Dealing with performance anxiety has been a major issue in the development of a science of sport management. The knowledge gained is contributing to understanding of choking and under-performance across the sporting spectrum
I recently asked a [very small] sample of contacts whether performance anxiety and its management were important in coaching their sport. Here are few responses:
In football, reckless tackling is deemed career-threatening and met with assorted bans and other sanctions. Although sometimes this is deliberate it is loss of control often through pressures to perform. Weak penalty kicks would be another example. Routines that work in practice influenced by performance anxiety.
Rugby Union is a sport which prides itself in the traditional sporting values of personal discipline and respect for the referee’s authority. The violence, as in other contact sports, is mostly channeled legally into man on man hits. But there are still surprising episodes of grievous bodily harm. Off-field skullduggery are also known including coaches fixing blood injuries to obtain player substitutions. Nor is violence a product of the sport’s recent professionalization. One of the most-quoted injunctions was from a coach in the era of amateur rugby who urged his players to ‘get your retaliation in first‘.
Non-contact sports create fewer opportunities for the release of a competitor’s tension through physical aggression. In Tennis, much aggression is directed towards explosive attack on the ball. If that fails, an attack on the racquet becomes a back-up strategy for some players. The action is subject to sanction, but the punishment is minor.
One tennis player who rejects the release provided by racquet-smashing is Chinese star Li Na.
Golf, in common with other non-contact ball sports [such as snooker, pool, ] requires execution of well-grooved routines which can break down under performance anxiety. In golf, the breakdown of routines particularly in putting is famously known as the Yips. The medical condition is considered a kind of small muscle fatigue. Similar breakdowns of performance are known in the world of music among violinists.
William Thompson is a qualified fencing coach. He outlined how a leading international trainer dealt with performance anxiety:
“I studied fencing under Professor Robert Anderson who died in 2013. He explained to me that his role as the coach of the British Olympic team was to remove all stress and performance anxiety:
‘My foot ware is causing a problem,’ Coach: We will change your foot ware.
‘There is noise from the room next door and I cannot sleep,’ Coach: We will move your room.
‘My training partner does not seem motivated,’ Coach: We will change your partner.
Performance stress has its observable symptoms. The coach’s job is to address these symptoms and remove them.”
Obsession and performance anxiety
Overall, the accounts suggest that performance anxiety of players is a major issue for coaches across a variety of sports. Probably the obsessive drive to achieve among top athletes is a mixed blessing.