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EFFECTS OF INTENSITY ON PERFORMANCE

by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.

"...competitors need an “optimal level of intensity.” This means that when intensity is too high or too low, performance can be affected."
My worst fear when competing in martial arts kata competition was my mind going blank and forgetting my routine. I was afraid of embarrassing myself in front of the judges and audience. One day it happened. I had just learned a new routine, I was anxious about performing it, and I went blank. So anxious I couldn't even make up some moves, I had to ask the judges if I could begin again which is something a performer is never supposed to do. But at that point it was my only option unless I just quit completely.

The problem I experienced is one that many athletes experience when their intensity level becomes too high. My intensity level was high because I was probably thinking, “What if I forget this new routine? That would be awful! What will everyone think of me?” One of the most common ways that intensity can interfere is when skills require a great deal of mental concentration.

Generally, it is believed that competitors need an “optimal level of intensity.” This means that when intensity is too high or too low, performance can be affected. A high intensity level can decrease concentration, focus, and create problems with coordination, reaction time, strength, and endurance. A low intensity level can decrease energy, reduce interest and motivation, and reduce focus.

WHAT IS INTENSITY?

Sport psychologists prefer to use the neutral term “intensity” rather than the positive term “energy” or the negative terms “tension” or “anxiety.” The reason for this is that intensity can affect different competitors variously. For some it positively influences their performance whereas for others it has a negative impact. Therefore, it is important to understand the individual's reaction to intensity.

The best way to understand intensity is that it is a physiological reaction to the competitive situation. We experience physical symptoms that can either help us or hinder us. Sometimes this can vary with the individual, other times it varies with the sport or the situation. Also, some physical symptoms such as a high energy level create problems in situations where quiet calmness may be necessary.

1) Positive Intensity.
The increase in adrenalin, energy, heart rate, blood flow, and muscle tension may be experienced as a positive factor by many competitors. These physiological changes may increase confidence, determination, and prepare them to meet the physical challenge. A high level of physiological intensity improves the outcome of their competition especially when it is a sport or position requiring a great deal of physical activity such as a snowboarder or a linebacker.

2) Negative Intensity.
However, some of these same physical sensations can impact performance if the situation requires a great deal of concentration or accuracy such as golf or a performance sport. The increased adrenalin, heart rate, and muscle tension may actually interfere with performance. In addition, when intensity becomes too high a person might feel increased fatigue instead of energy which can cause slower reactions and reduced coordination. Increased intensity can also contribute to increased negativity, fear, anxiety, and feelings of hopelessness which interfere with performance of physical skills.

INFLUENCES ON INTENSITY LEVEL

1) Perception of Intensity.
Sometimes two different competitors can experience the same physical sensation but interpret it in different ways. Physical agitation, increased heart rate/respiration could be viewed as “I'm revved up and ready to go!” or “I'm nervous. I don't know if I can do this.”

Perception can create a self-fulfilling prophecy. The person with the positive interpretation is more likely to manage the intensity successfully whereas the person with the negative interpretation is likely to intensify the physical symptoms until they are overwhelming and interfere with performance.

2) Complexity of the Task.
If the competitive task requires greater focus, attention to detail, decision-making, and fine motor control, it typically requires a lower level of intensity to think more clearly and respond more precisely. Whereas, a higher intensity is necessary if the task requires a great deal of energy, endurance, speed, or quick reaction without precise decision-making.

3) Demands.
Most people have a lower intensity level during practice than they do during competitive events because they are not as concerned with the outcome during practice. Therefore, practice does not have as much demand regarding outcome. Not only does competition typically have more demand, certain types of competition may have greater demand. For instance, traditionally rival teams may experience greater demand than a competition in which there has been no long-term rivalry.

However, sometimes practice sessions can have certain demand characteristics depending upon the situation. For example, if an athlete has a new coach he/she wants to impress. Some athletes will try to create demand characteristics during practice so as to simulate competition conditions.

EFFECTS OF INTENSITY LEVELS

1) Over-intensity.
When a competitor's intensity is too great, a number of different internal and physical effects occur. A decrease in focus often occurs. The competitor is more distractible or more internally focus on negative or unproductive thoughts such as fearfulness. Frequently, these thoughts can lead to decreased motivation.

Physical sensations can include nervousness, muscular tension, gastro-intestinal distress, respiratory problems, and fatigue. Many of these symptoms can directly affect performance such as rapid breathing can interfere with the necessary balance of oxygen in the system. Or symptoms such as shaking or muscular tension can affect coordination and reaction time.

2) Under-intensity.
Sometimes competitors can have levels of physical activation that are too low such as heart rate and energy level. They may even feel lethargic. Such sensations can interfere with focus and reaction time as well as decrease the competitor's motivation to try.

3) Optimal Level of Intensity.
Research shows that each competitor may have a “sweet spot” for performance when the intensity level is high enough that they are motivated but not too high as to create a negative reaction that can impact performance.

This “optimal level of intensity” may vary with each competitor, each sport or position played, and the type of event. Therefore, it is important for the competitor to learn how to analyze his/her performance so as to prepare for events effectively. The statistical analysis in the SportPsych app by Excel At Life helps to do this.

WHAT CAUSES OVER-INTENSITY?

1) Requirements of the Situation.
Some events may require more of a competitor than others in order to be successful. For instance, a local event may not have as many highly skilled competitors as a regional or national event. My 8-year-old granddaughter has already learned that she is more likely to win if she attends smaller karate competitions.

2) Are the Requirements Manageable?
The less confident the competitor is about his or her ability to meet the requirements of the situation, the more likely he or she will experience over-intensity. The perception that the requirements are within the skill level of the competitor, the more likely the intensity level will be in the optimal level of performance.

3) Consequences of Not Meeting the Requirements.
Each situation may have a variety of potential consequences, negative and positive. Many of these consequences can be self-imposed such as the athlete's need to “prove” him or herself to achieve respect from others. Or, the example I provided earlier in which I was fearful of being embarrassed.

However, consequences can also be imposed by others such as teammates expecting an athlete to perform at a certain level, and if that doesn't occur, they may be angry. Or, a parent who punishes a child if they don't perform well enough. In addition, consequences can be imposed by other factors such as a person needing to win due to the financial impact that would be caused by losing.

4) The Importance of the Consequences.
If an athlete believes that the consequences will not seriously impact his or her life or that he/she is capable of handling the consequences, the less likely the intensity level will be too high. For example, after my performance in which my mind went blank and I forgot my routine, I no longer had the fear of embarrassment because I was able to tell myself “Been there. Done that. Didn't die...So it doesn't matter.” In other words, I learned that the consequences of forgetting my performance were manageable.

WHAT CAUSES UNDER-INTENSITY?

1) Over-confidence.
If a competitor feels too confident about the event, he or she may not be able to increase the intensity enough to achieve the optimal level of intensity. As a result, the lowered energy and focus may contribute to a poor performance.

2) Lack of Interest.
If a competitor is not interested in the event or doesn't care about the outcome, he or she will have greater difficulty motivating to perform well. For example, a child who is competing just to please a parent may not have any personal motivation to strive for success.

3) Over-training.
Sometimes over-training will cause changes such as physical or mental fatigue. The competitor may be so worn-out from the training that the body is physically stressed and conditioning decreases. As a result, they are not able to achieve the necessary level of intensity.

HOW TO ACHIEVE THE OPTIMAL LEVEL OF INTENSITY

1) Develop an Awareness of Intensity Effects.
Each competitor can be affected differently by intensity level and even the same competitor may need a different intensity level depending upon the sport or situation. Therefore, it is necessary for the competitor to develop an awareness of how he or she is is affected by the intensity level as well as when it has a positive effect and when it has a negative effect.

A good way to do this is to keep a journal of events and record level of intensity and satisfaction with performance. With enough information over time, the competitor may then examine the journal for patterns.

You can ask yourself questions such as: What was I feeling physically? What was I thinking? What demands did I experience from myself or others? What aspects of the event influenced me? What was the level of competition?

The SportPsych app gives an easier way of doing this. Once you have recorded enough journal entries, you will be able to obtain a statistical evaluation of your performances. By obtaining a correlation between your satisfaction and your intensity level, you will have a better idea of what is your optimal level of intensity. Do the successful performances occur with a higher intensity level or a lower intensity level?

In addition, you can record other information in the “Comments” section so that you can examine your performances for patterns. For example, what was your diet like prior to your successful performances? How much sleep did you obtain? Did you stay up late drinking? What was your stress level like?

2) Modifying the Intensity Level
Once you know what your optimal level of intensity is, you can then assess your intensity level with each event and determine whether you need to increase it or decrease it. Following are some of the methods used to change the intensity level.

Recognizing Negative Thinking
Understanding the thinking that contributes to your intensity level allows you to challenge or change the negative self-talk. This can assist with both over-intensity and under-intensity.

Increase Motivational Self-Talk
By developing some statements that are encouraging, you can modify your intensity level. The statements need to be focused specifically to either over-intensity or under-intensity. For example, to increase intensity you might say “Can't is not a word in my vocabulary. Success is based on effort. I need to try, not just depend on luck.” To decrease intensity you might say “I can handle this. I prefer to win, but I don't need to win. Strive for excellence, not perfection.”

The SportPsych Performance Coach app provides a list of motivational statements you can choose and modify to fit your needs.

Increase Familiarity
To reduce intensity it is often helpful to become more familiar with the situation. For instance, watching training videos showing an event can help you become more familiar. Showing up early to an event can help you become more accustomed to the surroundings.

Preparation for the Unexpected
Many competitors who are physically and mentally prepared for an event may become disoriented by the unexpected or by uncontrollable events. Frequently, it is useful to have a plan for these situations. Although you obviously can't plan for specific unexpected events, you can plan how to handle such situations generally. For instance, you can have methods to calm yourself when uncontrollable but distressing events occur. Or, you can have methods to re-focus yourself when you become distracted by the unexpected.

Reduce Physiological Intensity
Various methods can help to reduce the physical symptoms of over-intensity such as breathing, muscle relaxation, imagery, relaxing music, qi gong or yoga. However, you can't use them for the first time during a competition. You need to determine which methods work best for you and then practice those methods until they are second-nature to you similar to your physical skills.

Increase Energy.
To manage under-intensity, you may need to engage in activities that will increase your physical sensation of energy. Such methods can include physical activity, self-talk, imagery, or energizing and motivational music.

Pre-competitive Routines.
Have some methods that you can incorporate into your routines prior to competition. Use methods that help you to achieve the level of intensity, confidence, and focus that you desire. Be careful to not create superstitious routines because such routines may seem to be helpful but can create problems if you are not able to complete them satisfactorily.

Identify Helpful People.
Some people are more encouraging than others and can help you achieve the state that you desire. Others are more likely to be demanding or critical which can have a negative impact on you. Cultivate the relationships that benefit you and seek those people out prior to competition. Avoid people who discourage you.