What You Need to Know About Competitive State Anxiety

A touch of anxiety before a big game or match is normal, and even healthy, for athletes. It’s what pumps you up for the game, keeps you focused, and gives you the competitive edge you need to strive for victory. However, anxiety can backfire when it overtakes an athlete's perceived abilities.

Competitive state anxiety, or pre-competition anxiety, is a common experience for many athletes. When not managed properly, it can greatly affect your performance, confidence, and mental and physical health.

Let’s dig deeper into competitive state anxiety and discuss how you can control it before a big game or match.

What is Competitive State Anxiety?

Anxiety is defined as an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes like increased blood pressure. Anxiety usually occurs due to an impending event with an uncertain outcome.

There are two types of anxiety:

  • Trait anxiety is a chronic condition that is related to personality. People with trait anxiety generally have nervousness as a stable personality trait.

  • State anxiety refers to temporary feelings of anxiety that are related to a particular event or state.

State anxiety is common among athletes because of the demands of sports. Especially before a big match, the pressure is on to win and to be the best. Sports place numerous stressors upon athletes, from training and competing to winning and beyond. It’s no surprise then that many athletes develop competitive state anxiety.

Competitive state anxiety occurs when the demands of the sport are greater than that athletes perceived abilities. While a bit of anxiety before a game gives us the push we need to tackle challenges, uncontrolled anxiety can wreak havoc on your performance in the ring.

What Are the Symptoms?

Anxiety does not look the same for everyone, and for that reason, symptoms differ for each individual. However, it’s important to know some of the common symptoms of anxiety, that way you can recognize it in yourself.

Here are some common symptoms of competitive state anxiety:

  • Cognitive symptoms, or thought processes, include fear, indecision, loss of confidence, poor concentration, images of failure, thoughts of avoidance.

  • Physical symptoms include increased blood pressure, pounding heart, sweating, dry mouth, trembling, muscular tension, butterflies in the stomach.

  • Behavioral symptoms include avoidance of eye contact, biting the fingernails, introversion or excessive extroversion, “playing it safe.”

Experiencing some of the symptoms is not necessarily a cause for concern. The trick is learning how to use your anxiety to succeed, rather than letting it overtake you. We will discuss ways to control competitive state anxiety further down.

What Are the Causes?

There are many factors in the world of sports that contribute to an athletes anxiety. Firstly, games and matches provide a considerable amount of uncertainty. It’s not just the outcome that’s unpredictable. An athlete never knows what variables will impact how they will perform or what they’re competition will do. Uncertainty is a major cause of anxiety, whether in sports or any other aspect of life.

The significance of the event also affects anxiety levels. The higher the stakes, the higher your anxiety is likely to rise.

Expectations also play a role in how anxious you feel. There is a lot of pressure to win, but often the person that holds the highest (and sometimes impossible) expectation is YOU. Someone with a perfectionist personality is likely to feel anxious before a game because the thought of losing or messing up is not acceptable to them.

Techniques for Controlling Competitive Anxiety

The key to competitive anxiety is accepting it. Once you accept it and learn how to manage it, it can then be used to your advantage to facilitate your performance.

Here are five simple techniques to de-stress before hopping in the ring.

Relaxation Techniques

If the symptoms of anxiety are becoming too heavy, try engaging in some relaxation techniques. Relaxation will help to bring your heart rate and blood pressure down and focus your thoughts.

One of the most effective ways to relax your body and mind is through deep breathing. Deep breathing works by filling the lungs and lifting the lower belly. This creates a relaxation response, as opposed to shallow “chest” breaths, which illicit less oxygen and increased anxiety.

Deep breathing may seem simple, but it’s different from our normal, everyday breathing which is why it requires some practice.

Here’s how to engage in deep breathing to calm down:

  1. Find a quiet, calm space to sit or lie down, and close your eyes.

  2. Slowly inhale through your nose, allowing your chest and abdomen to expand completely.

  3. Exhale slowly through your nose or mouth.

  4. Focus on your breaths. Feel your chest, lungs, and abdomen fill with oxygen, and notice it empty as you exhale. You can also use mental imagery to imagine yourself inhaling the good and exhaling the bad. This will help to take your mind off of the anxiety and focus it elsewhere.

  5. Try this exercise for 5-10 minutes.

Making Failure Your Friend

Fear is a friend of anxiety. Most people fear failure, and this creates a lot of tension and internal conflict.

Of course, it’s not fun to fail, and we should always strive for the best. However, it’s essential to remember that failure is a normal and important part of life. Without failure, we cannot see our weaknesses or our limitations, nor can we make room for growth.

Remind yourself that failure is inevitable and it is the best teacher. Use the losses to become better and strong. Competing with this mindset is a sure way to reduce those pre-competition jitters.

Positive Self-Talk

Much of pre-competition anxiety comes from negative thinking. “I am going to fail” or “I’m not good enough to beat my competitors” are common phrases that may run through your mind before a match. Consciously choosing other words can greatly reduce your anxiety and increase your performance.

Practice some positive statements that you can say to yourself on competition day. Telling yourself things like “I can do it,” “I believe in myself,” or “I am capable” can make a world of difference in building up your confidence for game time.

Goal Setting

Winning is a good goal, but it shouldn’t be the only thing you strive for. After all, no one can win all the time. Create goals that allow you to compete with yourself. For example, maybe you are strong on offense, but you want to work on blocking. Strive to get strong in that particular area, and focus on that each competition.

Going into a game with a set of goals will give your thoughts a direction and will help you focus more on yourself and less on the anxiety.

Boxing is just as much a mental sport as it is a physical one. Training at Gloveworx is all about pushing through those negative emotions and learning how to use them to succeed, both in and out of the ring