Sports Psychology
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San Diego Figure Skating Communications

Stress of Testing & Competing

How does stress affect athletes?
        Sometimes a child, teenager, or adult shows distinct signs of becoming stressed several days or even weeks prior to performing on the ice where they will be the sole focus of attention in a critique, test, exhibition, or competition.

       Stress is usually a problem when a seemingly assertive skater in practice sessions loses their confidence after observing another skater whose is taking the same test at a test session where they are also scheduled to test. The other skater may or may not be better prepared; however, just the perception can cause a skater to begin to doubt their ability.

       If a skater begins to doubt themselves, it can grow and become a full blown depression that adversely affects their performance. The same situation can occur at competitions when a skater encounters other competitors in their event for the first time on a practice session.

Self Motivation
       Skaters can psych themselves up to perform their best or go into a full blown funk (a physical/mental meltdown) in which their poor performance becomes a self fulfilling prophecy.

       It is vital that coaches and parents provide a realistic assessment of the skaters ability and consistency in practice sessions.  Skaters respect their coaches, but eventually they will come to realize when praise is justified. It is important that the skater demonstrate how much they have improved, not an attitude to win at any cost. It is nice if the outcome of a competition is a place on the podium, but the world will not come to an end if a skater doesn't place. 

       Coaches and parents should emphasize their child taking the practice performance level above the minimum projected to pass a test or place in a competition. Skaters who are entered a competition are sometimes encouraged to attempt executing a harder element in their program, but judges are evaluating how well each element is performed. Parents, coaches, and skaters should measure success by the skater demonstrating improvement as they strive to become the best skater they can be.

Motor Skill Acquisition
       Acquiring or learning new gross and fine motor skills and information is a requirement of any physical/motor skill instruction. In a school Physical Education program, students are graded on their ability to demonstrate achievement in tests or competitions. It is not uncommon to encounter some learners who “choke” under pressure and their performance is not a true measurement of their capability.

       All formal learning environments require the individual to be ready to perform/demonstrate their skills and that requires them to effectively cope with the associated stress. This is an aspect in all stages of our training and development required of cognitive and motor tasks.

During stressful times (e.g., competition), the release of extraneous catecholamines and stress hormones can lead to a loss in concentration and attentional focus, memory lapses, and high
arousal levels (Orlick, 1986; Rotella & Lerner, 1993; Zaichowsky & Takenaka, 1993).

Note: There is no universal solution to managing stressful situations except to anticipate the conditions, use various techniques to simulate the range of possibilities, and thus be prepared
to react in a real situation, such one occur.

For example, if there is a possibility of falling on a jump or completing the minimum number of spin rotations or experiencing a problem with the step sequence - it will not be possible to stop and have a do over in a test or competition.

Do not stop in a practice run through unless you are experiencing physical distress and continuing could aggravate the problem or injury.  Know the rules if your apparel or boots/blades malfunction in a test or competition!

Recommended Readings:
  • PDF Coping with Stress  Mental stress can frequently can cause an athlete's body to have a physical response. There also is a problem whose cause is purely physical in origin, that is known as Stress Fractures which are very real and require proper diagnosis and immediate treatment.
      The use of biofeedback has been shown to be an effective method for monitoring and regulating an individual's stress/tension and concentration levels before and during performance. This data provides very important and practical information and instantaneous easy-to-interpret information that can be used by performers as they perform their activity. Coaches, sport psychologists, and physical educators from major universities, professional teams, and the Olympic Training Center use a stress management program and the biofeedback of Peak Achievement Trainer (PAT).

      The stress management program teaches participants to perform with a “quiet” mind, minimizing internal and external distracters. Athletes are taught to recognize when their arousal levels are too high or when concentration is not at a premium. This approach has been professed in Singer’s (2002) Five-Step Strategy and has been shown to have a great deal of success in the learning and enhancement of self-paced motor activities. Participants learn to be relaxed, yet alert, and perform in a focused manner that they were able to maintain their concentration level for a longer period of time.

      Exploring effective stress management interventions could combat potential deleterious effects imposed by competitive pressure by mentally and physically tuning the performer to respond with a quiet, ready mind. This state of readiness would minimize the cognitive processing of irrelevant information and distracters at the time of motor initiation, processing that would essentially degrade performance and is more characteristic of beginners (Petruzzello, Landers, & Salazar, 1991).
      There are two rival theories - one states that anxiety is so distracting it stops performers from being able concentrate on what they're doing. The other argues that anxiety causes the sportsman or woman to become overly conscious of their movements - skilled actions that had become automatic are made excruciatingly explicit, thus causing the athlete to regress and lose months of skill development.
  • Choking Under Pressure:  Choking under pressure is defined as performance decrements under circumstances that increase the importance of good or improved performance.
      Choking under pressure is defined as performance degradation under circumstances that increase the importance of good or improved performance. A model for choking on coordination and skill tasks is proposed, holding that the pressure increases the conscious attention to the performer's own process of performance and that this increased conscious attention disrupts the automatic or over learned nature of the execution.

      Six experiments provided data consistent with this model. Three studies showed that increased attention to one's own process of performance resulted in performance degradation. Three other studies showed similar degradation produced by situational manipulations of pressure (i.e., implicit competition, a cash incentive, and audience induced pressure). Individuals low in dispositional self-consciousness were shown to be more susceptible to choking under pressure than those high in it.
  • PDF How to Avoid Choking Under Pressure  Feb. 10, 2009 ... Scientific American Mind - February 11, 2009. How to Avoid Choking under Pressure. Afraid of crumbling when it counts? Try not to think so negatively.
  • Why Do We Choke Under Pressure?  Psychologists find that over attention to well learned performances may make things worse ("choking" under pressure). However, training that way may actually improve performance under pressure.
      They might be top of the food chain, but there is science behind why overachievers sometimes can't take the heat. Working memory involves holding information in memory while accomplishing tasks at the same time. Overachievers feel a lot of pressure to succeed because they have high expectations, but also because they normally rely heavily on working memory
      Although working memory is important for navigating tough reasoning tasks, it is not always optimal to rely on it. In a very stressful, nerve racking situation, some accomplished individuals may try to manage every little nuance to insure that they come out on top; however, this may also result in a negative outcome.
      "If you are doing a skill that is better left on autopilot, such as hitting a putt you have made a thousand times in the past or giving a speech that you have memorized, can actually backfire if you attempt  to dissect every action or word," Beilock told LiveScience. Essentially there's not enough brain power to go around so it freezes just like an overloaded computer processor.
  • How to Avoid Choking under Pressure  Afraid of self-destructing at an inopportune moment? Try to not over think.  February 11, 2009. We choke under pressure because such conditions defeat the learned automatic tasks that do not require normal cognitive brain processing.
      Trying to focus on monitoring the quality of your performance in real time is counterproductive because the cerebellum, which controls complex motor tasks, is not consciously accessible.

      Gradually increasing the pressure at your practice sessions is the best way develop the stamina and consistency of performing under stress that is so necessary to reduce the possibility of failing to perform at a high level during an actual competition.


Learn More About:

Is Your Stress IQ Hurting Your Performance?     by Dr. Mick G. Mack

Jitter Bug: Overcoming the First Tee (golf)    by Patrick J. Cohn

Pass or Fail: Learning How to Make the Grade (golf)    by Patrick J. Cohn

Preventing "Choking" and Downward Performance Cycles     by Dr. Robert M. Nideffer

A Psychoanalytic Perspective on Anxiety in Athletes     by Tom Ferraro, Ph.D.

Q-School Pressure Takes Mental Toughness (golf)     by Patrick J. Cohn

Shooting Low Means Beating Fear (golf)     by Patrick J. Cohn

Stress, Anxiety and Energy     Follow the arrow (at page top and bottom) for continued discussion.

The Relationship Between Anxiety and Performance: A Cognitive-Behavioral Perspective     by Miguel Humara, M.A.


The following internet links have been gleaned from personal communications
combined with information from public institutions and athletic organizations/
associations that have a web presence with information concerning team and
individual sports programs:

PDF  Sports Personality
          Role of Sports Psychology
PDF Heredity

All materials are copy protected. 
The limited use of the materials for education purposes is allowed providing
credit is given for the source of the materials.

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