Although many people use the terms arousal, stress, and anxiety interchangeably, sport and exercise psychologists find it important to distinguish between them. Sports Psychologists use precise definitions for the phenomena they study in order to have a common language, reduce confusion, and diminish the need for long explanations.
Arousal is a blend of physiological and psychological activity in a person, and it refers to the intensity dimensions of motivation at a particular moment. The intensity of arousal falls along a continuum ranging from not at all aroused (i.e., comatose) to completely aroused (i.e., frenzied. Highly aroused individuals are mentally and physically activated; they experience increases in heart rate, respiration, and sweating. Arousal is not automatically associated with either pleasant or unpleasant events. You might be highly aroused by learning that you have won $10 million. You might be equally aroused by learning of the death of a loved one.
In a general sense, anxiety is a negative emotional state characterized by nervousness, worry, and apprehension and associated with activation or arousal of the body. (Although anxiety is perceived as negative or unpleasant, it does not necessarily affect performance negatively. In sport settings, anxiety refers to “an unpleasant psychological state in reaction to perceived stress concerning the performance of a task under pressure. Anxiety has a thought component (e.g., worry and apprehension) called cognitive anxiety. It also has a component called somatic anxiety, which is the degree of physical activation perceived. In addition to the distinction between cognitive and somatic anxiety, it is important to distinguish between state and trait anxiety.
At times we refer to anxiety as a stable personality component; other times we use the term to describe a changing mood state. State anxiety refers to the ever-changing mood component. It is defined more formally as an emotional state “characterized by subjective, consciously perceived feelings of apprehension and tension, accompanied by or associated with activation or arousal of the autonomic nervous system.
For example, a player’s level of state anxiety changes from moment to moment during a basketball game. She might have a slightly elevated level of state anxiety (feeling somewhat nervous and noticing her heart pumping) before tip-off, a lower level once she settles into the pace of the game, and then an extremely high level (feeling very nervous, with her heart racing) in the closing minutes of a tight contest.
Cognitive state anxiety concerns the degree to which one worries or has negative thoughts, whereas somatic state anxiety concerns the moment-to-moment changes in perceived physiological activation. Somatic state anxiety is not necessarily a change in one’s physical activation but rather one’s perception of such a change. Research also suggests that there is a perceived control or regulatory component of state anxiety; that is, the degree to which one believes one has the resources and ability to meet challenges is an important component of state anxiety as well (Cheng et al., 2009).
Unlike state anxiety, trait anxiety is part of the personality, an acquired behavioral tendency or disposition that influences behavior. In particular, “trait anxiety predisposes an individual to perceive as threatening a wide range of circumstances that objectively may not actually be physically or psychologically dangerous. The person then responds to these circumstances with state anxiety reactions or levels that are disproportionate in intensity and magnitude to the objective danger” (Spielberger, 1966, p. 17).
For instance, two field-goal kickers with equal physical skills may be placed under identical pressure (e.g., to kick the winning field goal at the end of the game) yet have entirely different state anxiety reactions because of their personalities (i.e., their levels of trait anxiety). Devante is more laid back (low trait-anxious) and does not perceive kicking the game-winning field goal as overly threatening. Thus, he does not have more state anxiety than would be expected in such a situation. Elija, however, is highly trait-anxious and consequently perceives the chance to kick (or, in his view, to miss) the winning field goal as very threatening. He has tremendous state anxiety—much more than we would expect in such a situation.
Measuring Arousal and Anxiety
Sport and exercise psychologists measure arousal, state anxiety, and trait anxiety in various physiological ways and through psychological measures.
To measure arousal they look at changes in these physiological signs: heart rate, respiration, skin conductance (recorded on a voltage meter), and biochemistry (used to assess changes in substances such as catecholamines). These psychologists also look at how people rate their arousal levels using a series of statements (e.g., “My heart is pumping,” “I feel peppy”) and numerical scales ranging from low to high. Such scales are referred to as self-report measures of arousal and anxiety.
To measure state anxiety, psychologists use both global and multidimensional self-report measures. In global measures, people rate how nervous they feel using self-report scales from low to high. Summing the scores of individual items produces a total score. The multidimensional self-report measures are used in about the same way, but people rate how worried (cognitive state anxiety) and how physiologically activated (somatic state anxiety) they feel, again using self-report scales ranging from low to high. Subscale scores for cognitive and somatic anxiety are obtained by summing scores for items representing each type of state anxiety. Sport-specific scales that measure state anxiety in sport have been developed to better predict one’s anxiety state in competitive sport settings. One example is the widely used Competitive State Anxiety Inventory–2 (CSAI-2), displayed here. Interestingly, besides having cognitive and somatic anxiety subscales, the CSAI-2 also has a subscale of self-confidence, which is inversely related to cognitive and somatic anxiety.
In terms of measuring competitive trait anxiety, the first scale that was developed was the Sport Competition Anxiety Test. This is a unidimensional measure with only a single score ranging from 10 to 30. Although this is one of the most popular personality measures in sport psychology, sports psychologists now tend to use global and multidimensional self-reports to measure trait anxiety. The formats for these measures are similar to those for state anxiety assessments; however, instead of rating how anxious they feel right at that moment, people are asked how they typically feel. The components included somatic state anxiety (e.g., the degree to which one experiences heightened physical symptoms such as muscle tension), cognitive state anxiety (the degree to which one typically worries or has doubts) and concentration disruption (e.g., the degree to which one experiences concentration disruption during competition).
A direct relationship exists between a person’s levels of trait anxiety and state anxiety. Research has consistently shown that those who score high on trait anxiety measures also have more state anxiety in highly competitive, evaluative situations. This relationship is not perfect, however. A highly trait-anxious athlete may have a tremendous amount of experience in a particular situation and therefore not perceive a threat and the corresponding high state anxiety. Similarly, some highly trait-anxious people learn coping skills to help reduce the state anxiety they experience in evaluative situations. Still, generally speaking, knowing a person’s level of trait anxiety is usually helpful in predicting how that person will react to competition, evaluation, and threatening conditions.
To make matters more complex, we know from anecdotal reports as well as research (e.g., that anxiety can fluctuate throughout the competition. For example, we often hear football players say that they felt very anxious before the competition but settled down after the first hit. (Interestingly, it appears that somatic anxiety levels decrease rapidly when the competition starts, and that cognitive anxiety levels change throughout the competition.) Soccer players have reported that they did not feel anxious during a game, but that their anxiety level went “sky high” when they had to take a penalty kick at the end of the game. Future measures need to assess these changes in anxiety, although it is difficult to do so during a competition. One possible strategy is to retrospectively measure changes in anxiety. Research has indicated that athletes are quite good at assessing their state anxiety levels after the fact. For example, athletes could be asked within an hour of finishing a game how they felt at different times during the game.
To explore emotions and stressors throughout a competitive contest, researchers have used reflective diaries to help cricket players remember specific stressful situations, their appraisal of the situation, and reactions to it for five different games so that they would be able to respond with specifics during an in-depth interview. Results revealed that at the heart of the cricketers’ appraisal of potentially stressful and threatening situations were their perceived stress levels and emotional state. In addition, the appraisal process was closely attached to players’ personal values, beliefs, and commitment to achieving personal goals. For example, if a cricketer had performed well in the past in getting a specific batsman out, he appraised his chances of achieving personal goals as high in facing the same batsman again. In essence, he felt confident (not stressed) in attempting to attain his goals. Conversely, another bowler (a pitcher) appraised facing a particular batsman as threatening if he had been unsuccessful in the past and therefore would feel stressed facing this batsman again.
Besides investigating changes in stress and emotions throughout a competition, researchers have also assessed changes in stress and subsequent coping strategies leading up to a competition. Specifically, Miles, Neil, and Barker (2016) investigated changes over a 7-day period before the first cricket game of the season. During this time, players were evaluated to determine who would make the starting lineup for the first competition. Results revealed the major competitive stressor for players early in the week was whether they would be selected to play (the need to display competence), but as players were selected, the stress on competition day shifted to performing well for their team. In addition, across the week before a competition, the players continued to experience stressors that emanated from outside the sporting environment, which were termed organizational (e.g., team issues) and personal (e.g., relationships). Some of the major coping strategies used to deal with these stressors were social support, precompetition routines, self-talk, and humor for a detailed discussion of coping strategies).
Defining Stress and Understanding the Stress Process
Stress is defined as “a substantial imbalance between demand (physical and/or psychological) and response capability, under conditions where failure to meet that demand has important consequences” (McGrath, 1970, p. 20). It is a process or a sequence of events that will lead to a particular end. According to a simple model that McGrath proposed, stress consists of four interrelated stages :
- Environmental demand
- Perception of demand
- Stress response
- Behavioral consequences
Environmental Demand In the first stage of the stress process, some type of demand is placed on an individual. The demand might be physical, such as when a physical education student has to execute a newly learned volleyball skill in front of the class, or psychological, such as when parents are pressuring a young athlete to win a race.
Stage 2: Perception of Demand
The second stage of the stress process is the individual’s perception of the physical or psychological demand. People do not perceive demands in exactly the same way. For instance, two eighth graders may view having to demonstrate a newly learned volleyball skill in front of the class quite differently. Maya may enjoy the attention of being in front of the class, whereas Issaha may feel threatened. That is, Issaha perceives an imbalance between the demands placed on him (having to demonstrate in front of the class) and his ability to meet those demands. Maya perceives no such imbalance or perceives it only to a non-threatening degree.
A person’s level of trait anxiety greatly influences how that person perceives the world. Highly trait-anxious people tend to perceive more situations—especially evaluative and competitive ones—as threatening than people with lower trait anxiety does. For this reason, trait anxiety is an important influence in stage 2 of the stress process.
Stage 3: Stress Response
The third stage of the stress process is the individual’s physical and psychological response to a perception of the situation. If someone’s perception of an imbalance between demands and his response capability causes him to feel threatened, increased state anxiety results, bringing with it increased worries (cognitive state anxiety), heightened physiological activation (somatic state anxiety), or both. Other reactions, such as changes in concentration and increased muscle tension, accompany increased state anxiety as well.
Stage 4: Behavioral Consequences
The fourth stage is the actual behavior of the individual under stress. If a volleyball student perceives an imbalance between capability and demands and feels increased state anxiety, does performance deteriorate? Or does the increased state anxiety increase the intensity of effort, thereby improving performance? The final stage of the stress process feeds back into the first. If a student becomes overly threatened and performs poorly in front of the class, the other children may laugh; this negative social evaluation becomes an additional demand on the child (stage 1). The stress process, then, becomes a continuing cycle.
Implications for Practice
The stress process has a number of implications for practice. If a corporate fitness specialist is asked by her company’s personnel director to help develop a stress management program for the company’s employees, for example, stage 1 of the model suggests that she should determine what demands are placed on the employees (e.g., increased workloads, unrealistic scheduling demands, hectic travel schedules). An analysis of stage 2 might lead her to question who is experiencing or perceiving the most stress (e.g., individuals in certain divisions or with certain jobs, or those with certain personality dispositions). Stage 3 would call for studying the reactions the employees are having to the increased stress: somatic state anxiety, cognitive state anxiety, or attention–concentration problems. Stage 4 analysis would focus on the subsequent behavior of employees feeling increased stress, such as greater absenteeism, reduced productivity, or decreased job satisfaction. By understanding this stress cycle, the fitness director can target her efforts to reduce stress. She might suggest physical activity (most likely in stage 3) or other means of stress management (e.g., time management seminars, restructured work schedules). She now has a better grasp of the specific causes and consequences of stress, which allows her to design more effective stress management activities.
Identifying Sources of Stress and Anxiety
There are thousands of specific sources of stress. Exercise psychologists have also shown that major life events such as a job change or a death in the family, as well as daily hassles such as an auto breakdown or a problem with a coworker, cause stress and affect physical and mental health (Berger, Weinberg, and Eklund, 2015). In athletes, stressors include performance issues such as worrying about performing up to capabilities, self-doubts about talent, and team selection; environmental issues such as financial costs, travel, and time needed for training; organizational issues such as coaching leadership and communication; physical danger; negative personal rapport behaviors of coaches; and relationships or traumatic experiences outside of sport, such as the death of a family member or negative interpersonal relationships. Researchers have concluded that athletes experience a core group of stress or strain sources that include competitive concerns,
Your Sports Psychology Career
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