Competition can cause athletes to react both physically and mentally in a manner that may negatively affect their performance abilities. Stress, arousal, and anxiety are terms used to describe this condition. Competitive state-anxiety usually follows a pattern of subjective feelings such as tension and inadequacy, combined with heightened arousal of the autonomic nervous system. This anxiety type includes state and trait dimensions both of which can show themselves as cognitive and somatic symptoms.
Over the years many distinguished sports psychologists have developed various theories and tests in order to correctly identify competitive anxiety in athletes. These theories and tests have been used in conjunction to understand and measure this particular condition. This paper will present the different theories used by sports psychologists, and will discuss how each new theory has built on the previous one.
The different theories and hypothesis that have had the best ability identifying competitive anxiety in athletes are the following: Drive theory, Inverted U- hypothesis, Individual zones of optimal functioning, Multi-dimensional Anxiety Theory, Catastrophe Model, and The Reversal Theory. Each of the subsequent theories has built upon the previous one based upon new data and studies performed. The first competitive anxiety theory that Sports psychologists used to diagnose athletes and their symptoms was developed in the 1960’s and 1970’s.
This theory developed for properly diagnosing competitive anxiety was the Drive theory. The Drive theory was thought to have identified a direct linear relationship between arousal and performance. According to the Drive Theory if an athlete is appropriately skilled then this will help them to perform well if their drive to compete is aroused. It was believed that the more “psyched up” an athlete becomes the better that individual will perform, and the opposite effect will be true if the athlete is “psyched out”(Weinberg, 2007).
This theory has had very little success in field tests, and very little scholarly support exists to support this theory. This opened the door for the Inverted U- Hypothesis, which answered many of the remaining questions surrounding competition anxiety. Sports psychologists thought that the connection between performance and arousal could be better explained using the Inverted-U hypothesis (McNally, 2002). The Inverted-U hypothesis predicts the relationship between arousal and performance. The theory states that as arousal is increased performance improves up to a certain point referred to as the top of the inverted U.
When arousal exceeds this point then performance will diminish. This hypothesis states that an athlete’s best performance could be guaranteed with an average level of arousal. It is important for athletes to consider that if their level of arousal is too low, or too high, poor performance may result. Many sports psychologist however are displeased with the basic nature of the inverted-U Hypothesis (McNally, 2002). This paved the way for a new theory and contrasting model that address the inadequacies of the Inverted-U at measuring competitive anxiety.
Yuri Hanin, a Russian sports psychologist from the Research Institute for Olympic Sports out of Finland, suggested a theory that differs from the Inverted-U in a few different ways (Weinberg, 2007). Hanin suggested that all athletes have different performance abilities at their mid point or at the top of the inverted U. Hanin states that some athletes have an optimal functioning zone at the lower end, some in the middle, and some at the upper end of the continuum (Weinberg, 2007). This theory is known as the Individualized zones of optimal functioning (IZOF).
According to the IZOF model each athlete will perform at their best if their arousal level or competitive anxiety falls within their optimum functioning zone. If their arousal or competitive anxiety levels fall outside of this zone, poor performance will be the result. The challenge for the coach is to determine the athlete’s zone and identify the techniques that will place the athlete in this zone prior to competition. Hanin’s IZOF however did not address all the remaining questions surrounding competitive anxiety.
Psychologists developed the Multi-dimensional Anxiety Theory in attempt to foster answers to these remaining questions. Multi-dimensional Anxiety Theory is based on the distinction between cognitive and somatic anxiety (McNally, 2002). The Multidimensional Theory has been invaluable in leading the way towards identification and establishment of cognitive and somatic anxiety arousal as two distinct sub-components of the Anxiety states. Anxiety states (A-state) is our response to a particular sport, such as sky-diving or Hang gliding.
This theory is based on three specific predictions concerning anxiety and performance. There is a negative presence but linear relationship between cognitive anxiety and performance. An inverted U relationship between physical anxiety and performance, as well as a physical anxiety, exists that should decline when performance begins although cognitive anxiety may remain high if confidence is low. The Multi-dimensional Anxiety Theory, was deemed inadequate by other sports psychologists. They felt that these three predictions could not identify, or categorize the competitive anxiety in athletes.
Some psychologists thought that an additional model would be required to answer the remaining question (Weinberg, 2007). The Hardy ; Fazey catastrophe model is similar to the Multi-dimensional Theory of Anxiety. It suggests that anxiety is comprised of two sub-components (McNally, 2002). Hardy ; Fazey state, physiological arousal follows the Inverted-U hypothesis in relation to performance. All the same, that will only occur when the individual is exhibiting low cognitive state anxiety. For example athletes are not worried about their immediate performance (McNally, 2002).
Catastrophe theory suggests that stress and anxiety will influence performance, each athlete will respond in a unique way to competitive anxiety, and an individual’s performance will be affected in unique ways which may be difficult to predict using general rules. Some researchers however have ventured to understand the arousal-performance relationship better. In this search for more clarification the Reversal Theory was developed (Weinberg, 2007). The Reversal Theory has brought new light on the previous views of the arousal-performance relationship.
This theory predicts that for best performance athletes must interpret their arousal as pleasant excitement instead of unpleasant anxiety. High arousal may be interpreted positively (excitement) or negatively (anxiety) (Weinberg, 2007). Low arousal may be interpreted positively (relaxation) or negatively (boredom). The reversal theory has contributed two specific contributions to the understanding of arousal-performance. First, the reversal theory emphasizes that one’s interpretation of arousal, not just the arousal one feels, is significant.
Second it holds that performers can shift or reverse their positive or negative interpretations of arousal from moment to moment. Sports psychologists have used various tests in conjunction with one or two competitive anxiety theories to measure anxiety levels, prior to and during competition. By analyzing an athlete’s responses to a series of statements about how he or she feels in a competitive situation it is possible to determine their level of anxiety. Two of the most commonly used tests are Competitive State Anxiety Inventory-2 (CSAI-2) and the Sport Competition Anxiety Test (SCAT).
The Competitive State Anxiety Inventory (CSAI-2) takes into account the difference between anxiety states (A-state) and anxiety traits (A-trait). It distinguishes between cognitive and somatic anxiety (Martens, 1990). A-state is our response to a particular situation, and A-trait is the characteristics of our personality or our general anxiety level. The CSAI-2 is used to describe individual’s feelings before a competition. This test requires you to read a series of statements (ex. I am concerned about this competition) and then circle the appropriate number to the right of the statement to indicate how you felt at that moment.
The number values are given in this order, 1 point for not at all, 2 for somewhat, 3 for moderately so, and 4 for very much so. When the points are totaled together you get a score that sports psychologists can use to determine your level of anxiety prior to a competition (Lavallee, 1996). Sport Competition Anxiety Test (SCAT) was developed in 1990 by Martens, Vealey, and Burton. They recognized that any measure of sport anxiety must take into consideration cognitive anxiety (negative thoughts, worry) and somatic anxiety (physiological response) (Martens, 1990).
This test is designed to measure how a person feels when they compete in a sport or game. Similar to the CSAI-2 test it asks you to read a series of 15 statements (ex. Before I compete I feel uneasy) and decide if you hardly ever, sometimes, or often feel this way when you compete. These answers are also assigned a number value, 1 point for Hardly ever, 2 for sometimes, and 3 for often. Your SCAT score will range from a low of 10 to a high of 30. A score of 10 indicates a low level of anxiety and 30 a high level of anxiety (stressed) (Weinberg, 2007).
Athletes have suffered both physical and mental injury, which have been attributed to the positive and negative levels of competitive anxiety. Several theories have been postulated over the years, each one building on the previous one. As more information became available, sports psychologists developed tests to identify and treat the cognitive and somatic symptoms of competitive anxiety in athletes. Sports psychologists continue to refine the theories with the desire to understand the ins and outs of competitive anxiety.
Perhaps one day, a theory will be developed that completes the picture in regards to competitive anxiety in professional athletes. Until that time, sports psychologists continue to refine the latest theories and tests in hopes to one day treat competitive anxiety as easily as a sprained ankle.