Competitive Resilience: Anxiety and Performance

In this past year, I had the honor of coaching part of the track team at my university.  Specifically, I worked with the shot-putters, discus throwers, and hammer throwers.  The throws are unique amongst other sporting events, particularly in the nature of the act of competing.  The thrower is allotted three attempts of approximately sixty seconds to enter the ring and complete a mark.  However, the throw itself comprises of only a few seconds.  The build up of anxiety before the throw, the anticipatory response, often shakes even the most well-prepared athlete.  Upon initiating the attempt, the experience of anxiety changes from anticipatory to panic, or anxious arousal (see Engels, Heller, Mohanty, Herrington, Banich, Webb, & Miller, 2007).   In those crucial moments of completing the throw, such panic can trump thousands of hours of technical work and training.

Yet, anxiety can also act as a motivating force for energy, aggression, and performance when used appropriately.  I believe that the best competitors are those who deny the anticipatory response from overwhelming them.  Additionally, these women and men also carry the ability to channel the panic response into ideal performance.  In other words, perhaps competitors are able to adjust their anxiety to achieve the top of the Yerkes-Dodson curve of peak performance (see Yerkes and Dodson, 1908).  In my opinion, this may be described as competitive resilience.

In working with my throwers, I found this concept to be beneficial in helping frustrated athletes find progress.  According to the Yerkes-Dodson law, an optimal amount of anxiety can produce optimal performance (1908).  The myth amongst many of the coaches I have encountered is that struggling athletes “just need to get angry” or “pumped up.”  Yet, I have noticed that those who struggle the most seem to have no problem in that department.  Rather, they are often the ones who shake their head, stomp out of the ring, pull their hair, and curse.  In that moment, the athlete seems to be above and beyond a manageable level of anxiety, and thus would fall on the far right of the Yerkes-Dodson’s curve.

Two strategies seem to work best for helping these athletes manage their emotions and regain functionality in practice.  The first involves having the athlete take a time-out, or a breather, or a water break, or anything to get their minds off of competition.  I had one athlete clap for himself and say “good show bro” after each throw, just to put a smile on his face.  The second involves simplifying the goal or the outcome.  For example, if the athlete is focused on too many technical aspects, they often become flooded as each kinesthetic piece becomes painstakingly voluntary.  So, rather than working on throwing farther, making more shots, catching the ball, etc., perhaps hone in on one basic process, such as foot positions or focal points.

Although the reader of this post may see this as an athlete-centered reflection, I believe that anyone who works to overcome challenges may benefit from developing such resilience.  Those who struggle to give presentations at work may wish to find ways of adjusting the situation to fit their greatest potential for performance.  For tips and pointers for such adjustment, check out my colleague Daniel Wendler’s site on Social Skills:  Or, for pointers on overcoming performance anxiety, check out this phenomenal post by Psychology Today:

Kyler Shumway

Engels, A. S., Heller, W., Mohanty, A., Herrington, J. D., Banich, M. T., Webb, A. G., & Miller, G. A. (2007). Specificity of regional brain activity in anxiety types during emotion processing. Psychophysiology, 44(3), 352-363.

Yerkes RM, Dodson JD (1908). “The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation”. Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology 18: 459–482. 

Keywords: sports psychology, performance, anxiety, competitive resilience