Roots of Competition Anxiety
I was recently having a discussion with a fellow coach during one of our world tour visits and he was arguing that he didn't like when athletes were put into levels that the coach knew they could win, rather than pushing them into a higher level where they might not do so well. He argued that if the athlete was constantly doing well it means then it's not fair for the rest of the competitors and that coach should have pushed the athletes into the next level, basically to give his own athletes a chance at a medal.
I have heard this complaint or concern many times and there are indeed some coaches who purposefully keep their athletes at the top of lower levels and never push the athlete into uncharted waters, so to speak. It is frustrating and annoying for a coach to appear to always loose to another coach because naturally we all want our athletes to win. So this can create quite a bit of a conflict within the industry. This is true of many sports, not just gymnastics or trampoline.
Like most things in life it seems that there is a happy medium that is being neglected. From basic psychology we know that first impressions mean a lot. There is a very high correlation between the success of the first stimulus and the duration of the participation of the activity. In laymen terms it means that if you do well at your initial competitions when you are young, you are more likely to stay with the sport, all other things being equal. Not to say there are not 100 million reasons to participate in a sport versus the decision to leave, but the initial impression makes a huge difference. As a coach I have to realize one fact. I am not coaching a trampolinist or a gymnast. I am coaching a human to succeed in life.
One thing I have learned in life is that if you go in unprepared you will have a much higher chance at loosing. How many athletes compete their hardest skills in every competition? Maybe one or two, but they are rare, as they are not all about winning medals.
If a coach would be considered "unfair" to put their athletes into a level they know they can place in the top 3, then shouldn't every athlete simply throw their biggest tricks every competition? It is the same concept of course.
One thing my coach taught me from a young age is to never put undue expectations on an athlete. Instead calculate their probabilities and their emotions and construct a routine from all that information. You want the athlete to be competing at about 70-80% of their peak skill level.
Let's look at the difference between anxiety and fear. Anxiety is the potential of a negative outcome from a biological level. If the athlete does not believe he or she can do something it basically means the hypothalamus is telling the conscious part of the athlete he or she is not ready to compete. The challenge is too big. Remember the hypothalamus is a circuit of the brain that deals with exploratory behavior as well as emotional behavior. Emotion is just a modern word for "prehistoric". They can be used interchangeably in a sense. I always cover this in my clinics, explaining to athletes that the hind-brain is the "old man" of your psychology.
So next time you speak to someone and say you feel emotional after you watch the movie Titanic, instead tell them you feel "prehistoric!" This is simply because the parts of your brain you "conceptualize" emotion with is technically the front of the brain, but comes from the spinal cord and brain stem, which is the old part of the brain.
Again this is what fear is. The hypothalamus senses you are going into a new environment and then it decides if that new environment is similar to the expected environment that the hypothalamus has experienced for millions of years. If you are a creationist, the same applies to organisms that are only ~5,000 years old.
You are born, you make a map of the world as you are growing up and anything that does not stick to that standard frame work sends a signal to the hypothalamus to get the troops ready in a sense and if the anxiety gets too much, then the hypothalamus sends the signal to the amygdala, a roughly almond-shaped mass of gray matter inside each cerebral hemisphere, involved with the experiencing of emotions. This is our 'fight or flight' center of the brain. From there you receive a spike in the fear response (threshold) which causes your heart rate to increase, your mouth opens to allow more oxygen into the body, your eyes widen to open your vision (old predator response) and your nostrils flare to also allow more oxygen in. Hormones such as testosterone are released that tell the body it is ready to fight or flee. It is an interesting fact that from a biological signature, you can see the increase in the testosterone but you can't tell if it's from fight or flight.
In other words, once the brain surpasses the threshold, it will uncontrollably go to the peak of the action potential at around +50 mV. When this threshold is surpassed, additional increases in stimulus strength do not lead to increases in the magnitude of the action potential. This is referred to as the "all-or-nothing law," and refers to the fact that there is no "in-between" action potential (Fig. 1). The neuron either does not respond (in the case of sub-threshold stimuli), or it will generate a full-fledged, all-or-nothing action potential . . . fight or flight!
If you do not hit a -50 mV threshold and the hypothalamus does not trigger that path to the amygdala then you do not activate the fear response but are still at a heightened awareness response. This is what athletes call the 'sweet spot.' When you have an increase in hormones and awareness from this process BUT IT DOES NOT HIT -55 mV metaphorical threshold. It gets very close; you want to get close but do not go over this threshold. If the signal is not close to this threshold you are not releasing enough endorphins to awaken the body to do anything.
Between 0 and -50 mV is the idea of what anxiety is in relation to actual fear. Fear is the passing of that threshold. Getting up to that threshold is called anxiety. So anxiety is good but as long as you do not activate the fear response at -55 mV.
So a coach will learn what makes the athlete tick and know when the athlete is at 0mV, -20mV, -40mV and then past the threshold. I encourage athletes to be at -40mV in our metaphorical chart when competing. It is not really metaphorical because that's how your circuits in the brain get activated, but it gives a great representation of the difference between being anxious and ready to compete and crossing that thin line into fear.
It is better to under stimulate an athlete slightly then to over do it and push them into the fear realm. This basic push into the fear realm is one of the underlying issues with all negative responses we see in the world today.
THAT DOES NOT MEAN BABY THEM! Push them! Make them get nervous and push them past that -55mv threshold of fear but do not do it at competition. This increases competition anxiety and is shown across all industries to cause long term damage. The athlete does not know if they are nervous because they are unprepared or just suck at competing. It is much easier to say they suck at competing as I am sure the coach will not openly say "Hey sorry, I messed up your psychological training, good luck". So most athletes when given this dilemma between, "Am I not good at competing?" or "Am I unprepared?" will naturally tend to go towards "Am I not good at competing!"
If this is done at the start of their competitive career, it will become the first memory that will surface at the next competition. Now you're going into it with a more negative outlook. This can cause the negativity to affect that performance, then it grows and repeat itself if the athlete doesn't do well. In turn, the athlete blames themselves, not realizing it could have been a poorly constructed psychology training regimen.
In training the athlete needs to be pushed to the brink of destruction of course but not at competition. Once in a while once the athlete knows that competing is nothing more then training for real life outside of the sport you can then play with competitions and throw them specific challenges at the competition such as throwing their first quad flip or highest routine with no regard to form execution but do not start with that mentality. Give them a positive outcome first and make sure their first experiences are positive. Ie. Them doing well. Then slowly show them the reality of competing.
The conclusion is that by allowing your athletes to bust their butt in the gym but only put in 70-80% at most competitions you will find they get way better results overall because you stimulate them but not overly to the point it is unhealthy. By training them to deal with going past the -55mv threshold you can apply more pressure to them at competitions in the future but again it has to be done step by step and without a specific plan to do so will cause erratic stimulus's from the athlete who will be on a rollercoaster. Throw them a curve ball of course but make sure it is planned strategically without their knowing, not just a random fun idea you had talking to your coaching buddies. Take the time to discuss this with your athletes. That helps them ride the rollercoaster, if they feel you are planning this and not just winging it.
Take the time to plan out your competitions with this in mind. I always told my athletes to not think of it so much as a competition in their early formative years, but more as a cross-training test to see if the actions they have done in the gym are correct or not. Once they move up the levels they can start to train themselves to get into the 'competitive' frame of mind, which I will address in another article.
So to summarize, try to create a plan that keeps the athlete competing below their threshold of fear but then push that fear threshold at training. Is this not what training is all about? Is it not unfair to the athlete to throw them into a lions den without confidence? Build confidence in the gym and in competition with young athletes by giving them attainable goals.
I think the happy medium for the original argument is after the athlete does well, he or she moves up and does not repeat that level over and over again. If a coach starts the kids at a low level and keeps moving them up but still conservatively in a sense that is the best plan in my opinion. Unfortunately we see the biases of coaches leak everywhere