Resilience & Performance Anxiety

Anxiety is a natural reaction to threats in the environment and part of the ‘fight or flight’ response, our body’s primitive and automatic response that prepares it to ‘fight’ or ‘flee’ from perceived harm or attack. According to sports psychologists, competition can promote similar psychological and bodily responses to this primitive response for a variety of different reasons; a fear of failure/injury; threat posed towards the ego. In competition our weaknesses can be laid bare for all to see. Sport also provides considerable uncertainty; at the precise moment we lift the bar for a snatch or clean and jerk, the outcome is unknown. Likewise, there is uncertainty with workouts we have never completed before; can we perform the movements or complete reps as prescribed?


In sport psychology, when the demands of training or competition exceed one’s perceived ability, anxiety is the inevitable outcome.  The key word that stands out to me here is “perceived” stress. Truth: I have a love/hate relationship with competing. Although I enjoy competing, competitions generally create a large amount of anxiety for me. Some people seem to excel under the pressure of competition, and others (including myself) “choke”. “Choking” or performance anxiety in sports, is described by psychologists as a decline in athletic performance due to too much perceived stress. More often than not, a subpar performance or choking is not due to a decline in our physical ability, but rather to do with the way in which we interpret the situation. Whether or not we make a lift, PR a benchmark, is more likely related to our perception of the situation and our ability rather than our actual physical capability. The precise impact of anxiety on sporting performance depends on how you interpret your world.


The key word that stands out to me here is “perceived” stress. More often than not, a subpar performance or choking is not due to a decline in our physical ability, but rather to do with the way in which we interpret the situation. Whether or not we make a lift, PR a benchmark, is more likely related to our perception of the situation and our ability rather than our actual physical capability. According to a British sport psychologist Graham Jones, it is the perception of our ability to control our environment and ourselves that determines the anxiety response. Having positive expectations about how you will cope in a sporting situation will mean that you will be more confident and therefore more likely to perform close to your best.  Whereas, if you believe that you do not have control over the situation – that your opponent is too strong or that you have not trained enough, then those factors will be interpreted as debilitative and likely to impair performance.


Last month, I completed an online course through the University of Fredericton, “Building Mental Resilience in the Workplace”. Resiliency is defined by researchers as the ability to persist in the face of challenges and to bounce back from adversity. Resiliency is a prominent concept within positive psychology, which is the focus on well-being and personal strengths; noting aspects of life that are good, positive and rewarding, rather than focusing on the negative. Throughout the course, I became increasingly interested in the concept of resiliency, and its application to both training/competition/life, and how I can apply the principals to improve my own mental toughness and prevent choking in competition. As much time as I spend working on improving my physical skills and abilities, a goal of mine for 2019 is to put as much time and effort into my mental game.


In sport, resiliency means being able to bounce back easily from a disappointing performance, technical mistake or injury and is therefore a crucial component to an athlete’s success (Solomon and Becker, 2004). What sets an elite athlete apart from the norm is his or her ability to quickly recover from a mistake (Bo Hanson). Resiliency theory is based on the premise that all people have the ability to overcome adversity and to succeed despite their life circumstances. Resilience is a process which can be achieved over time through situations and experiences in which we learn how to overcome adversity, through use of effective coping strategies to deal with these situations, and in turn become mentally stronger (Mommery, Schofield & Perry, 2004). Therefore, it stands to reason that as much as we hate to fail, failure is an essential part of the process. If we can view failure in a positive light, and as a necessary evil that allows us to re-evaluate, review and refine, and develop strategies to prevent making the same mistake or being injured again, would we view competition as such a scary thing?



How can we become more resilient?

In my research, I came across some really interesting research articles and blogs that I found to be super insightful and therefore wanted to share the main points. Reivich, Seligman & McBride (2011) conducted research with the military and identified some core competencies important for building resilience:


1. A technique used in psychology to counter these negative thoughts is called thought stopping. When you experience a negative or unwanted thought in training or competition (cognitive anxiety) such as ‘I just don’t want to be here today’ or ‘I’m not strong enough’, picture a large red stop sign in your mind’s eye. Hold this image for a few seconds then allow it to fade away along with the thought. If you wish, you can follow this with a positive self-statement. Thought-stopping can be used to block an unwanted thought before it escalates or disrupts performance. The technique can help to create a sharp refocus of attention keeping you engrossed in the task at hand.


2. Self-Regulation (regulate impulses, thoughts, emotions, and behaviors). Performance errors may cause an athlete to lose control of their emotions as well as diminish their confidence. The negative emotions coupled with reduced confidence only leads to more errors and further deterioration of performance. How do we regulate out emotions? Emotional regulation - Athletes need to remain in the present moment and focus on the task at hand. It is difficult to focus on the present when the mind is occupied with an error that occurred three plays ago. Learn to put the past behind and focus on the process. Holding on to a failed lift, subpar training session or a poor performance, can impede athletes from moving on and succeeding in future events. Let go of the mediocre or poor performances and figure out a way to improve your strength, technique or endurance.


3. Optimism (seeing what is good in self and others and focusing on what is controllable. Control: The more variables we can control, the less the anxiety; in a competition there are many variables that are within our control; training, preparation, nutrition, equipment, and as mentioned above, we can control our self-talk.


4. Mental Agility (flexible thinking; perspective). By developing a tool box full of skills, you have the best chance of a flexible approach to adverse or even “not ideal” scenarios, applying these skills successfully will in turn build resilience. As much as we hate to fail, failure is an essential part of the process. If we can view failure in a positive light, and as a necessary evil that allows us to re-evaluate, review and refine, and develop strategies to prevent making the same mistake or being injured again. Finally, Dr. Gloria B. Solomon, a sport psychology and sociologist, developed a four-step process to help athletes deal with and learn from performance errors and to increase individual athletic resiliency, using the easy to remember mnemonic device, ARSE ☺;


A = Acknowledge. The athlete acknowledges and accepts responsibility for his or her error and the frustration it has caused. Ownership of the error is essential in this phase of resiliency, as is acknowledging the frustration for the individual athlete.

R = Review. The athlete reviews their performance and determines how and why the performance error occurred.

S = Strategize. The athlete makes a plan to take corrective action for future events. At this point, coaches may also assist in corrective action, but again, the ownership for the performance error, as well as for the future strategy, belongs to the individual athlete.

E = Execute. The athlete continues to perform and prepares for the next event. 



5. Character strengths (self-confidence); The British Psychological Society suggests a link between "confidence beliefs" -- having confidence in yourself -- and resilience. People who have strong confidence in themselves are likely to be more resilient when a setback occurs, because they know they are capable of a better outcome; whereas those who have lower self-confidence may not bounce back as quickly because they think their poor performance is warranted. This can be a vicious cycle, but if you can make a point of moving on after a disappointment, taking comfort in the fact that you did move on can be a boost to your confidence. The more you are resilient, the more confident you will begin to feel about your sports abilities.


6. Connection (strong relationships, empathy and willingness to ask for help). The researchers recommend that athletes have a notebook and write daily. Turn the six competencies into questions for yourself and then write the answers. For example, what are my strengths? Is there something I can ask for help doing? Is there a new perspective I need?



Other factors I came across that can build resiliency are: a positive work ethic. Winners do not just get handed a medal for showing up; they have success through hard work.

Practice: Practice under ideal circumstances: Past mastery experiences boost self-confidence, which leads to great performance (Bandura, 1997).

Present focused: An effective tool an athlete can use in training or competition is a trigger. A trigger word or action can help an athlete refocus and clear his or her mind quickly. The example they provided is for a batter. A batter who swings at a pitch in the dirt can step out of the box and readjust his batting gloves. While adjusting the gloves, he is letting go of the previous pitch and clearing it from his mind. When he steps into the box again, he is thinking only of the oncoming pitch. The adjustment of the gloves is a physical trigger which represents releasing a past mistake as well as an action to refocus the mind. A conscious effort must be made by the athlete to push all negative thoughts and feelings associated with the mistake out of his mind while adjusting those gloves. While difficult at first, over time the trigger action will elicit an immediate psychological response.

Remember, getting stronger mentally can require just as much effort, if not more than getting stronger physically.




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