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When Anxiety Interferes with Performance: Transferring Practice

by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.
"One of the more difficult aspects of learning to manage anxiety is how to transfer what you have learned in practice to help with actual situations..."

The following sport psychology question from a website reader regarding martial arts concerns how to transfer the practice of the cognitive-behavioral techniques to real-life situations. The following response not only applies to sport competition but also to other situations in which anxiety can interfere with performance (work, school, etc). Many times people have learned the techniques of challenging irrational thinking and of relaxation but have trouble using them when confronted with an anxiety-producing situation. When this is the problem, they need to learn how to transfer their practice to actual situations.

Sport Performanace Psychology

Question: I practice meditation and cognitive rationalization and am fairly well versed in both, yet they don't seem to have a great effect on the automatic thoughts that occur when I'm in motion. I'm unsure how to connect the rational meditative mind state with physical movement.

I write because of the increased tempo in cognitive function that I experience when fighting. As I try to do more, my tension grows as well. For example, if I throw three punches, with each punch my rate of thought increases resulting in increased tension and subsequent anxiety.

Throughout my life there has always been this disconnect of mental relaxation while increasing physical exertion. It has stopped me from realizing many goals and is practically crippling me at this point in my life because of the resulting anxiety. Maybe I can harness anxiety into positive energy but I don't know if it's possible or how to.

Answer: There are several issues to consider here. First, I suggest you read the following articles to fully understand my answer: Effects of Intensity on Performance and Why Are Meditative Relaxation and Mindfulness Important? One of the more difficult aspects of learning to manage anxiety is how to transfer what you have learned in practice to help with actual situations, in this instance, a sporting event. In this case, you already know the methods but can't utilize them when you need to. One reason this is more difficult in a sporting event is because of the increase in adrenalin due to the physical activity. Adrenalin causes increased thinking because it is preparing the body to react quickly. So this is actually a beneficial process. However, I assume that your thinking is tending towards irrational negative thinking rather than relevant beneficial thinking.

A couple of methods can be used to help transfer what you have learned through meditation practice and regarding challenging the irrational thinking. These methods include practicing mindfulness and engaging in mental rehearsal. As I said earlier, these methods can be useful with many types of anxiety-producing situations, not just competition.

1) Mindfulness Practice. First, during martial arts competition, you obviously do not want to be completely relaxed. However, you want to create a state of “flow” which is the ability to react and respond almost without thinking (so they say). The fact is,though, you actually ARE thinking but it is a more automatic way of thinking in which you are mindfully aware of your opponent, are able to process what is occurring, and then react. This takes place very quickly and automatically so it appears to people as if they are not thinking. It is very similar to automatic driving. Many people believe that they are not thinking when engaged in automatic driving but that is not true. The brain is continually processing information and responding—without this thought process it would be impossible to drive. However, it appears effortless.

That is the state very skilled fighters are able to achieve. Many people may develop this skill naturally with experience, but it can also be developed deliberately. What I would suggest to help develop this skill is that you want to learn to bring mindfulness generally into daily activities. The article on mindfulness that I suggested above describes a technique to help you do this. Mindfulness helps make the transition between the deep relaxation methods such as listening to an audio and everyday life. The more you practice mindfulness, the more you will be able to utilize it during competition.

Many people I see think that they should just be able to be mindful or relaxed when they want to be: “I tried deep breathing to relax, but it didn't work.” However, they are missing the transitional practice of relaxation or mindfulness so they can use it in difficult situations. The brain doesn't just change automatic behavior because we tell it to—we have to train our brains through practice to do what we want.

2) Mental Rehearsal. The other method to help you transfer your skills is mental rehearsal. One of the sports psychology audios I have created is the Sport Imagery Exercise which has you mentally rehearse your physical skills. However, in this case, we would actually modify it some. In addition to rehearsing the physical skill you need to rehearse the mental skills. You have already identified your irrational thinking and know how to challenge it. So what you do with this rehearsal is to imagine the self-talk that you want to engage in while competing. For instance, telling yourself to “Stay focused” or “You can do this” or whatever it is that you have identified that is important to your performance.

This technique is one that I use for many types of anxiety problems because a person can't be expected to change their thinking in the midst of high levels of anxiety. But they can imagine the situation and practice the desired self-talk. With enough practice they will be able to more readily recall and use the new response in the high intensity situation.

You might notice that this seems opposed to what I just described earlier about mindfulness and the flow state of automatic thinking. And you would be correct. However, this is a step in the process. It is better to have these positive thoughts to refocus your thinking than the negative ones.

Actually, this technique eventually combines (after much practice) with the mindfulness technique to help create flow. If you read the mindfulness article, you understand that a core component of mindfulness practice is learning to redirect focus. So initially, you may use a statement such as “Stay focused” to help yourself redirect your focus back to your immediate experience, but eventually you are able to do that more automatically.

I think these are the transitional methods that can help you “harness the anxiety into positive energy.” Let me know how it works for you.

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