How does fear affect athletic performance?

output 1 2012 / Sports psychology

How fear affects athletic performance - and what you can do about it: The energy storage model of self-control in a sporting context

Most athletes are familiar with the situation: You are in the middle of an important sporting competition and suddenly a feeling of fear overcomes you. The simplest motor movements simply don't want to work anymore, you can't get the optimum and fail. But remedial action is on the way: The latest studies provide indications that one can counteract the negative influence of fear in a sports context if one has sufficient self-control.

It is the last second of an important basketball game, the score is a tie. One of the teams is awarded two free throws after a foul. A converted free throw is enough to decide the game. The supposedly safest player stands at the free-throw line to perform the seemingly simple task of throwing at a basket from a short distance without the action of an opponent. The fans of both teams cheer on their respective team, the player starts the throw and discards the first free throw. The hand slowly begins to tremble, the sweat runs down the forehead and an inner voice demands that you never miss the throw. But the second free throw does not find its way into the basket either.

Image from wintersixfour via morguefile (, cc ( encounters and affects professional athletes as well. Just think of David Beckham, who in the quarter-finals of the 2004 European Championship in Portugal knocked the penalty meter wide over the opponent's goal, which also amazed Franz Beckenbauer (“A man who shoots a fly off the crossbar from 30 meters away, hits not from eleven meters ”). An actually well-mastered sporting movement is not carried out successfully in a state of strong emotional arousal. An emotion that is often associated with decreased performance in motor tasks is fear (Hanin, 2000). So it is not surprising that fear has been a central phenomenon in sport psychological research for many years (Hanin, 2000). But what is fear anyway? Fear can be defined as a specific state of arousal in a specific situation or as a personality trait, i.e. as a tendency to perceive state anxiety over time in certain situations, which is also referred to as anxiety (Endler & Kocovski, 2001). According to a definition by Eysenck and colleagues, fear is an aversive emotional experience that can occur in potentially threatening assessment situations (Eysenck, Derakshan, Santos & Calvo, 2007). Competitive situations in sport are often perceived as threatening when you consider how many spectators are watching in the stadium and on the television screens. If you take the example of the unfortunate basketball player or David Beckham again, they could have interpreted the presence of the audience, fellow players and opponents, the perception of noise and other environmental factors as potentially threatening and thus causing fear.

Possible consequences of fear in a sports context

Anxiety can be debilitating in a number of ways in a sports context. For example, it has been shown that more anxious people tend to exercise less and that they also enjoy exercise less (Scanlan, Babkes & Scanlan, 2005). A large number of studies have shown that fear is often associated with a loss of performance in competitive situations (Hanin, 2000): For example, more anxious people are less precise when putting in golf (Vine, Moore & Wilson, 2011) and more often miss penalty kicks in football (Jordet, 2009). The phenomenon that athletes do not achieve their normal level of performance in competitive situations is also referred to in sports psychology as choking under pressure (Baumeister, 1984). Due to the high subjective value of the competition, athletes often feel fear in such pressure situations, which in turn can impair the athletes' ability to pay attention.

In many sports (e.g. darts, basketball, archery), however, selective attention is required for successful performance (Vickers, 1996). This means that irrelevant stimuli (e.g. the audience) must be masked out for the motor process and the focus of attention must instead be on the relevant target stimuli (e.g. on the dartboard, basketball hoop, target). However, anxious athletes tend to focus more on threatening irrelevant stimuli, which can negatively affect performance (Vickers, 1996). This finding can be illustrated by a study on penalty performance in football (Wilson, Wood & Vine, 2009): In this study, fearful shooters focused more on the threatening stimulus, in this context the goalkeeper, rather than on the corners of the goal and therefore more likely to shoot than the non-fearful subjects.

The energy storage model of self-control

To explain why people cannot simply steer their attention away from threatening stimuli and towards relevant stimuli, we first present the energy storage model of self-control (Baumeister, Vohs & Tice, 2007). Self-control is defined as the ability to prevent automatic action tendencies, emotions or attention processes and instead to initiate alternative processes (Baumeister et al., 2007). The whole thing can be explained in more detail with an example: A basketball player was asked by the trainer before an upcoming point game to do fewer three-point throws and instead to play them more often. However, since the player has a tendency to throw at the basket herself, she has to exercise self-control in order to adhere to the coach's instructions. It often turns out that athletes cannot (or do not always want to) implement their specifications. In this case self-control fails. According to Baumeister and colleagues, this is due, among other things, to the fact that all self-control actions are based on a limited resource - a metaphorical energy store. The energy store provides, so to speak, the "fuel" for self-control actions of all kinds. However, the capacity of the energy store can be temporarily exhausted. After previous self-control actions, there may initially not be enough capacity for further self-control actions in the energy store, which subsequently leads to poorer self-control performance. This state of exhaustion of the energy store is also known as ego depletion. In the basketball example, it could be the case that the player was often exposed to unfair attacks from opponents during the game, but the referee went unpunished. In order to withstand the impulse to defend herself with unfair counterattacks, the player had to exercise self-control. But that led to exhaustion of the energy store. As a result, the player no longer had enough “fuel” to break the habit of throwing herself on the basket.