A new study has found that anxiety about competition can make even the most physically active person more likely to “choke.”
Sports scientists at Coventry University and Staffordshire University in England tested the anticipation and coordination abilities of 18 active and healthy young adults during two sets of identical physical tests — one a practice, the other a competition.
Researchers found that in the competitive trials, the participants’ coincidence anticipation timing (CAT) — or their ability to anticipate and coordinate actions, such as catching a ball or hitting a ball with a bat — was significantly worse than in the practice scenarios.
At the same time, their mental anxiety levels were found to be substantially higher during the competitive trials than they were in practice, a likely result of worrying about their performance, according to the researchers.
The detrimental effect on anticipation timing was at its most acute during the more physically intensive parts of the competitive trials, the researchers reported. They noted that this was not evident during the practice trials, indicating that cognitive anxiety is a decisive factor in performance failure.
“The findings support catastrophe theory, which postulates that sporting performance is adversely affected by increased stress and anxiety,” the researchers said.
“Anxiety in a competitive situation, whether sporting or otherwise, is something everyone can relate to,” said Dr. Michael Duncan, lead author of the study and associate head of the Department of Applied Sciences and Health at Coventry University.
“We’re all familiar with what we call ‘somatic’ anxiety, for example, butterflies in the tummy, which is the body’s response to tension, but this study is chiefly concerned with the effects of cognitive anxieties, such as worry or fear of failure.
“Our research indicates that heightened cognitive anxiety, brought on by the competitive scenario, really does affect performance abilities in physically active people — and the same is likely to apply even for trained athletes.”
Where the study differs from those in the past is that the responses were measured during a sporting event, rather than after, he noted.
“We’re generating a much more accurate picture of whether catastrophe theory has any value,” he said. “The results strongly support the theory, which should make for interesting reading for sports professionals and psychologists around the world.”
The research was presented at the 2014 British Psychological Society’s annual conference.
Source: Coventry University