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This article first appeared in the introductory issue of Sport Psychology Training Bulletin (P.O. Box 52234,
Durham, NC 27717. 919/361-4621). The editors, Dr. Charles Hardy and Kelly Crace, deal with the "jitters"
common to all athletes and offer suggestions an how to deal with them. The first recommendation for coaches is
telling and too often overlooked.

sport challenge.
Research by Walter Kroll has demonstrated that at
Imagine that it is the night before a competition
least five factors underlie PCA: 1. physical com-
and you begin to worry about how well you will per-
plaints—digestive disturbances, shaking and yawning;
form. You may find that your worrying begins to feed
2. fear of failure—losing, choking, living up to expec-
on itself, creating further areas of concern that you
tations, and making mistakes; 3. feelings of inad-
have not considered earlier. Your expectations about
equacy—unprepared, poor conditioning, low skill/abil-
bleak. This is an example of precompetitive anxiety
ity, and feelings that something is wrong; 4. loss of
(PCA), one at the most debilitating variables in sport
control—being jinxed, bad luck, poor officiating, and
inclement weather; and 5. guilt—concerns about hurt-
Precompetitive anxiety is a state of arousal that is
ing an opponent, playing dirty, and cheating. Whether
unpleasant or negative and occurs during the 24 hour
or not you experience PCA is dependent up on sever at
span prior to competition. The worry that is associated
factors, such as skill level, experience, and your gen-
with PCA is not just experienced with our heads, but
eral level of arousal in daily activities.
with our entire body. Our bodies provide us with nu-
merous cues such as muscle tension, butterflies, desire
to urinate and cotton mouth that suggests that we are
out of control. Our thoughts become self-focused, self-
There are two primary ways that PCA can affect your
defeating and negative. Most of us will have a combina-
performance First, a high state of physical arousal may
tion of these responses during the precompetitive period.
be counterproductive to your particular sport activity.
However, the degree to which they influence our perfor-
For sports requiring endurance, power, or both, PCA can
mance is largely dependent upon the interaction of our
be very draining on an athlete's energy level. In sports
own uniqueness and the competitive situation.
where calmness is critical (e.g., golf, archery, free-throw
shooting), PCA can significantly interfere with your abil-
ity to stay calm. A high state of physical arousal ran also
interfere with sports requiring a focused channeling of
Precompetitive anxiety results from an imbalance
power. Effective performances in these sports require
between perceived capabilities and the demands of the
some muscles lobe tense and others lobe relaxed Ineffec-
sport environment. When the perceived demands are
tively transfer their power. The increased tension usually
balanced by the perceived capabilities you experience
interferes with this channeling. Examples of such sports
optimal arousal, often refereed to as the flow state. In
include hitting in baseball, karate, and field events such
this state, everything appears to go smoothly, almost
as javelin, discus, and shot put.
effortlessly. However, if your perceived capabilities
Second, research has demonstrated that anxiety
exceed the sport challenge, arousal will decrease, re-
can significantly interfere with your ability to think
sulting in boredom or lack of motivation, If the oppo-
clearly. When you are anxious, your thoughts gener-
site occurs (perceived challenges exceed capabilities),
ally turn inward to focus on yourself, which may result
you will become overaroused, resulting in worry and
in an inappropriate focusing of attention. Actions that
anxiety. As you can see, then, PCA results when skills
were once automatic require constant thought, which
and abilities are not perceived as equivalent to the
further interferes with your ability to adjust to make

quick, on-the-spot decisions. In addition, these thoughts
arousal that led you to emotionally "avoid" the compe-
may be negative and result in preoccupation with what
tition rather than "move toward" the competition. You
you can't do, rather than what you can do.
may have found that, behaviorally, you were more
anxious when you were around others rather than by
yourself. The important point is to start understanding
the factors that allow you to become motivated for a
competition, and the factors that tend to take you too
Definitely not. Whenever you anticipate an event
far. A good rule of thumb is to notice when you begin
that is important to you, it is normal to feel some
to focus intently on the competition and become ex-
nervousness. In fact, it is a sign of readiness. This type
cited about approaching the competition. This is a
of readiness is known as positive arousal and is usually
good indication that you are reaching your optimal
referring to many of the physical cues you experience.
level, If self doubt occurs and you are having trouble
Elite athletes channel this energy to work for them
putting it aside, you have most likely crossed into the
rather than against them. Answers to the following
"anxiety zone." The following recommendations may
questions may help you distinguish between positive
help during those times.
arousal and negative anxiety:
2. Focus on things that are within your control.
1. How much does my sport require me lobe 'pumped'
One of the major sources of anxiety is worrying about
as I enter the competition? Some sports may re-
factors that are beyond your control. Your thoughts
quire a higher state of arousal (e.g., weight lifting)
become preoccupied with a series of "what ifs." A
than others (e.g., golf).
great method of counter balancing this attitude is to
2. Do I often have thoughts of self-doubt about my
become more performance-oriented. Being perfor-
mance-oriented means that you are concerned with the
3. Do I often have thoughts about factors that are
thing that is most in your control—your performance.
beyond my control?
Performance-oriented athletes are more satisfied with
Answering "Yes" to the last two questions iron
a loss if they played their best, than if they had won and
indication that you are moving from positive arousal to
played poorly. Conversely, being outcome-oriented
negative anxiety. If you find yourself nervous but still
means that you are concerned with one thing—the win,
confident in your ability, that is a sign of readiness.
It doesn't matter how you get there, as long as you have
However, worrying about your ability to perform at
the big "W." We are certainly not trying to suggest that
levels that you normally are able to perform with ease,
winning is not important. Of course it is; we all enjoy
or worrying about factors over which you have no
the thrill of winning. However, by placing the highest
control may interfere with your ability to enter a com-
importance on the outcome, think of the added pres-
petition mentally ready.
sure you have placed upon yourself. We should hasten
to add that it is unnecessary pressure. So many other
factors beyond your control play into whether or not
you win (e.g., the opponent's ability, where you are
1. Become more aware of your optimal level at
playing, coaching, weather). Most of our anxiety lies
arousal. Think of the times when you felt ready going
in the fear of the unknown. We can reduce this fear by
into a competition and it worked for you. Think of
pulling in the ranks to focus on what is truly within our
other times when you were anxious and it interfered
control. When you think about it, being more perfor-
with your performance. Being as specific as possible,
mance-oriented is likely to increase your chances of
write down the differences between these times based
winning. You will be approaching the competition
on three questions (a) What thoughts made you feel
focused on what you can do and what needs to be done
ready, and what thoughts made you anxious?; (b) What
to perform your best.
feelings did you experience when you were ready ver-
In addition, as you begin concentrating on your
sus when you were anxious?; and (c) What were the
performance in the precompetitive period it is usually
differences in your behavior between these times?
best to concentrate on your strengths. Focus on what
This will allow you to start looking for patterns
you can do, not what you can't do. Practice is where
that may help you become more ware of what best
you work on your weaknesses. The competition is the
prepares you mentally for a competition. Examples of
time to capitalize on your strengths and on your im-
when you were anxious may include thinking about
proved areas. Therefore, focus intently on these areas.
whether you had prepared enough for the competition,
If you feel your arousal level getting too high, take a
exaggerating the skill of your opponent(s), or exagger-
moment to regroup and say to yourself "OK, I'm going
ating the importance of the outcome of the competi-
to show them what l can do, and not worry about what
tion. Feelings may have been an overly high sense of
I can't do. I'm going to give 100% of the potential I

have today." The bottom line is to learn to focus on
tapes. Many athletes hove a favorite song that has the
doing the best you can with what you have at that
effect of psyching them up, and another song that
moment, and view any positive outcome as a bonus. If
relaxes them. Oaring the precompetitive period, they
you do well, take the time to focus on how that makes
will listen to one or both of the songs at times when
you feel. If you win, it makes your performance that
they want to modify their arousal levels. They have
much sweeter.
essentially found a perform once cue that induces a
3. Use "performance cues" to develop or re-
feeling that they are trying to achieve. The important
train your arousal level. It is important to realize that
thing is to find what's right for you. It may take some
with mental training you are developing skills in much
trial-and-error, but will eventually result in approach-
the same way you develop physical skills. You can
ing a competition in a manner that will allow you to
recall when you first started learning a new level of
enjoy your sport at its optimal level.
your sport, how you had to think about every little
movement. Eventually, as you practiced these new
skills they became more habitual. It is the same way
with mental skills. Your typical arousal level has been
1. Became aware at your own arousal levels and
developed over time and may have become habitual.
how they interact with the athlete and other coaches.
To retrain your arousal level, you simply have to learn
It is important to spend time reflecting on your own
new mental routines and practice them until they be-
arousal levels as a way of understanding how they
come automatic. In sport, however, athletes may need
impact your effectiveness in coaching and your impact
to do this quickly, rather than constantly rehearse long
on other's performances. Applying the suggestions in
statements to themselves.
Recommendations for Athletes to your coaching per-
One helpful exercise is to reflect on how you want
formance can help you understand and develop your
to play given your presents skill level. Your desired
optimal arousal level, as well as deal with PCA.
performance maybe are collection of past accomplish-
2. Understand your athletes, individually, as to
ment or an image of a future performance. Once you
ham they react daring the precompetitive period.
have a clear image of a desired performance, label
Recognize those athletes who are usually ally under
that performance with a representative cue word, state-
aroused and those who are usually ally overaroused for
ment, or symbol. When doing this, you may choose to
the demands of your sport. The under aroused athletes
use a general cue that reflects your overall perfor-
maybe those who typically take awhile to find their
mance, or a cue that reflects a more specific part of
groove and appear sluggish during the early parts of
your performance. In addition, you may want to incor-
the competition. The overaroused athletes, on the other
porate a cue that reminds you of a time when you
hand, can be detected most often by being strong "prac-
competed at your desired level. Experiment with all
tice-players." These are the athletes who do great in
three types of cues, separately or in combination, to
practice but have trouble realizing their potential in
determine which works best for you. The most impor-
competition. Performances during competition are a
tant thing to remember is that this label must immedi-
regression for them rather than a progression.
ately recall the image of a performance that you want
3. Allow time tar athletes to individually pre-
to create. An example is a rawer who used the cue
pare themselves mentally far the competition. Re-
"cougar" to represent explosive speed as a way of
search has demonstrated that the famous "win one for
preparing for a sprint race, and "swan" to represent
the flipper" pep-talks are relatively short-lived in their
long, smooth rowing strokes as a way of preparing for
effectiveness. Oaring pregame preparation, it may be
a middle distance race.
helpful to bring the team together to review and dis-
The next step is incorporating this performance
cuss strategy. Following this meeting, individuals
cue into your pre-game preparation. Reflect on your
should be allowed some time on their own to prepare
cue as a method of motivation. You can also use it to
for the game in a way that is most effective for them.
reduce your arousal level if you start experiencing
On not underestimate the power of this gesture. Many
anxiety. If you start feeling anxious, take a deep breath,
athletes are very concerned about how they present
relax, and repeat the cue to yourself. Try to focus fully
themselves to their coach. If they have tapped into how
on what it represents to you. This will result in bring-
you would like your athletes to prepare, they will most
ing you back to performance-oriented thoughts that
likely present that image to you. However, this maybe
will property prepare you for the competition. With
totally opposite of what they need. Conveying the
practice and repetition, these thoughts will become
message that you respect their methods of preparation
more habitual and capable of controlling your arousal
frees them up to devote time to it. Some athletes may
want to be by themselves, some may want lobe with
The same principle is utilized often with music
others to discuss the game, others may want to be with

teammates for humorous small- talk as a way of reduc-
jeopardize their position but contribute to their poten-
ing their anxiety. Allow them to go through the trial-
tial as an athlete.
and-error of finding out what in best for them. Follow-
ing this individual lime, bring them back together and
summarize the team goals you hope to accomplish. In
addition, incorporating individual time for the coaches
1. Become aware of your own arousal levels and
is equally important for their preparation.
how they interact with your child. How many of us
4. Foster a performance-oriented attitude in
have experienced the extreme tension and anxiety as-
your athletes. An was explained in Recommendations
sociated with watching our child participate in sports?
for Athletes, athletes need to focus on what they can
It is important to spend time reflecting on your own
control. So many factors beyond their control play a
arousal levels as a way of understanding how they
part as to whether they win. Placing a high priority on
impact your child's enjoyment and performance in
outcome results in unnecessary pressure and extra fac-
sports. Applying the suggestions in Recommendations
tors that athletes worry about. Unfortunately, a coach's
for Athletes can help you deal with any anxiety you
livelihood is dependent upon outcome. Job stability
may experience.
and opportunity for professional advancement usually
2. Foster a performance-oriented attitude in
hinges on the win-loss record. As stated before, we are
your young athlete. As parents, one of the easiest
not implying that winning is unimportant. We are stat-
questions for us to ask our children after a competition
ing, however, that placing winning an the top priority
is "Did you win?" Unfortunately, this question tends to
can have negative effects on an athlete's mental prepa-
foster an outcome-oriented attitude in children. Chil-
ration and subsequent performance. Remember, your
dren pick up very quickly what are important measures
greatest chance for a positive outcome is to have each
of success. It is a parent's responsibility to gently guide
athlete play at his/her potential. This can best be
them into measuring success by their ability to do the
achieved by having your athletes focus on what they
best that they can. Helping them focus on what they
can control-their performance. Teaching athletes to
can control will be a major factor in reducing PCA for
appreciate the importance of gauging success by how
athletes as they grow and develop. This can be facili-
well they perform according to their own potential
tated by asking them questions that encourage them to
rather than by other's standards is one of the greatest
reflect on their performance, rather than the outcome.
lessons a coach can teach.
Refer to the other previous sections for further infor-
5. Be specific with your suggestions to help ath-
mation about performance-versus outcome-orientations.
letes with PCA. It is easy to create a situation where
3. Look for clues as to what their motivation is
an athlete struggling with PCA starts to "worry about
for participating in sport and its possible effect on
worrying." Be careful to keep helpful suggestions spe-
PCA. Research has indicated that the vast majority of
cific to the actions that the athlete finds troublesome,
youth sports participants engage in athletics for fun
rather than identifying or characterizing the athlete by
being around their friends, and using their friends as a
the weakness he/she demonstrates. If the athlete begins
guide to comparing their own abilities. Winning actu-
to view him/herself as a "choker," he/she creates a self
ally is a low priority for youth as they first begin to
fulfilling prophesy that will ensure further PCA. A
participate in athletics. Does this profile fit your child?
coach can be extremely helpful in showing the athlete
If not, look for the influences that may be directing
that it is only one part of his/her game and can be
your child. While you may not be able to change other's
viewed as a challenge for improvement rather than a
influences, you can certainly counterbalance them by
permanent birthmark.
bringing fun back into the purpose of athletics and
6. As your time allows, try to schedule periodic
focusing on their performance (see #1).
individual meetings that focus on the issue of men-
If your child is becoming unusually nervous be-
tal training. Once again, don't underestimate the power
fore a competition, it may be a sign that he or she is
of this gesture. You are letting them know that you
participating for reasons other than his/her own. We
view their mental training as important and you are
have worked with a number of children who have
there to help them in that regard. Most importantly, it
become acutely aware that they receive the most atten-
breaks down the barrier that athletes may feel to al-
tion from their parents when they are participating in
ways present themselves as mentally tough 100% of
sports. Their number one reason for participating in sports
the time. Such meetings may remove concern athletes
is to seek approval from their parents. Before a compe-
may have about being an imposter around you, con-
tition, these children become very anxious because they
stantly fearing what will happen "if coach finds out
are in conflict: "I don't really want to do this, but I want
what I am really like." Let them know that dedicating
my parents to be proud of me." If this is characteristic of
time to their weaknesses as well as strengths will not
your child, reinforce the notion that your love for him/ her

is independent of his/her participation in sport.
is based on their own motivation.
As a parent, ask yourself two tough questions:
4. Assist your child in distinguishing times when
1. Am I trying to relive my youth through my kids?
things clicked for him/her versus times when PCA
2. Am I using sport as a "toughening" process for my
significantly interfered with his/her performance.
kids? One of the greatest gifts we can give our children
Young athletes may have trouble finding clues as to
is to support them as they discover, through trial-and-
why they are experiencing PCA. Parents can help by
error, where their talents and interests lie. To reach
guiding them through the process of becoming more
their potential in any activity requires dedication and
aware of their arousal levels and where their optimal
commitment. Realizing that factor alone is the only
level is. Guiding them through the questions suggested
kind of "toughening" they need. You may find that
in #1 of Recommendations for Athletes may be helpful.
your children will discover a new interest in sport that