Search

The Impact of Mental Preparation on Athletic Performance
By: Bridget Reardon


Physical endurance and skill are two key factors that coaches, athletes and non-athletes attribute to outstanding athletes. When professionals, Olympians, and amateur athletes are thought of, their phenomenal physical shape is usually commented on. Rarely is an athlete's ability to perform attributed to their mental capacity to focus, which can allow them to overcome stress, anxiety, and the competition. At some point most athletes and spectators have probably heard "A game is played on a five and half inch court, the space between your head" and "A game is 10% physical and 90% mental." If athletes and coaches, who preached these quotes, took them into consideration when practicing, they would recognize the impact of mental preparation on performance. Mental training during practice will allow for performances to be better indicators of the competitor's true athletic capacity; mental training would enable the athlete to perform better physically, mentally, and emotionally.

At press conferences following disappointing performances coaches, captains, and athletes usually attribute loosing to non-physical factors. Athletes never say, "I didn't feel like running" or "I didn't feel as strong today as I have other days." Instead, they say "We couldn't seem to concentrate", "We weren't mentally ready", or "Our opponents wanted it more." Even though they say this, coaches rarely act on these comments. Coaches will work athletes/competitors harder on the physical endurance and intricate skills required to be successful in competition. They rarely take the time to focus on mental breakdown because they don't feel that it is a contributing factor to a decline in play. Coaches are not teaching or training their athletes to be mentally prepared for the stresses and anxieties that impact motivational level and overall performance. Too often, coaches fail to recognize that it is more important to focus on the psychological/mental aspect of the game, especially since physical abilities remain relatively stable and psychological factors are more likely to account for fluctuations in performance. (Figone, 1999)

Many coaches and spectators have the misconception that champions are born rather than made. They think that athletes such as Steffi Graff, Wayne Gretzky, and Bill Russell were born with superior mental and physical capacities. Contrary to this thought, all athletes will acknowledge the countless hours they spent on developing both physical and mental skills. (Figone, 1999) In an interview, Bill Russell stated that his "ability to physically and mentally intimidate his opponent and maintain his coolness and concentration despite distractions are a result of countless hours of integrating psychological and physical skill." (Figone, 1999) Still despite what even the most accomplished athletes say in regards to the importance of mental training, evidence shows an overwhelming majority of coaches are not applying any type of psychological sport training. From the athletes' standpoint, not knowing how to focus on the mental aspect of the game causes increases in stress and anxiety, decreased motivation, and poor play. (Figone, 1994) Multiple theories and tactics on mental training work to provide the focus necessary for outstanding performances, coaches just need to find time to teach mental training skills and observe the results.

Research conducted in the 60's and 70's yielded inconclusive outcomes as to the relevance of mental practice, but overall concluded that mental practice facilitated motor performance in about fifty percent of the studies. (Halvari, 1996) This evidence was not enough o say that there was a strong relationship between performance and mental practice, but it did indicate that there was a correlation that should be further looked into. In building upon previous research, in 1983 Fletz and Landers conducted a meta-analysis termed "The Effects of Mental Practice" of sixty previously conducted studies. In this study, the term mental training was broadly redefined to include techniques such as modeling, audiovisual instructions, visual imagery, relaxation, and psyching-up strategies. Scores on these various forms of mental practice were compared to the score of a control group who received no mental training when performing physical task. Fletz and Landers concluded that mental practice has relatively low to average effects on performance but is "somewhat better than no practice at all." (Halvari, 1996) An update of this study in 1988 done by Fletz, Landers and Becker further concluded that the type of task moderates the relationship between mental practice and performance. They found that the more complex and important the physical task is, the greater the effect mental practice has performance. (Halvari, 1996)

In 1996 Hallgeir Halvari examined the effects of mental practice on performance and further expanded upon the findings of Fletz, Landers and Becker. Using the Sport Competition Anxiety Test, he measured cognitive anxiety in forty-five subjects who were divided up into 2 groups: a mental practice group, and a control group. Both groups were required to perform specified exercises correctly and in a specific order. The specific exercise combination required more mental capacity than physical ability to be performed well. The mental practice group was instructed to rehearse mentally the exercises without physical movement two days before, one day before, and 30 minutes before the test. The control group was instructed to prepare physically to perform the specified exercises. Halvari compared how the two groups scored on the Sport Competition Anxiety Test and found the mental practice group scored lower on the anxiety test and performed the task with few performance errors. The control group scored higher on the anxiety test and performed the task poorly in comparison to the mental practice group. Halvari concluded that a lack of mental preparation might result in poor performance of a specific task. He showed that poor performance is related to anxiety, which increases the number of performance errors committed during a task. (Halvari, 1996)

In athletic competition, poor performance is frustrating for coaches, athletes and spectators, however, to account for a lack of performance coach's focus on physical skills instead of mental skills. Although the lack of mental preparation can be a contributing factor to the problem, coaches doubt its relevance because of their concerns about the time it takes to adapt to the idea of mental practice before it actually proves beneficial and because athletes may initially have trouble shifting their attention from irrelevant to relevant focusing cues. Also, specific game situations require more instruction and mental focusing than others. In these cases, it is not easy to recognize and focus on the situation when it may be over with in a matter of seconds. With the growing awareness of the value of mental preparation and the challenge of effectively teaching it, psychologists have devised a variety of ideas on how to prepare athletes for optimal performance during competition.

Psychologists began studying sports in the nineteen thirties and forties. At this time, their focus was not on sports alone, but also on motor performance and the acquisition of motor skills to master difficult skills under intense physical stress and social pressure. However, in the nineteen sixties sport psychology began to form a niche in the world of psychology. The theories of social psychology and how athletes respond to the stresses and pressures of their audience, competitors, and coaches dominated the niche. (Gale Encyclopedia, 2002) At the present time, sport psychology still remains based on the philosophies and matters such as personality traits, motivation, and social influence that were developed in the early 1930's. Still, the field has further molded itself into the scientific study of an athlete's behavior and cognitive reactions to sport settings. The field of sport psychology is of interest to coaches and athletes because it seeks to explain why athletes perform better under different conditions, how to enhance athletic performance, and how coaches can facilitate optimal conditions for athletes both mentally and physically.

Psychologists classify sports settings as settings in which activities involve power, skills, competition, strategy, and chance. From these sport settings, enjoyment, satisfaction and personal gains can be achieved. (Wann, 1997) Nowadays, athletes at all levels come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and capabilities, but generally athletes are those individuals who partake in activities classified under the term sport setting. An athlete is an individual who participates in a sport at a recreational, intramural, or intercollegiate level, wins awards for a sporting event, and is trained to exercise physical agility and strength. At all levels athletes exhibit traits of extroversion, dominance, self-confidence, competitiveness, low anxiety, low compulsiveness, and tolerance for pain. (Cox, 1990) These traits and the athlete's self concept, or set of beliefs concerning his or her appearance, ability, potential, limitations and sense of worthiness, play a large role in his or her performance. (Ball, 2002) Regardless of the ability of the athlete, the traits which the athlete portrays, or even the specific sport, coaches generally rely on some form of sport psychology to aid them in preparing their athletes for both the physical and mental game.

All coaches have their own style or philosophies on how to prepare their athletes for the pressures, stresses, and physical and mental demands that they will be facing in competition. These philosophies are generally representative of the coach's own behavior and his/her expectations of the athlete or team. Those coaches, who find it difficult to display the behaviors and expectations that they demand of their athletes, often struggle in gaining the authority and respect that is necessary for the successful training of a team or individual. Such coaches that do not set realistic goals have trouble constructively critiquing performances, and lack the respect of their players, parents, and fans. (Cratty, 1973)

An ideal coach will not only demonstrate the behaviors and expectations that they demand of their athletes, but they will also be aware of and exhibit qualities such as intelligence, realism and practicality, confidence, self-sufficiency. An ideal coach will recognize that the success of the team depends on the knowledge and wisdom that he/she brings to the team and sport. (Gallon, 1989) Coaches who can exhibit such qualities will be successful because they can play several roles in various situations. They can use their positive psychological qualities to motivate their athletes and train them for both physical and mental competition. These coaches will have their needs meet, help their athletes feel secure when faced with stressful circumstances, experience less aggression, and will be successful in training their athletes physically and mentally. A coach's poor emotional and mental control may lead athletes to loose respect for that coach, and may heighten the anxiety level of athletes and observers about the task at hand. (Cox, 1990)

In addition to gaining respect of their players, motivating and physically preparing their athletes for competition, coaches must require mental training in their team's daily practice regime. In physically preparing athletes for competition, a coach may choose to have their team perform conditioning exercises, drills which include perfect execution of a variety of skills, and scrimmages or competition simulations. Aside from all the benefits of physical practice, it is not enough to solely train and condition athletes. If athletes do not know how to mentally focus during competition, they become incapable of executing their physical skills to their ability. For most athletes, mental focus is the result of mental practice. With enough practice, focus becomes second nature even in a stressful situation.

To achieve mastery of mental skills, athletes must pay attention to areas such as attention, mood, anxiety and stress. Through focusing on these areas, mental practice is engaged in by the athletes. Mental practice is cognitive rehearsal in the absence of physical practice. (Halvari, 1996) Sport Psychologist B. S. Rushall has described three main strategies to mental training. These are segmenting, thinking practice, and competition strategies. Segmenting is breaking plays into step-by-step actions so that each step is short enough that the athlete can concentrate on what needs to be done. Allowing athletes to focus on the successful completion of an element that is critical in competition. A thinking practice or mental practice allows athletes to develop the skills necessary to think clearly during physical activity. During the initial stages of thinking practice, a concentrated effort on the part of the athlete is necessary when imagining the performing of skills. Eventually, this athlete will transfer the skills thinking practice to the playing field, and remain in mental control using minimal effort to concentrate. Competition strategies are the combinations of segmenting and thinking practices; they are the content of what the athlete is thinking during a contest. With the correct training and practice on how to break plays down, how to react to actions of the competitor, and how to handle advice of coaches in stressful situations, competition strategies have proven successful. (Rushall, 1995)

Unfortunately, many coaches do not practice mental preparation because they do not realize impact that mental capacity may have on an athlete's performance. Many coaches believe that increasing physical practice time and working harder on shortcomings can rectify a performance breakdown. Such coaches believe the mental skills responsible for the loss will take care of themselves. What these individuals do not understand is that fluctuations in skill and performance are a combination of both physical and mental skills. (Figone, 1999) Successful athletes who incorporate mental skill practice into their physical training exhibit controlled mental capabilities during performance, emotional stability, low trait anxiety, and high psychic vigor. Likewise, findings from research involving the Mental Health Model indicate that intense physical training alone routinely results in mood disturbances and decreased performance in athletes who otherwise exhibit positive mental health profiles off-season or during periods of easy training. (Raglin, 2001)

Mental skills serve not only to focus athletes on the internal anxiety and stress accompanying game situations, such as a racing heart rate, butterflies in the stomach and an increased rate of breathing, but also to help them focus when external stressors play into their anxiety level. Stressors outside of the athlete's control include refereeing decisions, tournament organizations, coach and teammate influences, and social support. Both internal and external stress can play into the overall performance of an athlete in similar ways. These stresses may cause misjudgments, over reactions to plays, and missed signals or cues. All of these stresses arise whenever the athlete's physical requirement is either overloaded or fails to adjust to the necessary energy demands, and the level of arousal or excitement is off. (Jones, 1995)

Qualitative studies (Hardy and Jones, 1994) have alluded to internal and external stressors as important determinants on performance. However they suggest that further research into these stressors and the levels at which they become influential in performance would provide further knowledge to enhance the mental preparation of sports performers in such situations. (Jones 1995) What sport psychologists do know is that both external and internal stress plays a role in peoples' cognitive abilities and impedes overall performance. Halvari has found that a strong mental anxiety negatively affects self-regulatory abilities related to optimal use of energy during performance. Having too much energy exerted in a short period of time may lead to both physiological problems in completion of endurance tasks and increase the chances of error in the performance of complicated tasks. (Halvari, 1996)

The impact of mental training on stress, anxiety, arousal, and energy modification during performance may often be the difference between winning and loosing a game. When the athletes in competition are of similar ability, and the perceived importance of the event is elevated, athletes experience higher levels of pressure. (Jones and Hardy, 1989) However, even in the worst of conditions and circumstances, athletes who are mentally focused on the game will perform better in the end. Through mental preparation, individuals may modify their athletic performance by recognizing the psychological process of the sport and identifying the stresses. (Wann, 1997) A modified athletic performance can lead to better execution of skills, anticipation of plays of the opponent, and a higher performance level. When the task is executed correctly, the positive perceptions of task performance increase, the performer is confident in what he or she is doing, and the resulting levels of anxiety are lower. When an athlete lacks mental focus, the importance of task performance diminishes, the competitor is less confident in what he or she is doing and anxiety levels rise. (Halvari, 1996)

Since anxiety is an influential factor in overall performance, athletes at all levels need to practice ways to control it and remain motivated to perform. An individual's anxiety and motivational level will propel them to either action or inaction. Anxiety may positively affect performance by motivating some athletes to perform at 110 percent. These individuals feel motivated to continue their sport because they have control over their anxiety levels and can achieve their goals. For example, these individuals will perform at their optimal level during a competition because they are able channel their anxiety to positively influence performance. They have control of their anxiety, are reasonably relaxed, pose low levels of resting anxiety, and are highly motivated to achieve their goals. (Cratty, 1973) When athletes are motivated, they want to achieve excellence, overcome stress, perform at their best, and gain a tangible reward. To motivate an athlete or team, a coach must understand the feelings, anxieties, and opinions of the athlete or team. (Cratty, 1973) Through this understanding they will be able to anticipate responses of individuals, give correct cues in stressful situations, and motivate athletes to conquer anxieties and achieve their goals.

In other cases, anxiety may cause others to shy away from challenges. Athletes who experience uncontrolled exposure to stress often experience a mental breakdown within themselves, decreases in motivational level, and feelings of fear. A mental breakdown occurs when the mental focus of a competitor becomes blurred, the athlete's attitude toward good technique, temperament, self-confidence, concentration, motivation, and intrinsic and extrinsic goals also become blurred. (Gallon, 1989) These athletes fear personal loss, social consequences, injury, physical aggression, pain, and rejection by the coach. (Cratty, 1973) When anxiety overtakes the task at hand, the incentive value of the task may also diminish and there is little to no motivation to complete the task. To overcome a decreased motivational level, coaches must help the individual or team set realistic goals which lead to small but repetitive success. (Straub, 1980) Coaches may hope that their athletes pick up on the trend of success follows success and regain the motivation to participate at their highest level.

Psychologists say that when an athlete begins to experience a mental breakdown, they are no longer mentally in the game. At all levels, this should be a major concern for coaches because a mental breakdown is the turning point of a game or competition and can mean the difference between a win and a loss. During mental breakdowns athletes loose sight of why they train and practice physical and mental skills. Athletes tend to rely solely on their physical rather than mental skills to get back in the game; they forget that they win through training both physically and mentally. The difference between training to win and winning through training is that training is 90% physical and 10% mental, but winning is 90% mental and 10% physical. (Gallon, 1989) Simple physical training alone brings about automation of a skill, but mental training is about attitude and adjustment to situations so that one's physical training can be optimized in times of mental crisis. So, to optimally prepare athletes for a game, coaches should focus on preparing them mentally as much as physically.

For an athlete to effectively train and perform both mentally and physically, research shows that athletes must be able to respond to attentional demands of the coach, teammates, opponents, and game. (Straub, 1980) The attention of an athlete is the ability to direct their senses and thought processes to particular objects, thoughts, and feelings that are important to performing effectively. Those athletes who are able to maintain attention to the task at hand do not experience high anxiety and arousal, two factors which lead to a short attentional span and hindered performance. Those who are not able to hold their attention under pressure are at an increased risk for injuries as they begin to misjudge the actions of their opponents, miss adjustment cues, and loose a sense of peripheral positioning. (Ball, 2002) Increasing stress levels may also be accompanied by considerable muscle tension, which interferes with normal coordination and increases the chance of injury.

While increasing stress levels may cause an increase in the chance of injury, and a decrease in attentional focus, it is not a good idea to introduce new skills, moves, or plays in a game or during pre-game warm-up. Through executing plays planned prior to competition, practiced, and known to be successful, the desired performance during a game is most likely to be achieved. During a contest, introducing new techniques, approaches, or strategies have not been shown to be beneficial because there is an increased level of anxiety associated with newly learned skills. New techniques, approaches, and strategies are most beneficial to athletes when they have been trained, refined, and tested in practice. Then the athlete has confidence in what he or she is doing. (Rushall, 1995) In instructing an athlete to conduct a skill or a play that has not been practiced, the coach is placing a greater risk of injury on their athlete because the athlete is not fully aware of their body movements. (Ball, 2002)

Throughout competitions and practices, the introduction of new skills, external stressors and performance pressures all contribute to the athlete's mental capacity. One of the most variable factors of mental capacity before and during performance is anxiety level. Competitive anxiety levels of an athlete can be divided into two subcategories; cognitive and somatic anxiety. The components of anxiety are differentiated between because they are elicited by different antecedents and have differential effects on performance. (Singer et. al., 1993) The influences of these anxiety states are referred to on a debilitative-facilitative continuum. For example, athletes, coaches, and researchers measure anxiety effects by the degree that they are propelled or motivated to action or inaction. When too much or not enough anxiety is present and negatively impacting performance, the anxiety is said to be debilitative. This is the anxiety that is preventing the athlete from thinking clearly and focusing on the task at hand. In attempt to control this anxiety, the athlete may focus too much on calming down or relaxing and then not respond well to the physical demands of a task. Facilitative anxiety occurs when an optimal level of controlled anxiety is present and athletes are motivated to achieve.

Cognitive anxiety can be defined as the mental elements of anxiety, such as expectations, personal concerns, the situation at hand, and potential consequences. (Graham, 1995) Cognition levels have been shown to remain relatively stable prior to competition, but the level of this stability ultimately affects performance. Research has shown that if the cognitive level is stable but high, then the competitor is more likely to experience negative levels of anxiety when preparing for competition, delayed reactions to competitors, decreased preparation time for performance, and poor performance quality. (Halvari, 1996) Coaches can expect that athletes with high competitive anxiety should benefit more from voluntary mental practice.

Somatic anxiety is the perception of the physiological-affective elements of the anxiety experience, such as arousal of muscles and organs, nervousness, tension, shakiness, sweating, increased heart rate, and rapid respiration. (Graham, 1995) This type of anxiety is shown to rise dramatically as competition time grows near and during competition. Somatic anxiety is thought to be non-evaluative, of shorter duration than cognitive anxiety, and consists mainly of conditioned responses to stimuli. According to Freud, the somatic state of anxiety is aroused if the psyche feels incapable of dealing with an impending external task through an adequate reaction. (Singer et. al., 1993) The effects of somatic anxiety explain why the focus of physical training is the automation of a skill or play, and the focus of mental training is attitude and adjustment. Through the automation of skills, athletes become confident in their body movements, quick to respond to actions of their competitors, and their mental capacity is capable of dealing with external tasks. Raglin has found that when athletes are confident in their physical abilities and capable of making mental adjustments throughout competition then they perform in their 'zone of optimal functioning' during competition. Raglin's findings indicate that when athletes perform in this zone, they are able to combat their somatic anxiety and perform optimally under the higher levels of anxiety that arises from stressors specific to sport competitions. (Raglin, 2001) Athletes who control somatic anxiety have confidence in their ability to execute skills and play correctly, anticipate the moves of their opponents, and adjust as necessary.

As a coach, being concerned about team or individual performances requires attentiveness as to when an athlete is starting to loose mental concentration and the level of play is diminishing due to increasing somatic and cognitive anxiety. By reminding athletes to focus and pointing out critical plays, moves of competitors, and mental focusing, coaches may help facilitate the mental concentration necessary for athletic success. When a coach understands that peak performance relates to the arousal level within each athlete, and that performance diminishes if arousal is either increased or decreased from that level, he or she will be efficient in training his or her athletes to achieve and maintain such an optimum level. (Gale Encyclopedia, 2002) To aid coaches with this understanding, sport psychologists have developed a variety of theories and philosophies to explain how anxiety influences motivation and athletic performance. Through understanding the basics of some of these theories and the characteristics and needs of athletes, coaches should be able to mentally prepare their athletes for competition.

In the early 1900's, the major goal of sport psychology was to enhance athletic performance and psychological well being of athletes at all levels. In 1908, Yerks and Dodson postulated one of the first theories to relate high and low levels of anxiety to diminished performance. Yerks and Dodson's Inverted U-Theory is a one-dimensional theory that originally explained how an athlete's anxiety will impact performance, while also considering the direction and intensity of the athletes' anxiety. (Wann, 1997) According to the Inverted U Theory, as the complexity of a skill increased, the amount of arousal needed for optimal performance decreased. For fine motor tasks such as those required in archery or billiards, low levels of arousal are desired, allowing more control over fine motor skills. Gross motor activities such as running and kicking a ball require a higher level of arousal so the energy and force required during performance of the movement is adequate. Whether fine or gross motor skills, as athletes become more skilled, a higher level of arousal that is proportional to the skill level is beneficial. As skill is gained, the capability to control anxiety and arousal has also increased. The highly skilled athlete is able to direct arousal better to achieve the desired outcome. (Cox, 1990) Through continuous studies of this theory, sport psychologist Spielberger developed another theory, which adopted a state-trait (cognitive-somatic) anxiety approach. This theory was based on the Inverted U Theory and showed that both high and low levels of state or somatic anxiety interfere with performance. Spielberger further supported the previous findings of Yerks and Dodson in that an inverted-u relationship appears to best describe the relationship of anxiety/arousal and performance. (Graham, 1995)

Although Inverted U Theory remains the basis of most of the current research, recently psychologists and critics have rejected and criticized it. Jones et. al. states that Inverted U Theory cannot explain the complex relationship between stress and performance. Jones has shown that a one-dimensional model of the stress-performance relationship is too purely mechanical and thus too restrictive because it neglects the total influence of cognitive and somatic factors on the overall response. Therefore, the Inverted-U Theory has limited the value to understanding sport performance, and predictions based on it will be very weak. (Jones, 1995)

Although researchers have found limitations to the Inverted U Theory, it has been very useful to sport psychologists in terms of explaining behaviors, predicting future behaviors, and was the basis for the formation of the zone of optimal functioning as established by Hanin in 1980. (Singer et. al., 1993) In almost every sport psychology textbook, the Inverted U Theory forms the focal point of discussion on anxiety and performance. Even though multiple researchers have not been able to find significant empirical evidence to support the Inverted U Theory, the theory is nearly impossible to disprove since researchers have found that it would be unrealistic to expect better performance at what is defined as the extremes of arousal. (Singer et. al., 1993)

Despite all negative feelings about this theory, researchers have used it to establish basic relationships between anxiety and performance, and to further develop theories that hold true today. Easterbrook's (1959) Cue-Utilization Theory has been the most widely accepted by sport psychologists, has received considerable laboratory support, and is an offshoot of the Inverted U Theory. Easterbrook's theory focuses on arousal levels and attentional abilities in relation to performance. The basic premise of this theory is that as arousal increases, attention narrows, and performance is based on the handling of relevant and irrelevant cues. At high levels of arousal, distractibility occurs, and the athlete's ability to focus on execution of skills diminishes. When distractibility occurs, the athlete's attention jumps randomly from one cue to another without focusing on any specific one. (Singer et. al., 1993) Likewise, during low levels of arousal, attentional focus is broad, and performance is low due to the presences of irrelevant cues. In some instances, this condition of arousal and attention may be the most beneficial. For example, a volleyball setter needs to be aware of all aspects of the game, and tunnel vision or a narrow attentional band would hinder her view of the entire game and the ability of others, which would damage her performance. On the other hand, a weight lifter needs high arousal level when performing. The high level of arousal allows for a narrow attentional focus where irrelevant cues are gated out. By narrowing the attention band, there is less distractibility, and all power can be directed towards a single task or force. (Cox, 1990) Since only irrelevant tasks are gated out at the desired or optimum level of arousal, performance is poor when irrelevant tasks remain and arousal exceeds the desired limits. Thus, the relationship between arousal and performance parallels the relationship between anxiety and performance as predicted by the Inverted U Theory. Both theories state that optimum performances are expected when levels of arousal or anxiety reach an optimum level. These are the levels where the body is able to handle the pressures of competition while channeling thoughts and feelings into productive energy. The productive energy is what allows the competitor to use their physical and mental skill to perform at their optimal level.

The Drive Theory, which was originally proposed by Hull (1943) and later modified by Spence and Spence (1966), is a complex stimulus-response theory of motivation and learning. This theory takes an arousal-based and learning-based approach to explaining the relationship between performance and arousal. The drive theory hypothesizes that an increase in drive (arousal, anxiety, stress) is associated with a linear increase or decrease in performance depending upon the dominant response. (Graham, 1995) The basic premise of this theory is that increases in drive illicit the execution of the dominant or best-learned skill. (Singer et. al., 1993) When a skill becomes automated or second nature to an athlete, the skill performance is considered a dominant response. Therefore, according to this theory an increase or decrease in drive will trigger the automated or dominant response. The relationship between drive and performance is detrimental to the athlete when the automated response is incorrect. The incorrect response is the result of executing a skill incorrectly, not knowing a play, or a skill not being fully automated

According to this theory, performance is a function of habit multiplied by drive, where habit is equivalent to skill and drive is equivalent to arousal. (Singer et. al., 1993) This theory further supports the findings of the Inverted U Theory in that novice athletes and beginners should desire a low arousal (drive) level and elite athletes desire high arousal levels. The drive Theory concluded that in the early stages of learning if the dominant response is incorrect, then resulting increases in arousal effect performance because skills and plays (habitual) have not yet been automated. Errors in performance are likely to be committed by those players in which automation has not yet set in as a result of excitement and over arousal. Skilled athletes however, benefit from the increased arousal due to prior automation of their skills. (Cox, 1990) A variety of researches have demonstrated support for this theory over the years. In another study, Griffiths et. al. observed that arousal correlated significantly with the performance of complex scuba-diving tasks. Of 62 subjects who were asked to perform four increasingly difficult underwater tasks, the subjects with the highest arousal level performed the worst on the tasks because they didn't have the practice time necessary to automate the skills needed for successful completion of the tasks. (Singer et. al., 1993) Therefore, when their arousal elevated, the correct response for task performance was not elicited. By finding the medium between drive and habit in reference to skill level, coaches can expect optimal performance from their athletes.

Although the premises of the Drive Theory and the Cue Utilization Theory support the findings of the Inverted U Theory, researchers still argue over the reliability of these one-dimensional theories because they are direct and narrow in their approach. One-dimensional theories examine the broad categories of arousal, anxiety, and learning, but they do not account for various types of anxiety or arousal. Therefore, the adaptation of a multi-dimensional approach to anxiety has led to an increasing number of studies that have examined the relationship between performance and the influence of both cognitive and somatic anxiety. Theoretically, these multi-dimensional concepts predict that cognitive anxiety is negatively related to performance while somatic anxiety forms an inverted-u relationship with performance. The major prediction of the multi-dimensional literature is that interventions should focus upon whichever anxiety trait is more dominant in the stress response. (Jones, 1989) In order to combat the effects of either type of anxiety, these models propose structured learning situations. The key elements of these situations are that athletes always succeed, they involve modeling of game situations, and they contain mental rehearsal. Like the different one-dimensional models, researchers have developed variations of the multi-dimensional model that address different aspects of performance and that are all related to the effects of cognitive and somatic anxiety.

The matching hypothesis (Davidson and Schwartz, 1976) is a two-dimensional model that postulates that mental and physical relaxation techniques should be matched to the dominant anxiety symptoms athletes' experience. Researchers feel that human organisms have a limited focusing capacity; so disruptive information while trying to focus is best removed by saturating the brain with neutral or relevant information that counteracts the effects of the disruptive information. For example, an athlete experiencing cognitive anxiety would best be served by a cognitive intervention strategy such as mental imagery and rehearsal that fills up their brain with relevant information to counteract the effects of cognitive anxiety. Likewise, those athletes who experience unwanted physiological (somatic) arousal would best be served by a somatic intervention strategy. (Graham, 1995)

Another multi-dimensional theory of motivational anxiety influence argues that stressful situations create qualitatively different cognitive activation states that influence performance via different cognitive processes. (Graham, 1995) However, responses of the athlete's physiological (somatic) activation may control the effects of different cognitive activation states. Also, athletic performance can be determined by initial cognitive states, and how athletes allow these states to affect their arousal level. To achieve optimal performance, athletes need to choose to minimize or maximize the effects of their cognitive state. Researchers imply that intervention to control cognitive states should focus on developing information-processing strategies that performers experiencing stress can use, as opposed to emotional-control strategies to reduce the amount of stress experienced. (Jones, 1989) Ways of developing information processing strategies are through role-playing relevant distractions - such as bad contestants or refereeing decisions - so their effects could be reduced through desensitization.

The Catastrophic models are two and three-dimensional models that were introduced to the field of sport psychology by Hardy and Fazey in 1987 as a result of concerns over the validity of the predictions of the Inverted U Hypothesis. In contrast to the Inverted U Theory, the Catastrophic Model hypothesizes that once a certain level of arousal occurs beyond the optimum level, performance will dramatically decrease and the task will eventually be abandoned. Performers perceive an imbalance between task demands and their capability to match them, and as a result anxiety occurs. After such failure, performance level increases if stress levels are reduced to the point where the original performance curve was the highest. (Jones, 1989) This model proposes that when cognitive anxiety is low, physiological arousal has relatively small effects and possibly symmetrical effects upon performance. When cognitive anxiety reaches a higher level, the physiological effect of arousal is both large and catastrophic if the athlete does not know how to control it. With uncontrollable arousal, the athlete will surpass an optimal level of performance and perform poorly due to over correcting their actions, exerting too much energy or force, and misjudging the actions of their opponents. Their actions and ability to perform become dramatically disrupted. (Jones, 1989)

The Catastrophic three-dimensional model incorporates somatic anxiety and two aspects of cognitive anxiety - as its initial states as in pre-game and external expectations, and as its ability to mediate the effects of physiological arousal. (Graham, 1995) This model predicts that there will be an inverted-u relationship between physiological arousal and performance when cognitive anxiety is low. Also, if cognitive anxiety is high and the level of physiological arousal is increasing, then performance will also increase to a critical threshold, after which further increases in physiological arousal result in a catastrophic drop of the performance curve. Therefore, when physiological arousal is high, a negative correlation is more likely between cognitive anxiety and performance. If the physiological level is high the athlete's body is prepared to perform, they are ready for the competition and their adrenalin is pumping. When high arousal is occurring and their anxiety level also rises, the result can be over reaction to moves of the competitor, missed adjustment to their own actions, and frustration. The resulting frustrations lead to the breaking of the critical threshold and the catastrophic drop in performance level. (Graham, 1995) To avoid a catastrophic drop in performance, the athlete must know how to channel their anxieties so that they serve as beneficial influences in their actions.

Despite the difference of these theories, they all have strengths and weaknesses. Overall, these theories demonstrate the need for mental preparation and skill to optimize athletic performance. The Inverted U Theory, Cue Utilization Theory, Drive Theory, Multi-Dimensional Theory, and the Catastrophic Model show that the most beneficial thing a coach could do for his or her athletes is take the time to include mental training and management techniques into everyday practice. Through including mental training techniques such as behavior modification, goal setting, and relaxation techniques into everyday practice, athletes and coaches will be more confident in performance, control anxiety and focus on strong performance.

Behavior modification has a great impact on physical performance and can be practiced by the coach as well as the athlete. Initial steps to behavior modification include shaping the character and establishing values of self-efficacy and self-confidence in the athlete. That athlete must be able to believe that he/she has the ability to perform at the level that is demanded for completion of the task. This quality may result from preconceived notions of success or failure, social comparison, persuasion of a coach or parent, and the athlete's physiological state. (Wann, 1997) Enforcement of behavior modification through practice situations, encouragement, positive reinforcement, and positive self-talk, allows athletes to gain the self-confidence necessary to perform in stressful situations.

In effectively coaching behavioral modification, coaches should emphasize specific, detailed, and frequent measurements of an athlete's performance. They should recognize the distinction between developing and maintaining new behaviors, and help the athlete focus on areas that need work, as well as helping the athlete use what they already know and are already capable of. In this type of behavioral training, coaches encourage improvement over previous performance, and emphasize effective behaviors. (Martin, 1983) This type of mental training begins at practice through cognitive awareness, hard work, positive reinforcement, and constructive criticism. Only if athletes are able to maintain a cognitive awareness of behavioral modification and are able to respond to constructive criticism during competition will behavior modification be useful in reducing stress and guiding performance.

Focused and simplistic goal setting may direct an athlete's attention, aid motivation and improve performance. (Cox, 1990) Through goal setting and achievement of goals athletes and coaches can monitor progress in both physical and mental gains. By starting with small goals that are attainable and challenging, monitoring of progress is effective and reliable. Goals should be beneficial, and promote focus and motivation. As they accomplish goals, athletes or teams will remain motivated to achieve and improve their performances. (Cox, 1990) Once a goal has been reached, coaches, teams, and athletes should take the time to refocus and set new goals that are slightly more challenging. Through progressive goal setting and achievement, athletes and teams maintain their desire to excel through continual positive motivation.

Relaxation techniques reduce the tension and anxiety associated with sports. (Cox, 1990) For these techniques to work, athletes must practice and be proficient at relaxing their mind and body. Deep breathing, and internal and external imagery are some of the ways to achieve relaxation. Athletes should be taught to become efficient at these techniques so that they are able to relax in a matter of seconds. By relaxing quickly, they will be able to avoid anxiety and a stress spiral. The athlete makes a mistake in their movement, and instead of readjusting to and letting the mistake go, they begin to focus on it. While they are focusing on their mistake, they miss their next skill or move and make another mistake. At this point frustration begins to set in, they are so focused on what they are doing wrong that they continue to do more wrong and get more frustrated, entering into what is called a stress spiral. The stress spiral illustrates the earlier defined concepts of the one-dimensional models, multi-dimensional models, and the catastrophic models. When stresses are not brought under control through mental practice, frustration sets the stress spiral begins and performances dwindle. The stress spiral occurs as a result of frustrations with performance. . Overall, as a result of the dwindling performance, athletes focus on the physical aspect of what they are doing and only become more stressed when they do not accomplish their goals. If athletes relax and mentally focus, their performance improves.

Internal and external imagery provide an opportunity for the performer to experience the physiological arousal of the competition without any of the physical components of it. (Cox, 1990) With internal imagery the athlete should focus on picturing every component and detail of the action that they will put their body through. Through feeling muscle recruitment and excitement with every aspect of the action, the body will become accustomed to this feeling and expect it while performing. In knowing and predicting how the body will feel throughout a performance, the individual will not be as distracted. External imagery is when athletes can see themselves perform a skill. This is similar to being a spectator in a stand and watching your self perform. You are able to see the physical components of each and every move that you put your body through. With imagining perfect execution and timing of physical skills, it is theorized that they become automated within the body in the same way. (Cox, 1990) Through the automation of skills, athletes will be more confident in their physical ability to perform while they focus on the mental aspects of a game.

In identifying the idiosyncrasies of athletes, being able to predict how they feel in game situations and knowing what mental training technique is beneficial in getting them back on track when frustration is high, coaches can have a positive influence at practice and in games. Through being aware of the effects of anxiety, arousal, and mental practice on performance, athletes can learn how to channel their feelings to positive energy. With correct mental training during practice, it is possible to avoid a catastrophic drop in performance, a downward spiral of performance and even injury during a competition. Coaches have to rely on their effectiveness as teachers at training and practice for developing the knowledge and skills that are to be transferred into competitive situations by athletes.

By using the knowledge of past researchers and sport psychologists, coaches have more than enough resources to be able to learn themselves and teach their athletes how to respond to negative situations. Athletes and coaches alike need to have faith that past researchers are correct about mental training and the effect it can have on performance. Years were not spent studying one - dimensional models or multi-dimensional for nothing. All the suggested theories hold relevance into why the thoughts and feelings of competitors can so gravely affect their performance, and they continue to be expanded upon. In taking the moment to understand what past research is saying, and putting yourself in the position of an athlete, it is almost impossible to deny the effects of one's mental capabilities on physical performance.

Back to Honorus Home Page