Psychology in Sport: Anxiety, Stress and Sports Performance

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Erin Weeks – Unit 14 – Assessment Objective 6.  Sport and Exercise Psychology.

Sport and Exercise Psychology

Theories of Arousal/Anxiety and Sport Performance

According to psychologist, Sage (1984) – arousal can be defined as an:-

“An energizing function that is responsible for the harnessing of the body’s resources for intense and vigorous activity”

In a theoretical context, arousal is linked to the ‘energised’ state that drives a person to learn or perform effectively – and is therefore, associated with the intensity dimension of motivation.  Arousal has two different forms, one being a physiological state, called Somatic arousal and the second being Cognitive arousal. Much evidence identifies these two states of arousal - clarifying that arousal is not just an internal state but can be a general mixture of both physiological and psychological experiences that each amount in to one.   Arousal is neither necessarily good nor bad; it represents the level of energy that a performer possesses.  Initially, arousal can be linked to motivation, as just as motivation, it can be related to the intensity and direction of behaviour of an individual.  

During high levels of arousal, the heart rate increases, breathing is much more constant and there is often a mere sign of perspiration.  These aspects – which are a result of high arousal levels - are linked to the Sympathetic Autonomic system – which also has influence on one’s respiratory volume, and metabolic rate.

Alongside arousal levels, anxiety is often a key factor.  As a result of high arousal, a sports performer can become anxious, which ultimately, if uncontrolled, can prove negative upon their performance because it is known as the negative aspect of stress response   With a distinctive balance of arousal and anxiety however – a state of ‘readiness’ to perform can occur, which initially has a positive effect on sports performance, as it can enhance an athlete’s ability to perform effectively.  


Sports psychologist Martens, developed the Competition Anxiety Test otherwise known as SCAT, which made an attempt at identifying sports performers who are likely to suffer or strive from anxiety in competitive situations.  It indicates that high trait anxiety leads to high state anxiety.  Where anxiety is an emotional state, it is closely linked to cognitive arousal, usually characterised by feelings of worry, apprehension and psychological tension.

According to sports psychologist Speilberger – there are two forms of anxiety: Trait anxiety and State anxiety.

Trait Anxiety

The official definition of trait anxiety is defined as:

“ A trait that is enduring in an individual.  A performer with high trait anxiety has the predisposition or the potential to react to situations with apprehension.”

Trait anxiety is identified in people who appear to be anxious throughout all activity.  Often this type of anxiety is genetically inherited and reflects the existence of stable individual differences.  An example of trait anxiety would be a cross-country runner, who never really appears to be affected by anxiety in any situation.

State Anxiety

The official definition of state anxiety is defined as:

“Anxiety that is felt in a particular situation – there are two types of state anxiety, somatic (the body’s response, e.g. tension and cognitive – the psychological worry over the situation)”

This type of anxiety is only experienced in certain situations.  It is a learned behavioural response, and unlike trait anxiety, it reflects unstableness in a person’s individual difference.  It can be controlled and manipulated to optimise performance.  An example of state anxiety would be that of a cricket batsman who only gets anxious when he has to bat.  

There are a number of different factors, which affect levels of anxiety in competition – these include:-

  • Individual differences; in the way people interact with a situation.
  • Different types of anxiety; trait anxiety and state anxiety. This is where performers who have high trait anxiety are more likely to experience high state anxiety in stressful situations.        
  • General or specific anxiety; those performers that are high anxiety trait performers, are more likely to become anxious in highly stressful situations, but are not always anxious in all stressful situations, because their anxiety levels tend to vary.  Depending on the individual; some performers may be very anxious when training for their sport, but when in a match situation - watched by a crowd, on different terrain and in a different environment – they do not suffer from anxiety.  
  • The competition process; this particular factor related to anxiety, involves the interaction between personality factors of an individual, competitive trait anxiety and the situation.  As a result of these interactions, a performer’s behaviour will be affected and can ultimately cause state anxiety.  

Theories related to Arousal, Anxiety and Sports Performance

The Inverted U Theory illustrated above, predicts the influence varying degrees of arousal has on performance.  This theory explains that, as arousal increases, so does the quality of performance, to a certain point – which is known as the “Optimum Arousal Point”.  Beyond this threshold, if arousal continues to increase, an athlete’s performance, according to this theory – will deteriorate.  

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At optimum levels of arousal, a sports performer is likely to perform at their most effective and efficient state; this is because when arousal levels are low, the perceptual field widens, selective attention is not in operation, concentration levels are low and as a result, the athlete is likely to make mistakes.  Consequently, when arousal levels are controllably high, and the athlete is ‘In the Zone’, selective attention is fully operational, the perceptual field begins to narrow and the potential to concentrate is maximised.  By and large, too little arousal has an inert effect upon the performer, whilst too ...

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