Stress & Anxiety In Sport

stress and anxiety

The aim of this lesson is to understand what stress and anxiety are and how they are measured (Equivalent to UK A Level Physical Education).


Stress in Sport

‘A stimulus resulting in arousal or a response to a specific situation’

Arousal – ‘A state of readiness to perform that helps motivate individuals’

Eustress – ‘A positive reaction of a performer to stress, leading to optimal arousal’

Stressors – This is the situation that causes the stressful response. For example, competition; frustration; injury; conflict

Stress response – This is the way in which we cope with stress. Seyle developed a model called the General Adaptation Syndrome to explain this:

Alarm Reaction

Fight or flight causing an adrenaline rush, rise in heart rate and increase in blood sugar level, ready for activity


The body adapts to manage the stressful situation until it is overcome or passes


The body can only cope with this state for a certain period (maybe very short-term, or maybe months or years, dependant on the situation). If the stressful situation is not rectified the body begins to fail to cope

Stress Experience

As well as the physiological symptoms the athlete will also experience psychological symptoms. These include:

  • Indecisiveness
  • Decreased concentration
  • Worry
  • Decreased attention span

This can then cause a vicious circle resulting in increased levels of stress, which is called the stress spiral.

Anxiety in Sport

‘A negative reaction of a performer to stress, often leading to over-arousal’

‘An emotional state, similar to fear, associated with arousal and accompanied by feelings of nervousness and apprehension’

State anxiety

The athlete’s emotional state at any given time – variable from situation to situation

Trait anxiety

An athletes disposition to interpreting a situation as threatening and responding with an increase in state anxiety

Athletes who have high trait anxiety view more situations as more threatening than those with lower trait anxiety and so respond with higher state anxiety. This is known as competitive trait anxiety. A questionnaire called the Sports Competition Anxiety Test (SCAT) is a reliable predictor of an athlete’s levels of anxiety.

Measuring Stress

Measuring an athlete’s levels of stress can be achieved in three ways:

Self-report questionnaires: Easy to complete although can be open to inaccurate responses. Examples are Martens Sports Competition Anxiety Test (SCAT) and Spielberger’s State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI)

Physiological Measurements: Measuring physiological responses to a situation can indicate a stress response. Measurements such as heart rate, sweating, muscle tension, and oxygen uptake can be used although this can involve expensive, bulky equipment

Observation: Viewing an athletes behaviour before, during and after an event can provide much information about their stress response. Clues to watch out for include shaking, talking fast, regular toilet visits, biting the nails and an inability to stay still.

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