Anxiety: Performance enhancer or choke artist?

Dr. Rob Dobrenski is a licensed Psychologist in New York City and the author of ShrinkTalk.Net. He is currently completing his first book, entitled “We’re All Crazy,” a humorous expose on the lives of shrinks.

When you work in mental health, you spend a lot of time advocating for those with psychological difficulties. Many in the general public view these people as “weak” or “crazy.” After Dontrelle Willis landed on the DL last season for what was described as an anxiety disorder, I was curious about the average fan’s reaction. When I polled a few dozen fans, I got a mixed bag of responses. “Does that mean he’s crazy?,” “he must have some serious problems if it’s causing him to sit out,” and “what a pussy!” But most often I got asked a question: “Can anxiety actually damage your performance?”

One of the problems with measuring anxiety’s impact on sports performance is that there isn’t a clear consensus on how to precisely define the term ‘anxiety.’ What some describe as “butterflies in the stomach,” others label as an adrenaline rush. Some talk about a fearful voice in their head while others see it as a rapid heart beat. I tell my patients (including ball players) to consider anxiety as having three main components:

1) Physiological (e.g., increased heart rate, sweating, muscle tension, shakiness, etc.): some refer to this as an activation of the Fight or Flight response or an increase in adrenaline.

2) Cognitive: this refers to the inner monologue in which we all engage (e.g., if I don’t get on base I’m going to benched next game, I have to K this guy or else he’ll tie it up the score). In anxiety problems, this self-talk is invariably focused on danger, although not necessarily in the traditional sense of being physically harmed. Rather, for athletes this inner speech is centered around making a mistake, costing the team a game, losing creditability, looking like a fool in front of millions of people. Unless a player’s been beaned with a Randy Johnson fastball and is hesitant to get back in the box, it’s a psychological danger that athletes fear the most.

3) Emotional: this is the subjective feeling of nervousness that each person describes a bit differently (e.g., butterflies, jitters, etc.).

A little anxiety can be a good thing.

Contrary to popular belief, when anxiety begins to rise, performance actually improves. Announcers who say “he’s got ice in his vein” clearly have never been all that successful or have forgotten what it was like to be on the diamond. The adrenaline rush gives us an edge, which is why players try to get pumped before a game. However, when anxiety reaches a certain level, performance begins to decline. Bruce Ruffin’s anxiety caused massive problems with control. Rick Ankiel had pitching difficulties were never considered mechanical, but rather “in his head.” That’s code for being overanxious.

In short, you can think of the relationship between anxiety and performance as an upside-down “U” shape. As anxiety increases, execution improves. Then it peaks (a spot where your ability is maximized, when you’re in the zone, you’re clutch), but if anxiety continues to rise, performance starts to suffer. That sweet spot of perfect anxiety is different for everyone, so unfortunately only the individual athlete truly knows when he’s there.

How do athletes decrease their anxiety if it’s impacting their performance? Unless they are popping beta-blockers or Xanax, successful treatment is targeted at components 1 and 2 above. Breathing exercises and muscle relaxation training is used to keep the physiology in check. Athletes are also taught to monitor and challenge their inner talk. Chuck Knoblauch needed to get away from the Don’t overthrow! Don’t overthrow! soundbite that was spinning around his head and rely more on let me make the throw I’ve done countless times before. It should end up right in the first baseman’s glove but, if not, the world won’t collapse into a ball of flames. I’ll be the goat and the main topic of tomorrow’s sports radio broadcast, but when push comes to shove, it’s still just a game.

Is fixing this problem a challenge? Absolutely, but it can be done.

If you’re a baseball player at any level, try noting your own anxiety on the field. With self-monitoring you can find that that ideal level of edge that will improve your game. And if you’re a fan and are ready to commit murder/suicide after your team’s latest defeat, remember: it might not be as simple as God that player sucks! He may have an anxiety problem.

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Greg Simons
14 years ago

You want fries with that, Dave?

eric errickson
14 years ago

However I don’t think Chuck Knoblauch got fixed.
He ended up his career with the Yankee’s and K.C.
playing in the outfield.
I’m sure that most sports psychologists can do better than “if you are a baseball player at any level, try noting your own anxiety on the field
…“and do your own self monitering.  That is simplistic and very difficult.  Ask Chuck.

14 years ago

Nick: I don’t think that studies have shown that clutch hitting is nonexistant, just that it is too hard to statistically identify clutch skill to make it worthwhile to consider when predicting individual player behaviours.

Rob Dobrenski
14 years ago

@Eric: No doubt it is very difficult (which is noted in the piece), and that’s why athletes end up in the therapy room for months at a time instead of simply reading blog posts to try to overcome their problems.  But it is a great starting point for people who are grappling with anxiety.

Nick Steiner
14 years ago

I would think that the fact that studies showing that clutch hitting, if not non-existent, is negligible for most of the population, implies that anxiety either doesn’t have a big effect on player’ performance.  It also could be that both pitchers and batters are effected at the same rate by anxiety, so the overall talent changes, but the relative performance does not.

Dave Studeman
14 years ago

I’ve drawn that graph on countless white boards for years.  Basic theory of management.  But mine never reminded me of McDonald’s the way this one does.

14 years ago

This was great! My wife (A Psychologist) can finally read an article together. Man, you’re good.

Rob Dobrenski
14 years ago

@Nick: This is a very good point, but even though I didn’t directly address it in the piece, broaden the definition of “performance.”  It isn’t just clutch hits and strikes that paint the outside corner.  It can be things that don’t show up in a box score.  The adrenaline that allows you to get that extra step on a fly ball to center, the keener eye to lay off a pitch that’s diving in the dirt, even a better ability to pick up the signs from the 3rd base coach as you lead off of first.  Don’t limit the definition and the relationship becomes clearer, even though you won’t see the results on any stats sheet.

14 years ago

For some experimental social psychology reading on when increased autonomic activation improves performance and when it causes choking under pressure check out research by Sian Beilock at the University of Chicago.

Briefly, when expert golfers worried about their performance, they attended to each part of their golf stroke. This increased attention broke down the proceduralization of the stroke, impairing performance. However, when the expert golfers were forced to perform a taxing secondary task (a cognitive vigilance task), the increase in arousal resulting from anxiety actually improved performance. Therefore, this work suggests that as long as athletes do not attend to the specific steps of their proceduralized skills (like a batting swing or pitching motion), anxiety/physiological arousal will help improve performance.

Here is a link to the journal article I reference above: