Dealing with competition anxiety in Sport and our daily lives
Athletes face anxiety in many situations – sometimes even as they compete. (Source: Stephenie Chen)
By Lim Jin Jie
Have you ever heard of athletes experiencing “pre-game jitters”? Well, experiencing competition anxiety is normal for athletes, but sometimes, when anxiety levels are unusually high, athletes’ sporting performance may be negatively affected. Sometimes, when taken to the extreme, anxiety levels can cause athletes to “choke” or severely underperform (Marchant, 2010).
What causes feelings of anxiety? There are many factors in the sporting arena which can contribute to an athlete’s anxiety. A few factors are related to environmental causes like the sporting event. For example, the uncertainty and unpredictability of the competition and its outcomes or the consequences of sporting performances, or the expectations from other people like family, coaches, team mates, and the media. Other factors concern individual athletes ie their own expectations of the competition, low confidence, or their fear of failure or embarrassment. Nevertheless, the causes of competition anxiety would vary from athlete to athlete, because of their own unique experiences (Marchant, 2010).
In the sporting context
For athletes, the key to managing their competition anxiety is through having effective coping strategies. Some of these coping strategies include focusing on the present, breathing, relabelling thoughts and feelings, and asking themselves what they can control. As every athlete comes with their unique circumstances, it is important for us to identify with them coping skills which may work best for them.
Coping strategies used by athletes (Source: Mind Matters booklet, SSI)
Here at Singapore Sport Institute (SSI)
During the first Circuit Breaker, SSI created a series of videos to share tips on how to live better through the circuit breaker. Click here to see the videos.
Our very own sport psychologist, Joyce, shared about the box breathing technique (5x5x5x5) - a technique which helps you calm down before reacting and easing your anxiety by slowing down your breathing rate.
Try it for yourself by following these simple steps! You may also follow Joyce’s instructions through this video here.
Step 1: Inhale for 5 seconds
Step 2: Hold your breath for 5 seconds
Step 3: Exhale for 5 seconds
Step 4: Pause for 5 seconds
Step 5: Repeat as necessary
If you have trouble holding your breath or breathing out for the duration stated, it is alright! You could practice it more as practice makes it close-to-perfect (as nothing can ever be perfect) or you could find another breathing technique that suits you.
Another technique used by our Team Singapore athletes to focus on the present, would involve a toy most of us are familiar with. You might have guessed it - it’s the Rubik’s Cube! They would learn how to solve a Rubik’s Cube and would solve it between rounds. It serves many functions like increasing mindfulness and reducing the likelihood of rumination.
Can we use these skills too?
Why not? Just like athletes, we can also experience anxiety in our daily lives, so that means that we can also employ the aforementioned coping strategies that athletes use to handle their anxiety. On top of that, we have other strategies that you can consider using!
Firstly, mindfulness is “the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally” (Kabat-Zinn, 2003), and research has shown that practising mindfulness is helpful in reducing anxiety (Blanck et al., 2018; Hofmann et al., 2010; Khoury et al., 2015) together with other forms of psychological well-being. There are Apps like Headspace or Calm which guide you in practising mindfulness. American psychologist Tara Brach also has a list of free guided meditations on her website.
Secondly, regular exercise has been shown to not only have benefits on physical health, but also on mental health. Exercise has been shown to significantly reduce anxiety symptoms in people with anxiety disorders and non-clinical populations (Kandola & Stubbs, 2020). As defined by the World Health Organisation (2021), adults are recommended to exercise between 75-150 minutes a week. Take the first step towards exercising and make it as fun as possible, for example by inviting your friends to exercise with you, or by going on a hike, or even attending that yoga class that you have always wanted to go for!
Competition anxiety? General anxiety? Put what we shared in this article to use the next time you feel anxious, no matter the situation!
Links to resources:
- Tara Brach’s guided meditations: https://www.tarabrach.com/guided-meditations/
- Headspace: https://www.headspace.com/
- Calm: https://www.calm.com/
Blanck, P., Perleth, S., Heidenreich, T., Kröger, P., Ditzen, B., Bents, H., & Mander, J. (2018). Effects of mindfulness exercises as stand-alone intervention on symptoms of anxiety and depression: Systematic review and meta-analysis. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 102, 25-35. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2017.12.002
Hofmann, S. G., Sawyer, A. T., Witt, A. A., & Oh, D. (2010). The effect of mindfulness-based therapy on anxiety and depression: A meta-analytic review. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 78(2), 169. doi:10.1037/a0018555
Kabat‐Zinn, J. (2003). Mindfulness‐based interventions in context: past, present, and future. Clinical psychology: Science and practice, 10(2), 144-156. doi:10.1093/clipsy.bpg016
Kandola, A., & Stubbs, B. (2020). Exercise and Anxiety. In Physical Exercise for Human Health (pp. 345-352). Springer, Singapore. doi:10.1007/978-981-15-1792-1_23
Khoury, B., Sharma, M., Rush, S. E., & Fournier, C. (2015). Mindfulness-based stress reduction for healthy individuals: A meta-analysis. Journal of psychosomatic research, 78(6), 519-528. doi:10.1016/j.jpsychores.2015.03.009
Marchant, D. B. (2010). Anxiety. In Hanrahan, S. J., & Andersen, M. B. (Eds,), Routledge handbook of applied sport psychology: A comprehensive guide for students and practitioners (pp. 260-269). Abingdon, Oxon, England: Routledge.
World Health Organisation (2020). Physical Activity. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/physical-activity
The Sport Psychology Department at the Singapore Sport Institute (SSI) provides comprehensive, holistic, and evidence-based psychology services to support coaches and sporting programmes in empowering individuals and teams to achieve peak performance. Sport psychology plays a critical role in performance enhancement as well as developing and maintaining athletes’ well-being within the competitive sports environment.