Anxiety and Athletic Performance

Table of Content


Athletes today need to be able to cope with the anxiety and pressure that is placed on them in the competitive world of sports. A large deal of research has been done on examining the relationship between anxiety and performance within the field of athletics. In order to show that anxiety in athletes is a significant problem this paper is going to be set up in three different areas in order to explain exactly how anxiety affects the athlete. The first section of the paper is going to explain the history and terminology on the study of anxiety in athletes. Next, this paper will show the results of numerous testing that has gone on in order to see the effects of anxiety in athletes. And the third and final section of this paper is going to explain what treatments that can help the athlete cope with the anxiety issues.

History and Terminology

The reasons that previous research on this subject has been hard to synthesize is because of numerous reasons, those including ‘methodological flaws’ such as lack of clear definitions and also lack of clear ‘theoretical construct.’ In the following section terms will be established for words that will be throughout this paper. Also, this section will provide an overview of theories that have been used to clarify the relationship between anxiety and performance in athletes. In Edward’s and Hardy’s opinion the main problem that research on the relationship between anxiety and performance has encountered is that researchers have not defined all the specific terminology that is required to understand with this subject. The following operational definitions will be used for the terms anxiety and stress. “Stress is a state that results from the demands that are placed on the individual which require that person to engage in some coping behavior.” Arousal is going to be considered to be a signal to the athlete that he/ she has entered into a stressful situation and is characterized buy physiological signs. Anxiety results from the athlete’s perception that he/ she is not good enough for the particular situation, which will cause stress (Edward and Hardy).

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An early model that attempted to explain the relationship between arousal and performance was the ‘inverted- U hypothesis.’ It stated that when an athlete would become aroused he/ she would do well in the event of competition, but if the athlete became too aroused then performance would deteriorate. Although this model game some explanation to why performances deteriorated when individuals felt stress, it did not compare athletes that were in the same situation who had different arousal levels (Edward and Hardy). Because of the many faults that researchers found with the inverted U- hypothesis, researchers “attempted to account for the differences in performances of individuals through the concept of individualized zones of optimal functioning,” or otherwise known as IZoFs. This theory states that each athlete has an optimal level of pre- performance anxiety, which results in peak performances.

However, just like the inverted U, if the pre-performance anxiety lies outside the area of the IZoF, then performance will deteriorate. IZoFs can be determined by repeatedly measuring anxiety and performance. Edwards and Hardy explain that even though this is a better model then the inverted U- hypothesis, it still fails to explain the factors that account for the individual differences in performance among athletes (Edward and Hardy). The next theory that seemed to make an impact was the ‘multidimensional anxiety theory which expanded off a previous theory called the ‘reversal’ theory.

In this model it shows that cognitive anxiety (when there is a fear of failure) to have a negative linear relationship with performance. And as the opposite of cognitive anxiety, self- confidence has been found to have a positive linear relationship with performance. And finally, somatic anxiety (physiological symptoms) has been found to have an inverted – U shaped relationship with performance. Even though this model was a step up in recognizing many elements of anxiety, it still treats them as separate entities (Edward and Hardy). This next model named the ‘catastrophe model’ looks at the interactive effects of physiological arousal and cognitive anxiety upon performance.

Physiological arousal can influence an individual to do poorly because of their own interpretation of their physiological symptoms. In this model it shows that as cognitive anxiety increases it will be beneficial to performance when at low levels of physiological arousal but a detrimental effect at high levels of physiological arousal. once physiological arousal levels are too high there is a steep drop in performance, which can only be reversed by a reduction in physiological arousal. Though this model does not include a self- confidence variable, its interactive approach seems to be the best explanation for observed behavior (Edward and Hardy).

Effects of Anxiety on Athletes

This section of the paper is going to go into detail (by using previous studies) on how exactly anxiety effects the athletes. In a study involving a collegiate softball tournament, players were put into one of two conditions: high situation criticality or low. The test results showed that the athletes in the high criticality condition had significantly higher levels of cognitive-anxiety. Why were some of the athletes more worried? Clearly the cognitive interpretation an individual gives to a situation exerts an effect. Also, how the athlete takes to the arousal can determine if the athlete will be able to cope with the situation well or not. It says “Researchers have found that athletes are successful interpret arousal to be facilitative.” In a study with an elite group of swimmers found that intensity levels were much higher in the athletes that took their anxiety as deliberative that those who reported it as being facilitative. This has been found in a number of other sports including gymnasts and basketball players. Not only does the situation of the matter count on how much anxiety is involved, but also the years of experience of the athlete.

The higher number of years that an athlete has been in the sport, the lower cognitive-anxiety is involved. This was reported after a test was done on a group of tennis players that varied with years of experience, and also tested with an elite group of swimmers. The author feels that the reasoning is that due to previous experience the athletes learn how to cope with arousal. The conclusion was supported by research that found cognitive anxiety was best predicted by an evaluation of previous performances, individual’s perception of preparedness, and goal setting (Ferraro). Also the amount of confidence that an individual possess has been found to differ among elite and novice athletes. Researched showed that with a group of tennis players the advanced players had much higher levels of self-confidence. This has also been shown in gymnasts and as well as in swimmers. The predictors of self-confidence identified by research are perception of preparedness, and external conditions. other research has pointed to the amount of self-confidence comes with the athletes perception of how good their own ability is. As Ferraro states, “This suggests that the most powerful quality that elite performers posses is a high level of self-confidence which may act as a protective factor from cognitive anxiety,” (Ferraro). Not only does the research on cognitive anxiety and self-confidence provides some insight into their effect of athletic performance, the interaction of these variables in conjunction with somatic anxiety provides a better understanding of the true effects.

In a study of 91 athletes ranging in age from 14- 36 years old who participated in soccer, swimming, and track and field, those individuals with higher marks on self-confidence and lower scores on cognitive anxiety and somatic anxiety felt that their overall anxiety levels as more facilitative of athletic performance. Research conducted on the difference of athletes being on a team sport (basketball) and an individual sport (track and field) has found that subjects competing in individual sports had significantly lower self-confidence and higher somatic anxiety then those athletes that competed in the team sports. This was also seen in a test amongst figure skaters as well. Research demonstrated that skaters experienced grater cognitive and somatic anxiety prior to an individual competitive event than prior to a team competition. The reason perhaps is that with a team the responsibility is separated among the players whereas it is up to the individual alone in the individual sport.

Another researched topic in Ferraro’s article is the research that focused on the location of an athletic event. A study found that away games resulted in increased somatic anxiety and lower levels of self-confidence as the ability of opponents increased (Ferraro). It is clearly seen that anxiety exerts a variety of effects on athletic performance. These effects vary on sport, level of experience, and amount of self-confidence. In order for athletes to hit their peak performance, sports psychologists must consider the three different facts of anxiety: cognitive anxiety, somatic anxiety, and self-confidence. By seeing the research that indicates that successful athletes who interpret their anxiety as being facilitative is characterized by high scores on self- confidence and low scores on somatic and cognitive anxiety, sports psychologists should work towards achieving a readied athlete. Now that the research has been done on how anxiety effects the athlete the next question is, what can help the athlete from falling under the problems that anxiety produces?

Treatments for Anxiety in Athletics

With cognitive- behavior interventions in athletes being a popular subject a lot of research has gone into the study of what will help the athlete out in difficult situations (mentally). In the past there have been many ways that researchers have tried to help out the athletes, and in those many ways there have been a wide variety of techniques used. In early research the work was based on anxiety reduction in clinical settings. one of the early examples would be research that was performed on two female collegiate basketball players who received training in relaxation, imagery, and cognitive restructuring. Both women showed vast improvements in concentration problems and in-game anxiety. Research concluded that the testing improved performance by reducing anxiety and improving self- esteem. In later research the efficiency of cognitive- behavioral interventions continued to improve athletic performance (Bird and Horn). one study used the testing mentioned above in 7 weekly 2- hour group sessions.

The results showed that in comparison to the no treatment control group, the treatment group showed decreases in anxiety. Another recent study showed that using ‘multiple baseline design’ proved that after a cognitive- behavioral intervention where was a significant decrease in cognitive and somatic anxiety as well as an increase in self- confidence. However, the improvement in self-confidence was more then likely due to the fact that it had a lot of individual attention in the treatment to the athletes. This is supported by research conducted with college basketball players who were treated in both a group setting and combination group/ individual setting. Both groups showed a decrease in cognitive and somatic anxiety, but only those in the group/ individual sessions had improved scores on self- confidence. With that in mind it is individual treatment that can raise athlete’s self- confidence, but to lower cognitive and somatic anxiety the athlete may be placed in a group setting.

other research has suggested that any type of intervention regardless of content was beneficial in reducing anxiety. In a group of tennis players each was introduced to one of four interventions (imagery, relaxation, relaxation and imagery, and concentration) and all showed significant reductions in somatic and cognitive anxiety and improvements in self- confidence. Bird and Horn feel that if “researchers would have included a no-treatment control group, then their results might have shown some differences among the groups; but, this study still indicates that cognitive- behavioral interventions are effective for the purposes of performance enhancement,” (Bird and Horn). Relaxation is one of the methods that has been discussed with reducing both cognitive and somatic anxiety. There are actually two common types of relaxation methods when it comes to sports psychology, relaxation, and relaxation combined with imagery. These two techniques have been used successfully in many cases of clinical study. Each one of these steps is very important when dealing with the reduction of anxiety for the purposes of performance enhancement. Also at times athletes have a hard time reducing their arousal levels once a competition has ended. Because of instances like this a good way to counter it is to use progressive muscle relaxation, another time to use progressive muscle relaxation is a night before a big competition that is keeping the athlete awake. Even though both of these techniques are used to lower anxiety levels previous experience indicates that they initially work best when used in conjunction with imagery focusing on relaxation.

After combining imagery and progressive relaxation for long periods of time the athlete will begin to master the techniques and the imagery can be dropped off (Penn State). Another technique used to lower anxiety and raise self- confidence is the tool of imagery and mental rehearsal. This provides familiarity with the task at hand and also provides positive feedback of their imagined performance. This intervention has been proven to work with college athletes in all sports. Research shows that individuals who were in the imagery intervention had significantly greater increases in sport performance and sport competition anxiety than did the delayed- training control group. Not much is known about how imagery functions, however, researchers have identified that imagery can predict signs of cognitive state anxiety, somatic state anxiety, and even a lower self- confidence. Because of the lack of understanding on how imagery exactly works Penn State states “imagery is an important component of an athlete’s pre- competition regimen if they are to be successful,” (Penn State).

Cognitive restructuring is an important component of treatment since it allows athletes to have a different interpretation of the activation states they are going through and thus reduce cognitive anxiety. It can be very helpful and beneficial for de- emphasizing the importance of the competitions, which will let the athlete’s real ability to come through. “According to multidimensional anxiety theory, elite performers will have peak performances as cognitive anxiety decreases and self- confidence increases.” This suggests that an appropriate intervention might be to de-emphasize the importance of competitions and try to equal out the level of somatic anxiety. Another important part of cognitive restructuring is goal setting. It is very important not to shoot too high for goals (goals that are almost unattainable), because if a goal is too high it may result in an increase of anxiety and in turn impair performance. Instead of large goals it is recommended by Penn State to set a series of small goals that break down the big task into smaller, attainable goals (Penn State). Even the amount of cognitive effort that is used by an individual athlete has an effect on their performance. It is reported that the differences between medal winners and non-medal winners at an olympic wrestling competition was the degree to which the athletes used these techniques automatically.

Most elite athletes have already found ways of achieving the activation state that is necessary for demands that are placed on an individual throughout a competition. With that stated by Penn State we can infer that it is unlikely that any one intervention will ever be able to be of benefit for everyone. The athlete needs to be assessed with what works best with them (Penn State).


The above research shows that there is without a doubt a significant difference from athletes who go into an event with a focused goal opposed to an athlete that has an anxiety problem. Anxiety in athletes has been around for years and gone through many changes to what it is today. The various trials with athletes has given us a clear focus on how anxiety affects the athletes. And because of the obvious problems with anxiety there have been a few key ways that show how treatment helps athletes out. So in final, after years of research on the effects of anxiety and treatment it is imperative that athletes get help from a professional in order to obtain maximum performance.

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Anxiety and Athletic Performance. (2022, Feb 01). Retrieved from

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