Just Do It

Over the years, countless individuals have pondered the true significance of NIKE’s iconic slogan. To me, it represents a forthright solution to our propensity, as sportspeople, to over-think and oftentimes become over-anxious in the midst of intense competition; those moments where action is burdened by thought, anxiety clouds perception and we become, to some extent, paralyzed by analysing too much.

This peculiarity whereby motivations, arousal levels, cognitions and affections have a detrimental effect upon a player’s ability to perform typically mundane sport-specific actions, is commonly referred to as “choking under pressure”. It’s a phenomenon whereby athletic performance is suddenly impaired by anxiety; specifically, the term often refers to the breakdown of normally expert skill under pressure (Masters, 1922, p.344). It’s worth making note of the phrase “expert skill” here, namely because it bears significance for the distinctions we’re going to make later in the article. To clarify though, choking under pressure in the world of professional sport is a pervasive problem because it causes an athlete to regress to an earlier stage of skill acquisition.

To better understand the complexities of the effect that anxiety has upon expert skill and novice skill, we must first make a conscious effort to understand the process and stages of skill acquisition. Scientific research attests a number of different theories and models which pronounce these stages and their characteristics. For simplicity, I find that Abraham Maslow’s Four Stages of Competence Model is sufficient: –

The Four Stages of Competence Model

The Four Stages of Competence Model

  1. Stage 1: Unconscious Incompetence – an individual does not understand or know how to do something and does not necessarily recognise a skill deficit.
  2. Stage 2: Conscious incompetence – Though an individual does not know how to do something, they recognise a skill deficit, as well as the value of addressing that deficit.
  3. Stage 3: Conscious competence – an individual knows how to do something. However, demonstrating a skill or knowledge requires concentration. It may be broken down into steps, and there is a heavy conscious involvement in the execution of the new skill.
  4. Stage 4: Unconscious competence –an individual has had so much practice with a skill that it has become ‘second nature’ and can be performed effortlessly.

You will notice above that the words conscious and unconscious crop up quite a lot; and you’re probably a little confused because, up until now, we’ve talked about how over-thinking can burden the execution of skill – so let’s break things down.

In the early stages of learning, it’s imperative for coaches to encourage players to consciously acknowledge and address skill deficits. To be clear, there needs to be a conscious desire, motivation and intention, from the player, to improve. The crucial characteristic which prevents a player in stage 1 from progressing to stage 2 is merely the awareness that they lack proficiency in a particular skill. Successively, their willingness to accept and understand the need for purposeful practice in order to improve that skill is what determines the rate of their progression towards stages 3 and 4.

Stage 3 is where just doing it, just doesn’t cut it – the fact of the matter is, the practice and repetition of a skill demands conscious thought, particularly when (a) the skill is new, and/or (b) a player hasn’t had the opportunity to utilise it in a variety of situations and solve assorted football problems – discovering what works and what doesn’t work goes hand in hand with learning when it works and when it doesn’t.

In short, an athlete in Stage 3 cannot JUST DO IT because they don’t yet have a full understanding of what IT is or when IT should occur. Through purposeful practice, an athlete can become more proficient at a skill. As they become more proficient, they can begin to devote less conscious thought to the execution of that particular skill without compromising its’ proficiency. As you can imagine, this progression from Stage 3 to Stage 4 is where things get a little complicated.

Acquiring a certain degree of automaticity in a particular skill is freeing because it allows the athlete to devote specific attention to situational/ environmental factors; focusing on information which helps them to discern the when. However, with it, automaticity brings the potential for unoccupied head-space; space which can be filled by limiting factors, factors which can multiply extensively in the midst of perceived pressure and strong competition.

The absence of conscious attention in skill execution, when coupled with anxiety-provoking situations, can create a distracting environment and in turn, cause players to shift their attention from task-relevant information to task irrelevant issues i.e. worries about the consequences of poor performance (Lavellee, Kremer, Moran & Williams, 2004). Typically, when sportspeople experience pressure to perform well, there exists a tendency to over-think their actions, the perceived importance of an event, and its’ relative outcome. Such superfluous self-consciousness incites people to attempt to gain conscious control over previously automatic processes. As a result, typically skilled performance can, oftentimes, unravel and collapse.

I digress, the purpose of this article is not to show novice players, expert players and everything in between, that choking under pressure happens to the best of us; moreover, it’s to draw attention to the fact that, at a novice level, it’s difficult to discern whether or not poor performance can be attributed to a player being at an early stage of skill acquisition, OR to the fact that anxiety is impairing their performance. Both attributions are valid, and both are manifested by poor performance – thus, it falls on the shoulders of coaches and parents to (a) tease out the truth, and (b) give those players, who do struggle with competition anxiety, the necessary coping mechanisms to reduce its effect on performance.

It’s about empowering players who have been crippled by pressure in the past, and at the same time, educating others about the many ways that sportspeople can cope with anxiety and guard against its debilitating effects. Below, I have accumulated (A) a short list of factors which precipitate anxiety in athletes, alongside (B) practical techniques to cope with sport-related sources of pressure: –

A – Factors indicative of anxiety in athletes

  1. Perceived importance of the competitions / result – an increase in the perceived importance of an event is analogous to an increase in performance anxiety.
  2. Negative attributions – if an athlete attributes poor performance / defeat to internal & stable factors e.g. a lack of technique or poor fitness – they may learn to associate competition with anxiety.
  3. Perfectionism – it is not a sustainable guiding principle. Setting excessively high standards for performance can often be unrealistic – setting oneself up for an inevitable fall.
  4. Fear of failure – athletes with a ‘win at all costs’ mentality run the risk of becoming vulnerable to performance anxiety. When self-esteem rests solely on the outcome of competition – defeat can prove profoundly difficult to deal.

(Lavellee et al. 2004)

B – Interventions & practical techniques to cope with sport-specific anxiety

  1. Restructuring the situation: recognising that pressure is a perception of the situation – not a fact. By restructuring our interpretation differently, one can learn to interpret competition as a challenge to one’s abilities rather than a threat to one’s well-being or self-esteem.
  2. Interpreting arousal signals constructively – if an athlete has a poor understanding of what their body is telling them when they are anxious, then they need to be educated to realise that anxiety is not necessarily a bad thing, but rather a indicator that one cares deeply about what they are doing. If
  3. Pre-performance routines – can be used to concentrate effectively before an athlete executes important skills. The routines themselves are a mantra for the athlete to focus only on what they can control and to ignore all things outside their control.
  4. Simulation training – perhaps one of the best way to immunise oneself against the adverse effects of anxiety is to practice under simulated pressure situations in training.

(Lavellee et al. 2004)

“Pressure lies in the eyes of beholder.”