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Competitive Anxiety

Competition can cause athletes to react both physically (somatic) and mentally (cognitive), which can negatively affect their performance abilities. Stress, arousal and anxiety are terms used to describe this condition.

The major problem in a competition is letting your mind work against you rather than for you. You must accept anxiety symptoms as part and parcel of the competition experience; only then will anxiety begin to facilitate your performance. Gallwey (2000)[8] explains the elements of interference that impact performance.

  • Performance = Potential - Interference.

Anxiety - Performance Relationship Theory

Drive Theory

According to the Drive Theory (Zajonc 1965)[7] if an athlete is appropriately skilled, then it will help them to perform well if their drive to compete is aroused - they are "psyched up".

Inverted-U hypothesis

An alternative approach to Drive Theory is the Inverted-U hypothesis (Yerkes 1908)[2] which predicts a relationship between arousal and performance approximates to an inverted U shape. The theory is that as arousal is increased, performance improves but only up to a certain point (top of the inverted U). If the athlete's arousal is increased beyond this point, then performance diminishes.

Multidimensional Anxiety Theory

Multidimensional Anxiety Theory (Martens 1990)[3] is based on the distinction between cognitive anxiety and somatic anxiety. The theory makes a series of predictions:

  • There will be a negative but linear relationship between cognitive anxiety and performance
  • There will be an inverted U relationship between somatic anxiety and performance
  • Somatic anxiety should decline once the performance begins, but cognitive anxiety may remain high if confidence is low

Catastrophe Theory

Catastrophe Theory (Hardy 1987)[6] suggests that:

  • stress and anxiety will influence performance
  • each athlete will respond in a unique way to competitive anxiety
  • the performance will be affected in a unique way which may be difficult to predict using general rules

Optimum Arousal Theory

According to the Optimum Arousal Theory (Hanin 1997)[4], each athlete will perform at their best if their level of arousal or competitive anxiety falls within their optimum functioning zone. The coach's challenge is to determine the athlete's zone and identify the techniques that will place the athlete in this zone before a competition.

How do you measure Anxiety?

Sports psychologists have used psychometric tests or sports anxiety questionnaires (SAQ) to understand and measure this condition. Spielberger (1966)[5] argued that it was necessary to distinguish between momentary states and more permanent traits.

  • Anxiety states (A-state) is our response to a particular situation (i.e. skydiving)
  • Anxiety traits (A-trait) are the characteristics of our personality, our general anxiety level

Marten (1990)[3] developed anxiety traits (A-trait) questionnaires that were tailored specially to a sport known as the Sport Competition Anxiety Test (SCAT). Marten (1990)[3] recognised that any measure of sports anxiety must take into consideration cognitive anxiety (negative thoughts, worry) and somatic anxiety (physiological response). The Competitive State Anxiety Inventory or CSAI-2 considers the difference between A-state and A-trait and distinguishes between cognitive and somatic anxiety.

Symptoms of Anxiety

Anxiety can be recognised on three levels (Karageorghis 2007)[1]:

  • Cognitive - by a particular thought process
  • Somatic - by a physical response
  • Behavioural - by patterns of behaviour
Cognitive Somatic Behavioural
Sense of confusion
Feeling heavy
Negative thoughts
Poor concentration
Loss of confidence
Images of failure
Defeatist self-talk
Feeling rushed
Feeling weak
Constant dissatisfaction
Unable to take instructions
Thoughts of avoidance
Increased blood pressure
Pounding heart
Increased respiration rate
Clammy hands and feet
Butterflies in the stomach
Adrenaline surge
Dry mouth
Need to urinate
Muscular tension
Tightness in the neck and shoulders
Incessant talking
Pacing up and down
Distorted vision
Voice distortion
Loss of appetite
Loss of libido
Biting fingernails
Lethargic movements
Inhibited posture
Playing safe
Going through the motions
Uncharacteristic displays of extroversion
Avoidance of eye contact
Covering face with hand

How can we control Anxiety?

As we can see, anxiety includes state and trait dimensions, both of which can show themselves as cognitive and somatic symptoms. An athlete with high anxiety trait (A-trait) is likely to be more anxious in stressful situations. To help the athlete control competitive anxiety, somatic techniques.

The five breath technique

This exercise can be performed while you are standing up, lying down or sitting upright. You should inhale slowly, deeply and evenly through your nose and exhale gently through your mouth as though flickering, but not extinguishing, the flame of a candle (Karageorghis 2007)[1]:

  • Take a deep breath and allow your face and neck to relax as you breathe out
  • Take a second deep breath and allow your shoulders and arms to relax as you breathe out
  • Take a third deep breath and allow your chest, stomach and back to relax as you breathe out
  • Take a fourth deep breath and allow your legs and feet to relax as you breathe out
  • Take a fifth deep breath and allow your whole body to relax as you breathe out
  • Continue to breathe deeply for as long as you need to, and each time you breathe out, say the word 'relax' in your mind's ear

Benson's relaxation response

Benson's technique[9] is a form of meditation that can be used to attain a deep sense of relaxation and be ideal for staying calm in between rounds of competition. It can be mastered with just a few weeks' practice and comprises seven easy steps (Karageorghis 2007)[1]:

  1. Sit in a comfortable position and adopt a relaxed posture
  2. Pick a short focus word that has significant meaning for you and that you associate with relaxation (e.g. relax, smooth, calm, easy, float, etc.)
  3. Slowly close your eyes
  4. Relax all the muscles in your body
  5. Breathe smoothly and naturally, repeating the focus word
  6. Be passive so that if other thoughts enter your mind, dismiss them with, 'Oh well' and calmly return to the focus word - do not concern yourself with how the process is going
  7. Continue this for 10 to 15 minutes as required.


  1. KARAGEORGHIS, C. (2007) Competition anxiety needn't get you down. Peak Performance, 243, p. 4-7
  2. YERKES and DODSON (1908) The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit formation. Journal of Neurological Psychology, (1908)
  3. MARTENS, R. et al. (1990) The Development of the Competitive State Anxiety Inventory-2 (CSAI-2). Human Kinetics
  4. HANIN, Y. L. (1997) Emotions and athletic performance: individual zones of optimal functioning. European Year Book of sports psychology, 1, p. 29-72
  5. SPIELBERGER, C. D. (1966) Anxiety and behaviour. Academic Press, New York
  6. HARDY, L. and FRAZER, J. (1987) The Inverted U Hypothesis: A catastrophe for sport psychology? British Association of Sports Science, monograph no. 1, NCF, 1987
  7. ZAJONC, R. B. (1965) Social Facilitation. Science, 149 (1965), p. 268-274
  8. GALLWEY, W. (2000) The Inner Game of Work. New York: Random House
  9. BENSON, H. (1993) The Relaxation Response. In: COLMAN, D. & GURIN, J. (eds.) Mind Body Medicine How To Use Your Mind for Better Health, New York, Consumers Reports Book, p. 125-149 (see

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • MACKENZIE, B. (2002) Competitive Anxiety [WWW] Available from: [Accessed