featured heavily in the research since and has informed practice.  However, Burton and Naylor (1997) questioned the validity of “facilitative” interpretations of anxiety symptoms, arguing that researchers may be mislabeling these experiences as anxiety when they may not be.  Alternatively, Burton and Naylor proposed that facilitative interpretations of anxiety symptoms might be better described as “challenge”, “self-confidence” or “excitement”.

More recently, Mellalieu & Lane (2009) have debated this issue between one another.  In particular, Lane cites the dubious psychometrics of the primary measure used to gauge facilitative/debilitative interpretations.  Lane therefore suggests that the theory supporting the concept of facilitative anxiety may also be flawed.  Mellalieu, on the other hand, argues that facilitative anxiety is an ecologically valid construct, translating well from theory to practice and is understood by athletes, coaches and other sport psychologists.

A more recent study by Neil et al. (2011) supports the validity of facilitative anxiety and Mallalieu’s argument.  The researchers interviewed athletes on their experiences of various stressors.  Neil et al. found that many athletes were able to rationalize or restructure initial experiences of anxiety as positive and ultimately facilitative to the up coming performance.  The researchers argue that this supports Eysenck and Calvo (1992, as cited in Neil et al., 2011) Processing Efficacy Theory, which postulates that if we experience anxiety, we increase our efforts to succeed.

In order to account for the complex nature of anxiety on performance and deal with the continuing ambiguity surrounding the concept of facilitative anxiety, Cheng et al. (2009) proposed an alternative conceptualization of anxiety, stating that anxiety is a negative emotion.  However, the authors also suggest that anxiety may hinder or facilitate performance depending on the athlete’s coping resources.  Where the athlete feels more in control of the situation, they may perceive themselves as being able to cope and therefore perceive anxiety as constructive to performance.  Alternatively, where the athlete feels they have little control, they may feel they lack the resources to cope and therefore anxiety may begin to cause a deterioration in performance.  Overall, Cheng et al.’s re-conceptualization of anxiety in sport appears to account for a greater number of complexities in role of anxiety in performance but currently lacks empirical research.

  • The Relationship Between Anxiety, Self-Confidence and Performance

The role of anxiety on performance has also lead to somewhat ambiguous findings.  In a meta-analysis of 48 studies, Woodman and Hardy (2003) examined the role of cognitive anxiety and self-confidence on performance.  The researchers found that over all, cognitive anxiety tended to account for just 1% of athletic performance.  Self-confidence on the other hand accounted for more than 5%.  Whilst both cognitive anxiety and self-confidence significantly impacted performance, self-confidence did so significantly more than cognitive anxiety, suggesting that confidence is more important for performance than anxiety regulation.

Similarly, research by Hays et al. (2009) has described how athletes with high self-confidence are “shielded” from any negative feelings such as anxiety.  By being shielded form the negative emotions, high confidence athletes are able to perform better and are more likely to be successful due to an increase in task focus.

However, another recent study by Woodman et al. (2010) casts a degree of doubt over the positive linear relationship between confidence and performance (see Fig 2).  Woodman et al. found that when they created a degree of self-doubt in participants who were to perform a well-learned task, they reported lesser degrees of self-confidence but ultimately performed better compared to participants in a control group.  This again supports Eysenck and Calvo’s Processing Efficacy Theory where the authors argue that the participants may have experienced a discrepancy in how they believe they will perform and how they want to perform, thus increasing effort.

  • The Broader Picture

Whilst most research in anxiety has focused on the use of mental skills to regulate anxiety at an individual level, there has been research completed on the role of the environment and its influence on anxiety.  Smith et al. (2007) looked at the effects of a task-orientated climate on athletes’ anxiety.  Researchers found that athletes whose coaches gave individualized feedback, emphasized effort, learning and mastery of skills, experienced a reduction in overall levels of anxiety compared to a control group.  Similarly, Abrahamsen et al. (2008) found that athlete’s achievement orientation (i.e. how they personally define “winning” – effort .v. outcome) had little effect on performance anxiety.  Instead, the researchers found that the perceived motivational climate of the whole team influenced anxiety, where a high performance climate (i.e. one orientated around winning and looking out for yourself) led to an increase in performance anxiety, especially amongst female athletes.

Article author:

Andy Blyth

Trainee Sport Psychologist