Anxiety in Individual Sports


Anxiety is a reaction that is measured using various scales through the observation of cognitive and physiological symptoms that become evident in reaction to a stimulus. In relation to sports, anxiety is often associated with an upcoming performance. Anxiety could also be enhanced by the intense competition offered by sports. Anxiety in connection with sports is a good topic for research since could affect a person's athletic performance either positively or negatively (Mellalieu, Hanton & O'Brien, 2004).

Many researchers on different levels have studied the relationship between sports activities and various health benefits. In particular, sports activities are known to have positive effect on psychological aspects of a person's life. In some studies, it has been shown that sports activities could actually improve the psychological disposition of persons with severe illnesses, such as people with spinal cord injury. Sports have been found to result in better mental health profile, especially if combined with various external factors, such as age, occupation, and marital status (Gioia, Cerasa, Di Lucente, Brunelli, Castellano & Traballesi, 2006).

The relationship between anxiety and sports is very complex, as it involves the specific and unique anxiety responses of each person and the effect of the differing sport types on the relationship. For example, the anxiety responses elicited by individual sports would differ from those elicited by contact sports. Individual and contact sports likewise cause different experiences of anxiety due to the different task demands of the sports (Mellalieu, Hanton & O'Brien, 2004). This paper shall analyze, mainly through a review of existing literature, the relationship and causal connections between anxiety and sports in general, and individual sports in particular. It is hoped that analysis of existing literature on the matter would yield positive findings and recommendations, particularly in the management of anxiety, betterment of performance, and improvement of psychological balance among people of different age groups.

II. Statement of the Problem

It is widely accepted that participation in sports activities is equivalent to exercise and physical activities. Therefore, it is relevant and healthy for the physical body of humans. The position that sports activities help in the psychological aspect of a person is also supported by literature on the subject. However, such position is very general. There is a need to narrow down the conclusions regarding the relationship between sports and anxiety. This paper would look into the means by which engagement in sports reduces anxiety in people, as well as the effect of differences in kinds of sports on such beneficial effect on anxiety levels.

III. Annotated Bibliography

Chambers, S. T. (1991). Factors Affecting Elementary School Students' Participation in Sports. The Elementary School Journal 91(5 Special Issue: Sports and Physical Education), 413-419.

This article consists of a review of empirical data from research that shows the factors that affect the interest and participation of elementary school children in sports. This article shows, in a simple manner of explaining, how engagement and participation in sports could beneficially affect persons through reduction of anxiety levels. This article cites a study conducted in 1978 by Sapp and Haubenstricker, which concluded that the main reason that elementary school children participate in sports is because they want to have fun. Fun, in turn, has positive effects, such as increasing motivation in children and reducing their anxiety, stress and attrition. Conversely, lack of fun could cause anxiety and stress among such young children. indeed, it was found that children who had the most fun in school sports experienced less anxiety after their games (Chambers, 1991). This article is important in reiterating the importance of having fun in sports, which is a significant factor in reducing human anxiety.

Flett, G. L. & Hewitt, P. L. (2005). The Perils of Perfectionism in Sports and Exercise. American Psychological Society 14(1), 14-18.

The article of Flett and Hewitt (2005) introduces the concept of perfectionism in sports and explains how this construct affects attitudes in sports. The authors explain that perfectionism is a construct that is multidimensional (Flett & Hewitt, 2005).
Since this construct is supposed to be multidimensional, different authors put forward their own list of constructs that they deem to be important. For example, the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale formulated by Hewitt and Flett in 1991 proposes three dimensions of the perfectionism construct, namely, “self-oriented perfectionism”, “other-oriented perfectionism”, and “socially prescribed perfectionism” (Flett & Hewitt, 2005).

“Self-oriented perfectionism” refers to a person’s attitude of demanding perfection from himself and striving too hard to attain such absolute perfection. “Other-oriented perfectionism,” on the other hand, refers to a person’s tendency to demand perfection from people other than himself. Finally, “socially prescribed perfectionism” refers to one’s perception or belief that society or other people are demanding perfection from him (Flett & Hewitt, 2005).

Aside from Flett and Hewitt (2005), the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale by Frost et al. in 1990 puts forward six dimensions of perfectionism, namely, “personal standards, organization (i.e., needing to maintain a sense of order), concern over mistakes, doubts about actions, parental expectations, and parental criticism” (Flett & Hewitt, 2005).

In their article, Flett and Hewitt (2005) analyzed the effect of perfectionism to people, particularly focusing on deciding whether perfectionism leads to either adaptiveness or maladaptiveness. This goal is aimed through an analysis of research findings on perfectionism and its relationship with exercise and sports (Flett & Hewitt, 2005).

Flett and Hewitt (2005) are of the opinion that while perfectionism may be important for the attainment of success in some sports, particularly those where “an error-free performance” is mandatory, perfectionism nevertheless leads to “self-defeating outcomes and unhealthy patterns of behavior” among athletes. This is the result of the extreme personality of people who strive too hard for perfection in their sports performance (Flett & Hewitt, 2005).

From the 1990s, there have already been studies that address questions involving the relationship of perfectionism and sports. Frost and Henderson (1991) conducted a study among women in varsity teams that assessed the self-confidence, reactions, and competition anxiety of the participants. This study led to the conclusion that perfectionism causes athletes o be overly concerned about their mistakes, which in turn cause negative and adverse outcomes on sports performance and attitudes. These include “anxiety, low confidence, a failure orientation, and negative reactions to mistakes during competition” (Flett & Hewitt, 2005).

Flett and Hewitt (2005) also discussed the study conducted by Hall, Kerr, and Matthews in 1998, which showed the association of perfectionism with anxiety in sports. That study, which involved more than one hundred athletes in high school, yielded the conclusion that perfectionist athletes are very concerned over their mistakes. Such concern thereafter leads to various manifestations of psychological distress, such as depression and anxiety. Perfectionism is also associated with “pervasive ego orientation”, which causes athletes to doubt their abilities (Flett & Hewitt, 2005).

Gioia, M. C., Cerasa, A., Di Lucente, L., Brunelli, S., Castellano, V. & Traballesi, M. (2006). Psychological impact of sports activity in spinal cord injury. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports 16, 412-416.

In this article, Gioia, Cerasa, Lucente, Brunelli, Castellano and Traballesi (2006) analyzed the relationship between sports and various psychological profiles, especially among patients with injury in the spinal cord. They focused on this subject population because they are the ones susceptible to drastic life changes as a result of the injury. Members of this population are characterized by psychological problems such as depression and anxiety. The authors therefore sought to discover the role that sports activity could play in improving their psychological conditions (Gioia, Cerasa, Di Lucente, Brunelli, Castellano & Traballesi, 2006).

The study is triggered by the fact that the literature on sports has well documented the effect of sports on the physical health of the body, while neglecting to provide adequate information on the effect of sports on the psychological aspect of persons. There is also direction for this kind of inquiry, as previous studies (Muraki, et al., 2000) already pointed out how sports activities significantly improve the mental health profiles of people with illnesses or disabilities (Gioia, Cerasa, Di Lucente, Brunelli, Castellano & Traballesi, 2006).

Thus, the authors conducted a study on 137 people with spinal cord injury and studied their psychological status vis-à-vis their sports activities. Using the “Cognitive Behavioural Assessment (CBA 2.0)”, the psychological status of the participants were evaluated and analyzed. The authors concluded that there is a positive correlation between increased sports activity and improved neurological status. Conversely, they found that patients who had less or no sports activity proved to be more susceptible to anxiety than their counterparts who participated in sports (Gioia, Cerasa, Di Lucente, Brunelli, Castellano & Traballesi, 2006). This relationship between anxiety and sports activity is further explained by the graphs below:

Table 1. (Gioia, Cerasa, Di Lucente, Brunelli, Castellano & Traballesi, 2006).

The fact that patients who participated in sports activities registered a healthier mental and psychological status shows the strong association between sports and anxiety levels. The findings in this study are helpful in further studies that concentrate on the use of sports therapy in the rehabilitation of patients with injury or disabilities. The authors likewise point out the important suggestion that rehabilitation institutes and sports organizations need to collaborate and cooperate with each other to achieve better results in the psychological rehabilitation of patients through encouraging increased participation in sports activities (Gioia, Cerasa, Di Lucente, Brunelli, Castellano & Traballesi, 2006).

Mellalieu, S. D., Hanton, S. & O'Brien, M. (2004). Intensity and direction of competitive anxiety as a function of sport type and experience. Scandinavian Journal Medicine & Science in Sports 14, 326-334.

This article describes the different inventory measures used in assessing the level of anxiety in humans. It notes that earlier inventories measure anxiety by looking at “the ‘intensity’ of the cognitive and perceived physiological symptoms experienced which are purported to signify the presence of anxiety” (Mellalieu, Hanton & O'Brien, 2004).

However, this type of inventory is believed to be inadequate and ineffective because it does not consider other factors, such as variables involving situational context and individual differences, which are considered by new inventories. One such new inventory was suggested by Jones (1995), which uses an analysis of the “direction of symptoms” as clues to understanding anxiety (Mellalieu, Hanton & O'Brien, 2004).

To determine how the functions of competitive experience and sport type become a factor in the anxiety levels of people, the authors conducted a study using the “Competitive State Anxiety inventory-2 (Martens et al., 1990a)”. The authors found that “sport type and competitive experience” directly affect “competitive trait anxiety.” More specifically, the study supported the theory of Martens et al., (1990a) to the effect that “participants in contact sports will elicit higher levels of cognitive anxiety intensity due to increased threat arising from personal confrontation” (Mellalieu, Hanton & O'Brien, 2004).

Thus, participants in contact sports, such as rugby, have less self-confidence due to the increased threat of confrontation. This means that players of contact sports often have “acquired conditioned state anxiety responses” that are related to the sports environment and the anticipated physical contact during the game (Mellalieu, Hanton & O'Brien, 2004).

This article is useful in any study of the relationship between anxiety and sports because it analyzes anxiety in terms of the different types of sports. Thus, contact sports cause more anxiety and less self-confidence in athletes because there is an impending threat of confrontation, which causes the sports activity to be classified as a pressure situation. Thus, contact sports are differentiated from non-contact sports such as golfing and swimming, which cause less competition anxiety (Mellalieu, Hanton & O'Brien, 2004). From the foregoing findings, it can reasonably be inferred that individual sports cause less competition anxiety since the factors common in contact sports, such as impending threat of confrontation, are not applicable in individual sports.

Miles, L. (2007). Physical activity and health. Nutrition Bulletin 32, 314-363.

This article lays down the benefits of physical activity, both on the physiology and psychology of a person. For example, physical activity is known to "reduce resting blood pressure and increase capacity to carry blood in the coronary arteries." Psychologically, there is proof showing that physical activity has positive effects on anxiety and the improvement of self-esteem and mood. Moreover, physical activity is found to have generally positive effect on a person’s psychological well being. Therefore, this article supports the position that interventions in the form of physical activity could help in feelings of immediate or stable anxiety (Miles, 2007).

Sklan, E. H., Lowenthal, A., Korner, M., Ritov, Y., Landers, D. M., Rankinen, T., Bouchard, C., Leon, A. S., Rice, T., Rao, D. C., Wilmore, J. H., Skinner, J. S., Soreq, H. & Kornberg, R. D. (2004). Acetylcholinesterase/Paraoxonase Genotype and Expression Predict Anxiety Scores in Health, Risk Factors, Exercise Training, and Genetics Study. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 101(15), 5512-5517.

This article provides insight into the nature of anxiety as a common psychological or psychiatric disorder. It is described as a “ubiquitous and unavoidable experience of life, defined as a feeling of fear that is out of proportion to the nature of the threat” (Sklan, et al., 2004).

Since anxiety is a common disorder, many studies have been conducted to determine the factors that underlie the condition. This article discusses a study conducted that sought to establish the relationship between enzyme activities and anxiety. The study used the “Health, Risk Factors, Exercise Training, and Genetics (HERITAGE) Family Study” to measure and analyze the states of anxiety in people (Sklan, et al., 2004).

The study yielded findings that corresponded with previous studies using the HERITAGE Study. It turns out that anxiety is affected by both genetic and biochemical factors. This information is relevant in any study that seeks to understand and explain how humans become anxious, and more importantly, how such anxiety could be controlled (Sklan, et al., 2004).

Wilson, G. S. & Raglin, J. S. (1997). Optimal and predicted anxiety in 9-12-year-old track and field athletes. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports 7, 253-258.

This article explains the relationship of anxiety with sports performance, especially the generally accepted conclusion that "anxiety plays a role in athletic performance." This conclusion is especially significant among young athletes, since it is believed that anxiety negatively affects sports performance (Wilson & Raglin, 1997).

This paper takes the matter further by analyzing the applicability of the theory known as “individual zone of optimal functioning (IZOF)”, through a case study involving track and field athletes. The authors concluded that the IZOF theory is applicable to young athletes, particularly those belonging to the preadolescent stage (Wilson & Raglin, 1997).

IV. Clinical Implications

Anxiety in sports might be a function of perfectionism in athletes. Some of the warning signs of “perfectionist self-presentation” involve serious signs from exercise and sports. Some people who are perfectionist engage in compulsive and excessive exercise. Since perfectionism in sports is maladaptive and often leads to anxiety and depression, it is suggested that more studies be conducted that focus on athletes' need to adequately respond to perfectionism and thereby prevent the maladaptive results of the tendency (Flett & Hewitt, 2005).

V. Conclusion

Literature on the relationship of anxiety and participation in sports is rich with data and conclusions establishing the positive correlation between the two. In particular, there are many studies that focus on children, and how beneficial sports activities are in improving their self-esteem, confidence, mood, and mental health (Ogilvie, 1979; Chambers, 1991).

Another important conclusion that emerged from the articles is that the positive effect of sports activity on anxiety levels depends on various factors, such as the kind of sports involved. For example, there must be a distinction made between contact and non-contact sports, since they affect people’s anxiety in different ways. Contact sports generally generate higher anxiety levels because they are pressure situations that cause fear in the athlete due to impending physical confrontation. In contrast, non-contact sports are more relaxed. The kind of pressure involved in contact sports like rugby does not exist in non-contact sports such as golf. Hence, athletes in the latter category have more self-confidence and experience less anxiety than athletes in the former category (Mellalieu, Hanton & O'Brien, 2004).

VI. Future Research

Most of the articles discussed above recommend topics for future research. Since there is much information supporting the positive correlation between sports and the management of anxiety, future research could focus on selecting the best intervention strategies that utilize sports as a therapy for people with psychological problems involving anxiety.

References

Abrahamsen, F. E., Roberts, G. C. & Pensgaard, A. M. (2006). An examination of the factorial structure of the Norwegian version of the sport anxiety scale. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports 16, 358-363.

Chambers, S. T. (1991). Factors Affecting Elementary School Students' Participation in Sports. The Elementary School Journal 91(5 Special Issue: Sports and Physical Education), 413-419.

Flett, G. L. & Hewitt, P. L. (2005). The Perils of Perfectionism in Sports and Exercise. American Psychological Society 14(1), 14-18.

Gioia, M. C., Cerasa, A., Di Lucente, L., Brunelli, S., Castellano, V. & Traballesi, M. (2006). Psychological impact of sports activity in spinal cord injury. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports 16, 412-416.

Mellalieu, S. D., Hanton, S. & O'Brien, M. (2004). Intensity and direction of competitive anxiety as a function of sport type and experience. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports 14, 326-334.

Miles, L. (2007). Physical activity and health. Nutrition Bulletin 32, 314-363.

Ogilvie, B. (1979). The Child Athlete: Psychological Implications of Participation in Sport. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 445(Contemporary Issues in Sport), 47-58.

Ommundsen, Y. & Pedersen, B. H. (1999). The role of achievement goal orientations and perceived ability upon somatic and cognitive indices of sport competition trait anxiety. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports 9, 333-343.

Sklan, E. H., Lowenthal, A., Korner, M., Ritov, Y., Landers, D. M., Rankinen, T., Bouchard, C., Leon, A. S., Rice, T., Rao, D. C., Wilmore, J. H., Skinner, J. S., Soreq, H. & Kornberg, R. D. (2004). Acetylcholinesterase/Paraoxonase Genotype and Expression Predict Anxiety Scores in Health, Risk Factors, Exercise Training, and Genetics Study. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 101(15), 5512-5517.

Wilson, G. S. & Raglin, J. S. (1997). Optimal and predicted anxiety in 9-12-year-old track and field athletes. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports 7, 253-258.

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