Thursday, January 3, 2013

Competitive Anxiety in Climbing: Interpreting your "Redpoint Anxiety"

Versión en español (Original Spanish published in 18 June 2009)

Anxiety is a negative emotional state that involves feelings of nervousness, worry, and foreboding which are related to the activation level of the body. It comprises a thought component (for example, self-doubts about a hard project, an onsight try or a competition) called cognitive anxiety, and a physiological component called somatic anxiety, that is related to the perceived physical activity (Weinberg & Gould, 1996).

This means that in the face of a maximum grade climb or a competition, we can experience:
- increased perspiration, heart rate or body rigidity, etc., that are signs of somatic anxiety;
- and/or feelings of worry, fear, insecurity, etc., signs of cognitive anxiety.

Pablo Barbero. Avilés 2005. Photo: David Munilla
How can we adjust the excess of anxiety?
There are techniques like progressive muscle relaxation, control of respiration, yoga, etc., that can help us with high somatic anxiety.
Regarding the excess of cognitive anxiety, among other methods that we will discuss later on, there’s the possibility of interpret those stimuli in a different way.
And this is key, because it is through this interpretation that we can start to minimize that uncomfortably high anxiety. Keep in mind that stress, and by extension anxiety, is the result of our personal interpretation of reality.
It’s not what we experience, but how we experience it. It’s not what we see, but how we see it.
This approach of reinterpreting your ‘redpoint anxiety’ is supported by catastrophe theory (Hardy, 1990) and reversal theory (Kerr, 1985), that suggest that the interaction between the physical activation levels and the thoughts associated to them is more important than their absolute levels (Weinberg & Gould, 1996).

There are two different perceptions of physiological activation
Martens (1987) makes the following distinction:
1- Positive and facilitating: The activation feelings are perceived as pleasant and motivating. For example “I can hear my heart beat, my muscles are tightening, I’m going to do it, how I like this pressure level”, or “Ok, I can feel my heart beating and I’m a bit nervous but I know this activation is normal and good, because it will help me focusing, and will allow me to push even harder and give a good fight. This is what this activation is useful for and it will help me link the route. Let’s go!”.

Still talking about this perception, we can also choose an approach that we will call neutral, where we ignore the negative thoughts and stimuli. We could think along these lines: “Well, now I’m nervous and insecure, but I know that once I begin climbing all of that will vanish and I’ll perform all right. A muerte!”. Or “yes, I’m nervous but this is normal, it’s a hard route and I want very badly to do it”.

2- Negative or debilitating: The athlete puts the emphasis on the negative consequences of this tension: “look how nervous I am, I’m shaking… I’ll mess everything  up and I’m going to fall, I will miss the dyno to that narrow pocket… how unpleasant, I want this to end right now”. If we look at it, we realize that this way of approaching the situation manages to make us ‘nervous for feeling nervous’, and
this is a showstopper, because you enter a loop that is very difficult to escape from.
However, if we are not aware that we are suffering from anxiety, we can’t try to adjust it, that’s obvious.

We can follow these steps in order to control our activation:
  1.  Learn to recognize it, and even identify which stimuli o situations make us more nervous, so that we can prevent them or refocus them (this will be the topic of a later post),
  2. After that, adjust the interpretation of that anxiety as we discussed in this blog post;
  3. Lastly, develop an appropriate coping strategy; this will be explained in the last posts of this series.
So, are you aware of your anxiety and how it influences your performance? And… what interpretation will you choose?

  • Hardy, L. (1990). A catastrophe model of anxiety and performance. In J.G. Jones & L. Hardy (Eds.). Stress and performance in sport. Chichester, UK: Wiley.
  • Kerr, J. H. (1985). The experience of arousal: A new basis for studying arousal effects in sport. Journal of sports sciences, 3(3), 169-179.
  • Martens, R. (1987). Coaches guide to sport psychology. Champaign, IL. Human Kinetics.
  • Weinberg, R. S. & Gould, D. (1996). Fundamentos de Psicología del deporte y el ejercicio físico. Barcelona: Ariel Psicología.

Competitive Anxiety in Climbing: "Redpoint Anxiety"

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