Psyched Online

Anxiety – Friend or Foe?

By Paul Schienberg PhD.

Let’s begin by getting on the same language page. For the sake of this discussion, Anxiety will be defined as an individual’s worrisome doubts regarding her/her ability to cope with a given situation. Two more definitions will help get us even further down the path toward an appreciation for the role that anxiety plays on performance. State Anxiety is considered to be situational in nature. Trait Anxiety is a world-view that a person brings to a situation in his/her environment. The interaction of state and trait anxiety impacts our abilities to perform.

There has been significant research on the effect of anxiety on performance. Statistics have shown that anxiety has a U-shaped curve impact on performance. If there is no anxiety about doing a particular activity, performance is poor. As anxiety begins to mount and reaches a middle range, performance scores increase. Passing the mid-range of anxiety and continuing to increase, performance drops off again. At the highest levels, performance is about at the same level as when anxiety was not present. The two points of greatest surprise are that no anxiety seems to be a detriment to performance and moderate anxiety is very helpful to performance. The fact that high anxiety is a detriment to performance fits into our common system of logic.

One short story might illustrate these ideas. A few years back, I was to appear for the first time on a call-in radio show. All the classical signs of high anxiety were effecting me: dry mouth, temples vibrating, hands shaking, perspiration under arms and on palms, etc. When I entered the studio, I was instructed where to sit at the octagon table. Microphones and headsets were in front of each seat. After selecting a seat, the host walked in and introduced himself. I watched myself reach out and shake his hand. I listened to us chatting for a few seconds. Then I asked him if I should take a Valium because I was very nervous. He noted that it was not a good idea – it was the anxiety that would give my voice life needed to come across to the listeners. He suggested that I use my imagination to put myself into an environment that was familiar to me. So, I decided that I would “make” everyone at the table as well as the listeners that called in be members of my group. Having had much experience running groups, I immediately felt some degree of reduced anxiety. This technique allowed me to use moderate levels anxiety to perform at my best. How did I know this you ask? I took the audiotape of the show home and played it on my stereo. The tape revealed someone who made complete sense and was very present throughout.

Let’s get back to sports. It is the bottom of the ninth with two out and my team is trailing by a run. We have men on second and third. Our best hitter has come to the plate and I am on deck. Their manager has gone to the pitching mound with the catcher. They are discussing whether to intentionally walk the batter. What do I hope they choose and why? If I want them to walk him so I can get the game winning hit, I enjoy the anxiety (excitement) of being in the midst of the dramatic action. My anxiety is being used in the service of performance. On the other hand, if I hope they pitch to him, my anxiety signals probable disaster ahead – it is too high and performance will be negatively effected. If I don’t care whether I hit or not, there is too little anxiety and probably my performance will suffer.

High trait anxiety athletes will attend more to information related to state anxiety. In other words, athletes with an anxious or insecure view of the world will have a strong tendency to concentrate on facts that create anxiety in the immediate situation. Try this! An athlete views management as making personnel decisions on a “what have you done for me lately” philosophy. There will be a high level of anxious vigilance regarding all the immediate situational factors (dampness, wind, clouds, time of day, outfit, past events, etc.) that might impact the degree of my success This would produce large amounts of state anxiety as well. Performance would be dramatically reduced. High trait anxiety athletes who experience high state anxiety will find their performance debilitated.

Low trait anxiety athletes attend away from situational threat related information. They have a great capacity to screen out those factors that could make the challenge more difficult. The old TV-show, MASH portrayed surgeons in the middle of a war zone. Regardless, they still had the capacity to ignore the situational anxiety elements and focus on the task at hand. Jackie Robinson comes to mind as well. He faced all sorts of situational threats and hate. Yet, he still was able to put these situational factors aside and play at a very high level. Monica Seles had been assaulted on the tennis court. It took her a few years to get past the understandable situational anxiety created by being on the court again. Because it was such a traumatic event, it increased her trait anxiety. It was impossible for her not to focus on the situational anxiety factors. Occasionally, there are major traumatic events that impact athletes and their ability to ignore situational anxiety factors are permanently damaged. As a result, they may never regain their old performance skills. Herb Score (pitcher – Cleveland Indians) was one of those athletes who was permanently effect by a line drive off the bat of Gil McDougall (Infielder – New York Yankees). The ball hit Herb Score in the head. From that moment he was not able to throw to home plate comfortably. The possibility of it happening again became overwhelming (trait anxiety).

Can an athlete’s anxiety levels be altered intentionally? Certainly! Relaxation techniques that are worth trying are hypnosis, meditation, and deep breathing. Creative visual imagery is a very powerful and successful method for changing the experience of life circumstances. I worked with a golfer who had a block regarding any hole that had a water hazard. No matter how hard he tried to swing “normally”, he kept hitting his golf ball into the water. He tried not seeing the water at all. It became like not seeing the pink elephant in the living room. We created an image of a vacuum tube that went from his ball to the other side of the water. His responsibility was just to get it inside the tube. The suction would take it the rest of the way. Another golfer with the same problem saw it like his digestive system. His job was to chew, swallow and let nature’s natural motions move it to the other end. I know it may be a smelly image. But, he liked it and his shots were going over the water. Don’t knock whatever works! It reduced his state anxiety.

In summary, anxiety (trait and state) can be a support or a hindrance to athletic performance. If we become familiar with the nature of anxiety, we can use it for us. Don’t treat it as your enemy! It is just energy! Learn how to manipulate it! Approach it with wisdom. Anxiety will be yours to do