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by Jani Sutherland

June 1, 2006

Beating physical and cognitive anxiety

Sports psychology isn’t just for the elite athlete. It’s for all of us!! Sports psychology deals with our mental skills. We train our physical skills when we are in the pool so what not our mental skills too?

Anxiety is a big piece of sports psychology and it can affect all of us from the swimmer ready to move to a faster lane to those individuals going after national or world records. And it can affect those of us in between: should I swim in my first meet at my local pool, can I qualify for Worlds at Stanford?

One of the best definitions of anxiety is “a threat by uncertainty multiplied by importance.” We usually don’t get anxious if the outcome of an event is unimportant or if the outcome is certain. Anxiety isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it shows we care about our performance. It is part of being human.  The attempt to resolve uncertainty is part of our mission in life. Many are drawn to sport because of this uncertainty  - how fast can I go, can I win?

There are 2 kinds of anxiety: physical (somatic) anxiety: increased heart rate and butterflies in the stomach. The other is mind (cognitive) anxiety: low self-esteem and negative thoughts. And no matter which type of anxiety you experience, how you react to it can be more important than the anxiety itself. In any performance an athlete will experience some anxiety (we’re swimming how much fly?). The athlete’s interpretation of anxiety is what’s important and for each of us there is an optimum level of anxiety. We need to find that level. Finding the right level leads to confidence! A confident athlete uses their anxiety positively and that often leads to better performance.

How can we use sports psychology to improve our performance? There are no general rules and everyone is different. Self-analysis is a good start – is your anxiety physical or mental? For most people it is cognitive (the mind): will I look ridiculous doing this IM set, will I get lapped in the 1000? A primary cause of cognitive anxiety is the tendency to focus on results. We think about outcomes and these are powerful thoughts. Louise Friend, one of Britain’s top sports psychologists, suggests event goals rather than outcome goals. Provide goals you can control: I will keep my head down when I am doing butterfly, I will be streamlined off the wall after my turns. Attention is taken away from the outcome of the race or event, which cannot be controlled.

Some athletes with cognitive anxiety use pre-race mental routines, visualizing a calm place or themselves executing a flawless stroke. Other people respond well to mantras – a word or phrase repeated over and over that blocks out other thoughts.

If your problem is somatic or physical anxiety, relaxation techniques are recommended. Deep breathing, stretching, shaking loose your muscles and meditation are all ways to reduce physical anxiety. Some people find chatting with friends reduces this type of anxiety.

Reducing anxiety is only half the battle. The crucial thing is to channel that anxiety positively into confidence. Confidence comes with experience and learning from past situations. When we train anxiety is usually low, and we gain confidence just by performing. Racing frequently will build confidence, again through experience. Find out what works for you, then go for it: move up a lane, swim a 200 IM, go to Worlds.

This month's article was written by USMS Fitness Chair Jani Sutherland of Bend, Oregon. Sutherland is also Fitness Chair of the Oregon LMSC.