Home Health & Wellness Performance Anxiety Can Damage an Athlete’s Career. Here’s How to Overcome It According to Science

Performance Anxiety Can Damage an Athlete’s Career. Here’s How to Overcome It According to Science

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Eighteen-year-old Brit Emma Raducanu has been rightly lauded since the then qualifier overcame the odds to triumph at the US Open earlier this month. Not only did she become the first qualifier in the Open Era to win a Grand Slam singles title, but she is also the first British woman to win a Grand Slam singles title since Virginia Wade won on home soil in 1977. This has elevated Raducanu to the dizzy heights of number 22 in the latest world rankings, with this anticipated to increase in time, such is her potential.

Though this may seem an astonishing achievement, it comes just two months after retiring in the second set of her fourth-round match with Ajla Tomljanovic at Wimbledon, citing breathing problems as the reason for her withdrawal. Raducanu has since suggested that this was due to ‘a combination of everything that has gone on behind the scenes over the last week and an accumulation of the excitement [of the match].’ This has since sparked the conversation regarding performance anxiety in sport, how and why this happens, and what athletes can do to overcome this.

There are numerous theories within sport psychology that attempt to explain anxiety (often referred to as arousal) and how this influences performance. One theory that is particularly relevant in Raducanu’s case is catastrophe theory, which states that as arousal increases, so too does performance, which agrees with other theories of arousal.

However, what differs in this theory is that peak performance plateaus at a certain level of arousal, before a significant decrease in performance (catastrophe). That is, arousal is beneficial to performance to a certain point before then leading to a sharp decline. The point just before this decline is referred to as the zone of optimal functioning. This decline was seen in the summer at Wimbledon whereby Raducanu’s arousal levels increased to a level that was detrimental to performance, with her since having referred to the bright lights and it being warmer on Court One. She also stated that prior to the tournament she had only played in front of approximately 100 spectators. From this, it seems that the occasion increased her arousal levels, and as a young athlete she was unable to control the physiological responses to this which ultimately led to her withdrawal.

So how does this event differ so much to what we saw shortly after at the US Open? For that, you only have to listen to her interview on BBC Breakfast after her return to the UK: ‘I wasn’t thinking at all about anything that was out of my control, or that was going on off the court. I was just really focusing on my matches and what I was trying to achieve, and I think that was probably the key that helped me have the run I had because I wasn’t distracted, I was just focusing on what I had to do, and I executed it.’

Here we have a complete contrast to Wimbledon whereby distractions from the unfamiliar environment increased her arousal levels to a point that worsened her performance, compared to managing what she can and cannot control in the US Open, regulating her arousal levels and maintaining her position in the zone of optimal performance. Athletes that can control their arousal levels by attending to information that is important are much more likely to perform to their potential.

Many will cite Emma Raducanu’s extraordinary feat to natural ability and harnessing physical attributes. However, what cannot be understated is her maturity in recognising the psychological skills required to succeed in elite sport. Her experience at Wimbledon was far from ideal, but it is safe to say that she learned from the encounter and improved her performance accordingly. This can take years for athletes to achieve while some never do, and for Raducanu to display this so early in her career is exciting for all Britons, as she demonstrates the physical and psychological traits to attain many more Grand Slams. 

Daniel Walker is a PhD researcher and a graduate teaching assistant at Edge Hill University.

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