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Anxiety and thinking

Today in class I was asked how a coach can teach young people he or she coaches how to deal with competition anxiety. In this regard I quote a few paragraphs from my book Coping with Stress.

Thinking plays an essential role in the establishment of the anxiety response. In fact, in order to develop behaviors that can be defined as anxious, it is not only sufficient to look at alterations of a physiological nature. An even relevant increase in heart rate can occur from a rather wide range of situations such as running stairs, carrying excessive weight, walking at a fast pace, and many others. These conditions relate to psychological states in which an individual might at most feel tired or fatigued but certainly would not call himself or herself anxious. One’s heart rate can also be accelerated at other times, such as evaluative situations (the school test, the college exam, a job interview, a sports performance, a new professional responsibility); in those instants while one is aware of the alteration in one’s heart rate it is possible to have two types of thoughts:

  1. confident – “This is how I feel every time I do well, my heart is sending me energy,”
  2. not confident – “My heart is in my throat, it’s all rumbling inside me, I’m not getting it right anymore, I will definitely make a mistake.”

It is thus shown that it is thoughts that largely determine whether the physiological reactions one feels are favoring or hindering performance. It is thus thoughts that guide the interpretation of physical sensations, so identical physiological conditions can be experienced as adequate to provide optimal performance despite the fact that, on the surface, they may appear to be hindering. This pointing out is particularly important to understand and especially to remember in the moments that matter, since it gives us the ability to guide our actions through the development of thoughts that we can consciously construct ourselves. In sports of excellence this aspect is particularly evident, as it is certainly not possible to remain calm and serene before an Olympic final, especially if one can win. Athletes know that the anxiety they feel is positive, it is pure energy that they are feeling in those and that tells them, “Come on, the whole body is with you, get busy, go and do what you can do: do your best.” It is precisely from them that we should learn to feel the stress, to feel the fear, experiencing it as a demonstration that we are about to do something that is very important to us, and if it is important, how can you not have your heart in your throat?

What distinguishes those who will then provide an outstanding performance is their ability to handle their pre-race anxiety in positive terms, translating it into energy that will drive them to enhance their skills, because they have learned how to use them in a positive way In these situations the winning athlete does not let his or her emotions dominate him or her, because if that were to happen he or she would be paralyzed by the fear of failure and the responsibility of having to provide a great performance at all costs. Here is what some great champions have said in this regard.

“You are strong in the head if you can remain calm and have fun even when things are not going well, and if you can never lose confidence in yourself and in teamwork.”(Valentino Rossi, driver, 7-time world champion)

“It depends on the characters, nervous tension used to eat me up. I was losing three kilos in the race: the more I ate, the more weight I dropped. And at night I wouldn’t sleep, my eyes were wide open. I was a lit pile, ready to jump from too much tension.” (Mark Spitz, swimmer, 7 gold medals at the Munich ’72 Olympics) (from E. Audisio, Hackett and the club of the elect, La Repubblica, March 22, 2007).

“That day in Los Angeles I cried out that I wanted mommy, I wanted someone to cradle me in their arms, I wanted to be considered for the first time a fragile, tender, not bomb-proof creature. Yes I was the one who dominated myself, the one who sought strong emotions by blasting them in the right way. But in an instant I realized that all that stress had burned me up inside, that by dint of living always on the edge convinced that with my very last energies I would pull myself up, I had consumed everything and eroded even that small personal reserve one keeps for special occasions.” (Sara Simeoni, high jump, 3 medals at the ’76, ’80 and ’84 Olympics) (from E. Audisio, Quanti modi per dire mi arrendi, La Repubblica, July 13, 1987).

The awareness that even champions can be anxious before an important competition should be helpful to all people. Sometimes people are inclined to think that winners are cold, calculating individuals who do not feel the same emotions as ordinary people and that this condition of theirs is a gift they carry with them from birth and have inherited from someone in their family. Their sporting achievements become memorable feats and so some become myths, in which the tale becomes legend and surpasses the reality of the facts. Instead, even champions have struggled to rise to this role, and as a great writer like Ernest Hemingway rightly reiterated, genius is 10 percent talent and 90 percent sweat.

This means that the management of one’s emotions is a skill that can be improved, and that psychological condition we call anxiety, stress or excessive tension that arises from situations that are not objectively dangerous is not in itself bad, because even those who deliver performance at the highest level, such as sports champions, can feel very anxious before competition. The difference between people is, therefore, in the ability to positively emerge from this psychological state. Further confirmation comes from the remarkable popularity of relaxation techniques over the past 100 years; it is a practical demonstration of how anxious people can learn to reduce these reactions of theirs and carry out a satisfying daily life.

It is well known that learning to relax involves learning to influence certain physiological functions (heart and respiratory rates and visceral functions) and muscle tension, in parallel with a gradual mental relaxation. In this area, it is no coincidence that one of the most popular techniques, autogenic training devised by Schultz in the early years of the xx century, consists of relaxation training that the individual generates for himself. Training that requires daily application of at least 10 consecutive minutes for several months. This approach reveals that the psychological state called relaxation is a condition that can be achieved voluntarily through an activity that is absolutely analogous to that which each person has carried out whenever he or she has learned something new be it a cognitive activity as it was in school for math and Italian or a motor or sports activity.

The secret lies in the willingness to want to learn, following a correct method, and repetition for a sufficient period of time to develop the level of skill one intends to achieve or that is necessary to successfully overcome certain psychological conditions, such as anxiety before a personally important event.



Pecco Bagnaia anxiety

Management of chronicle anxiety and physical activity

“So far, anxiety has been discussed as a sports-related phenomenon, but anxiety disorders can also take on a psychopathological dimension, and the traditional treatment used is drug therapy and cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy. Nevertheless, recently physical activity and particularly aerobic exercise has been studied as a specific treatment for treating anxiety disorders. The efficacy of this motor practice is well recognized for the positive effects produced on physical health, from improved cardiorespiratory fitness, to reduction of blood pressure and body fat, as well as reduction of cognitive disorders and improved well-being. A review on this topic [de Souza Moura et al., 2015] highlighted that 91 percent of the studies that investigated the positive effect of exercise on anxiety symptoms showed significant results, while 9 percent of the studies, while not reducing symptoms, generally improved some physiological aspects, such as increased oxygen uptake and physical activity level. Regarding the methodology used in the exercise protocols, it was found that the results varied according to the different experimental approaches the researchers used. The studies are not homogeneous in terms of volume, intensity and days of activity per week, thus making it impossible to provide general guidelines. However, aerobic exercise in addition to other psychological and pharmacological therapies has been observed to be effective in reducing anxiety symptoms, but the best amount and type of activity to be performed has not yet been identified.

However, there appear to be five lifestyle habits that are key to promoting well-being and longer life expectancy [Li et al., 2018]. The greater their development, the greater the likelihood of the to live well and longer, they can be summarized as follows:

  • A healthy diet, calculated and evaluated on the basis of a diet primarily based on vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole grains, healthy fats and omega-3 fatty acids, and aimed at avoiding less healthy or unhealthy foods such as red and processed meats, sugary drinks, trans fats and excess sodium.
  • An adequate level of physical activity, measured as at least 30 minutes per day of moderate to vigorous activity, such as brisk walking.
  • A healthy body weight, defined by a normal body mass index (BMI) between 18.5 and 24.9.
  • No smoking, as there is no healthy amount of smoking.
  • Reduced alcohol intake, measured between 5 and 15 grams per day for women and between 5 and 30 grams per day for men. Generally, one glass contains about 14 grams of pure alcohol. That’s 12 ounces of regular beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of distilled alcohol (1 ounce equals 29.57 ml – 1 liter equals 1,000ml).

Those who possess even one of these habits are likely to live two years longer than those who have developed none. And those who at the age of 50 regularly practice these five appear to gain 10 more years of life in the absence of a predisposition to develop genetic diseases.

(Source: Alberto Cei, 2021)

How does the coach plan a decisive match?

It is not difficult to give an explanation to the defeat suffered by Inter against Bologna. The performance anxiety generated by having to win at all costs has triggered nervousness that has increased with the passing of time, leading to a negative performance and an unexpected result. The same could have happened to Liverpool against Villareal, but the team behaved exactly the opposite of Inter. It constantly kept the Spanish team under pressure, it was not in a hurry to finish actions and in this way two goals arrived and above all it did not suffer any.

It would be interesting to know how these two matches were prepared from the psychological point of view. Beyond the differences between Inter and Liverpool, what did the two coaches, Inzaghi and Klopp, do and say to ensure that their teams would play as they had decided? How did they stimulate the combativeness of their players along with a thought of the game to be led from start to finish? Pugnacity should certainly not be interpreted in terms of acting without thinking, otherwise it turns into an impulsive game devoid of logic.

I don’t know what Inzaghi may have said and done, but in any case it didn’t work.

Instead, we know some of Klopp’s principles and I believe that even with Villareal he was inspired by these three ideas in preparing the match:

Building memorable experiences - “Playing unforgettable games, being curious and impatient to play the next game to see what will happen, and this is what soccer should be. If you make that attitude your own, you will be 100 percent successful.”

Be Disciplined - “Never give up on your goals, always stay focused. Certainly teaching this to young soccer players is difficult. It’s much more than believing in it, because you can believe in something but also easily lose that belief, that’s why it’s more important to feel strong in difficult moments.”

Being passionate - “You have to use the tactics with your heart. The match must be lived intensely, otherwise it’s boring”.

I believe that in order to win these decisive matches, these three ideas are decisive and can be summarized in these words: clear goals, tactics, heart, curiosity.

Napoli: performance anxiety?

There is talk, in these days, of the performance anxiety that would have hindered Napoli at least in the last two games, important to remain among the favorites for the final title. Attributing the negative results of a team to this psychological dimension has been very successful among the media. It means feeling insecure in the decisive moments of the championship, with the effect of providing unsatisfactory performances. It is a reasoning that labels a team and expresses a collective psychological condition that is invalidating. Were I a coach, I would reject this explanation by asking myself, “How should players interact on the field in order to show unity and confidence in their team skills?” I would also ask myself, “How can I stimulate performance that is superior to what each could provide individually?” Napoleon used to say that he also won his battles with the dreams of his soldiers, this phrase is an effective metaphor for what should be meant by team effectiveness. In this way, we are no longer talking about anxiety but about collective effectiveness and how to train it. The theme consists of understanding what behavioral approach is necessary to achieve victory, providing each player with precise and different tasks, so that when someone makes a mistake the others know what to do. Each player needs to know and be a part of the story that the team is building as the minutes go by, and this task orientation needs to be trained specifically throughout the weeks. However, it is not just a technical/tactical issue, it requires each player to perceive himself as an active part of a program that goes beyond his person and is about the success of the team. By developing this collective mentality, it will be possible to come out effectively from situations of greater competitive pressure, without falling into the victimhood inherent in the explanation that attributes failures to anxiety, a manifestation of a character limit that requires a long time to change, while the league, moving on weekly appointments, requires a great willingness to change. Therefore, the question is not so much whether players are anxious, but how willing they are to quickly change ineffective behavior.

Psychology dominates in soccer, but not psychologists

There is a lot of talk about psychology in soccer and yesterday we heard Antonio Conte’s phrases on the anxiety of his players, Fonseca’s phrases on his team’s 20 minute blackout and Andrea Pirlo’s phrases on the winning mentality that Juventus must have. Some time ago Alessandro Costacurta had spoken about the emotional intelligence that should guide the players.

These phrases show how high is the sensitivity of this sport world on psychology, but the question is that they are less than the fingers of one hand those who work in a soccer club. Who deals with it in the team?The coach is the psychologist of the team, on the one hand it is a function that is quite usual for those who play a leadership role in any group, on the other hand it represents an additional degree of responsibility that he does not share with anyone because within the staff there is no sports psychologist.

This absence, obviously, is not of today but it is a constant with some exceptions. Currently, to my knowledge, only Juventus and Verona have one working with players.
It doesn’t get any better in the youth sport and in soccer schools where they are quite common but often with marginal roles.

We are very far from the role that the psychologist plays in the US club. Robert Nideffer and Kenneth Ravizza have worked for years with many American football and baseball teams. The coach behavior evaluation system in youth baseball was introduced over 40 years ago now. In soccer in the UK, Chris Harwood proposed a soccer academy coach development program based on psychological characteristics, which is now used by soccer clubs and is widespread in the English-speaking world.

In our country we are stuck with the experiences of individual professionals, few in number, and in any case the interest of clubs is scarce.

How anxiety is influenced by the type of sport practiced

Whiteley, G. E. (2013). How trait and state anxiety influence athletic performance. (Doctoral dissertation). Department of Psychology, Ohio, Wittenberg University.

Some research has suggested that participants in team sports are more anxious, dependent, and extraverted than individual sport athletes (Martens, Vealey, & Burton, 1990). Additionally, individual athletes have been identified as less alert and more sensitive and creative than team sport participants (Cox, 2007). Conversely, Nicholls, Polman, and Levy (2010) examined several athletes of varying experience levels that participated in an assortment of different sports and found that individual athletes displayed lower self-confidence and higher somatic anxiety levels than team athletes.
Often, sports such as track, golf, and swimming are perceived as individual sports, while sports such as soccer, football, and basketball are viewed as team sports. However, research has been largely unsuccessful in providing an accurate definition of how the distinction is made between individual and team sport participants. For example, a track athlete could be concerned about performing well because his/her score affects the team, rather than wanting to improve his/her own personal statistics. Similarly, a soccer player could desire to perform well to impress friends, parents, or coaches, rather than contribute to a team effort. Essentially, an athlete’s team orientation is dependent on how he/she defines his/her participation in sport.

What is the competitive trait anxiety

The competitive trait anxiety is the tendency to perceive competitive situations as threatening me and to respond to these situations with feelings of fear and tension. Martens model includes four elements.

Objective competitive situation,represents the actual demands placed by the context and includes: the relevance of the competition, the characteristics of the opponents, the difficulty of the task, the competition conditions, the extrinsic reinforcements and the presence during the competition of people significant for the athlete. These environmental demands determine what an athlete must do to achieve a positive result.

Subjective competitive situation with the emphasis on how the athlete perceives, accepts and evaluates the objective competition situation.This aspect is mediated by the set of individual psychological characteristics. this dimension of subjective perception of the competitive situation, which refers to individual psychological processes, can be identified through the evaluation of the level of competitive trait anxiety, which is an essential parameter to assess the tendency of the athlete to perceive the objective competitive situation as threatening.

Individual reactions to competition are of three types: behavioral reactions, such as performance appropriate to one’s skill level; physiological reactions, changes more or less appropriate to competitive demands; and psychological reactions, changes in levels of state anxiety or perception of competence.

The consequences of performance, which in sport are associated with the result obtained by the athlete in a competition. Generally the consequences are positive in the case of victory and negative in the case of defeat and knowledge of the subject’s sports history in relation to his or her successes and failures is useful in determining how an athlete will approach subsequent competitive commitments.

The data about the stress from coronavirus

An international study, led by the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (Spain) spin-off Open Evidence, has revealed that the mental health of 41% of the UK population is at risk as a result of the coronavirus crisis. The research project, which involves the participation of researchers from the Glasgow University, Università degli Studi di Milano, Università degli Studi di Trento, Tilburg University and the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, indicates that almost 60% of the UK population require “the government not only to focus on containing the virus, but also on preventing a major economic crisis”.

The data collected in the first survey, which sampled 10,551 people (3,523 in the United Kingdom, 3,524 in Spain and 3,504 in Italy) between 24 April and 1 May, show that most of the population between 18 and 75 years of age report having felt down, depressed, or hopeless about the future at some point during this period: 57% in the United Kingdom, 67% in Spain and 59% in Italy. In the words of Cristiano Codagnone, co-founder of one of the participating entities, UOC spin-off Open Evidence, “the data provides a picture on the impact of the lockdown and we need to be prepared for the associated social and health consequences of that”.

The analysis of this data alongside additional factors such as housing type (full ownership, mortgaged property, rental, etc.), living conditions (square metres of accommodation, number of people living there, presence of school-age children), loss of employment, closure of own business, loss of income and access to COVID-19 testing has provided a general gauge in relation to people’s state of mental health in the three countries. The results reveal that the mental health of 41% of people in the UK is at risk, with figures of 46% and 42% registered for Spain and Italy, respectively.