11 Aug 2009

Sample Essay: Competitve Anxiety And Football (Soccer)

Sports offer participants a lot of opportunity for growth – chances to push back personal boundaries means by which to liberate the body and the mind, and rise above from challenges. There is nothing damaging about the stress associated with a sporting contest, and in fact stress can be a very positive influence that leads us to tackle the challenges that make life far more rewarding and hopeful. However, when we perceive stress to be negative, it causes anxiety and therefore, much depends upon how we view the demands placed upon players and participants.

Anxiety is a natural reaction of the human body and mind to circumstances and threats in the environment and surroundings. It is an automatic and primitive response on the part of survival either to ‘fight’ or ‘flee’ from perceived harm or attack. It involves a feeling of fear or a perception of threat and which may be specific to a particular situation. Possible symptoms are nausea, loss of composure, reduced motor coordination and aggression .At the same time as providing challenge and stimulation, sport also provides considerable uncertainty, similar psychological and bodily responses as there is often a threat posed towards the ego and sense of self-esteem, which is possibly the dread of performing low, and losing face because every sport is either a win or a loss situation. Essentially, anxiety is the inevitable outcome when the demands of training, competition and expectations and demands exceed one’s perceived ability. At the precise moment the referee blows the first whistle, the outcome is unknown. The stress that sport provides therefore is inevitably linked with its inherent uncertainty. Sport is a cultural focal point because it is a theatre of unpredictability just like war.

While stress and uncertainty may motivate some athletes, they induce anxiety in others. There are some distinct factors that can increase athletes’ level of anxiety. For example, the more important the contest the greater the stress, and the more likely it is that competitors will be prone to anxiety. Participants in individual sports have been shown generally to suffer more anxiety before, during and after competition than participants in team sports. This is because the sense of isolation and exposure is much greater in sports such as athletics, tennis and golf than in the relative anonymity of field and team sports. But overall, sport places a wide variety of stressors upon participants, especially football or soccer. The game being the most popular and spectacular in the whole world, passions and expectations runs high in every game. Also, spectators and fans can have a huge impact on how athletes feel. In fact, cases of the home advantage phenomenon show that teams playing at their home venue win on average, around 56-64% of the time depending on the sport, the impressive medal count of host nations during Olympic Games, in particular the record-breaking haul of medals won by Australia in Sydney (2000) and by Greece in Athens (2004); and the surprisingly amazing performance of the underdogs Korean national football team, when Japan and South Korea jointly hosted the FIFA World Cup.

Potential stressors include the climate – temperature, jet-lag, playing environment – stadium, spectators, surface, game officials and finally stress created by opponents or between players and the coach. The intensity of these influences on stress depends on the individual perception or inner experience of the player. The possibility of getting hurt can also be a source of anxiety, because historical rivalries tend to flare up in fields and evidences of intentional fouling and feuding can be seen. Take for example the hooliganism of English football fans and the deep rooted traditional animosity of the Catalans and Spaniards, as between matches between Barcelona and Real Madrid.  It can be physically and mentally exhausting as hostile fans might verbally abuse players; and when teams are pitched against superior opponents, the elements of dread and emotional frailties are constantly laid bare for all to see. Coaches and team managers may, however, have a key role to play in buffering the effects of anxiety. We have seen many instances of Red and Yellow cards shown even to aggressive coaches, Arsene Wenger and Alex Ferguson being the most notorious ones.

The pressure experienced by soccer players especially at professional levels is recognized as one of the major influences in playing performance. Heavy playing schedules, competition for team places, the media and fans as well as the pressure to win trophies all play a part in players developing high stress and anxiety levels. Take the case of Copa-American Footballers from Brazil and Argentina, who are in much demand in the European leagues. They all have heavy playing schedules for their respective clubs but when it is time for the international tournaments, they have to b present for their national teams. This takes a huge toll on young and emerging players who haven’t learnt to fit into these heavy schedules between  professionalism, duty and honor Even experienced players can suffer from pre-match stress and so developing ways to control this is important in order to prevent players from “falling” apart or burning out. As a consequence of stress and anxiety, those involved in soccer especially at top levels need a lot of pre-competition relaxation strategies. Helping the mental state will have a positive effect on the physical state of the player and using relaxation techniques may be able to control their thinking to remove tension and conserve energy. Anxiety can also strike during a game for example after a mistake. This anxiety may cause some critical changes in technique. For example, leading scorers can be clumsy in their leg movements or goal shots, any of which may result in further degradation of their performances. An additional factor that causes anxiety is the expectation of success. The expectations held by English fans for their national team filled with star players with a huge load of individual talent have hung over the players like a dark clouds and that might be the potential reason for their failures in delivering the goods when it comes to crucial matters.

Coaches and team managers can be helpful in fighting competitive anxiety. By getting to know a player well, a coach can sometimes diagnose why a player is over-anxious. However, it may be difficult to get through to players suffering from anxiety thus much discretion is needed. A coach can look for various signs such as moments of anger or loss of confidence and players who no longer utilize their skills correctly. Players can as well become isolated and hide away from their team mates or become aggressive and blame everyone else for their problems.

Dr Costas Karageorghis explores the nature of anxiety and its common symptoms, reviews the latest competition anxiety research, and provides us with five techniques that either control anxiety or channel it positively into performances. Costas Karageorghis is a reader in sport psychology at Brunel University, west London where he also manages the Athletics Club. He has published extensively in the field of sport and exercise psychology and has been a BASES accredited sport psychologist for 11 years.

His studies indicates that when a competitor ‘freezes’ in the big moment or commits an inexplicable error, anxiety, in one of its many guises, is very often the root cause and  far too many athletes accept high levels of anxiety as an inevitable part of the total sporting experience and fail to reach their potential. He has proposed five techniques to help control competition anxiety, which includes:

1. Establishing a ‘winning feeling’ to help create an optimum competition mindset through consciously reproducing the desired elements.

2. Centering which involves focusing attention on the centre of your body, the area just behind your navel. This is a technique that is particularly effective during sports that have breaks in the action, such as in between sets in tennis and prior to penalty shoot-outs in soccer.

3. The five breath technique anxiety control exercises which  can be performed and  ideally used just before competition, or whenever players feel particularly tense

4. Thought-stopping technique can help to create a sharp refocus of attention keeping you engrossed in the task at hand and  forget a a negative experience or unwanted thought

5. Letting go which relieves the tension in overall body parts, and keeps players tranquil and deeply relaxed.

He concludes that, when players are alert but relaxed, they can make better, quicker decisions during a match. An over-anxious player will often make incorrect decisions. Athletes can as well be more motivated when they realize that they can control their anxiety and are then free to play at their top level.  In soccer, players may need to develop relaxation skills to counter moments of stress and anxiety which are interrelated. Players also need to develop a positive way of looking at the game during moments of difficulty. The coach needs to be aware of the various signs and symptoms of players suffering from stress and anxiety; and a sports psychologist can help players to reach and stay at their maximal potential.

Sports is littered with the broken dreams of those who wavered when they most needed to be in control of themselves and focused on the task at hand. Some athletes rise to the challenge imposed by public expectation while others can choke. We should look upon players like David Beckham and Roberto Baggio, who previously have been singled out and, blamed and ridiculed for their team defeats in previous matches; but have fought whatever anxiety and rose to the occasion when given second chances.

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