Nerves linked to sport performance
Competition nerves really can blunt the performance of athletes, a study has found.
The research adds to evidence that psychological training is just as important as fitness for top sportsmen and women.
Scientists subjected 18 fit and healthy young adults to two identical physical tests, one described as a practice session and the other a competition.
In the "competitive" trials, participants' ability to anticipate and co-ordinate actions such as catching a ball or striking a moving object were significantly impaired.
At the same time, their mental anxiety levels were raised when they believed they were competing.
The findings back the idea of "catastrophe theory" - a concept popular with sports coaches - which suggests that increased stress and anxiety has an adverse effect on performance.
Lead researcher Dr Michael Duncan, from the University of Coventry, said: "Anxiety in a competitive situation, whether sporting or otherwise, is something everyone can relate to. We're all familiar with what we call 'somatic' anxiety, for example butterflies in the tummy, which is the body's response to tension, but this study is chiefly concerned with the effects of cognitive anxieties such as worry or fear of failure.
"Our research indicates that heightened cognitive anxiety, brought on by the competitive scenario, really does affect performance abilities in physically active people - and the same is likely to apply even for trained athletes.
"Where this study differs from anything in the past is that we measured these responses 'in-event' rather than after performance, so we're generating a much more accurate picture of whether catastrophe theory has any value. The results strongly support the theory, which should make for interesting reading for sports professionals and psychologists around the world."
The research, to be presented at the annual meeting of the British Psychological Society in Birmingham, found detrimental effects were strongest during the most physically intensive parts of the trials. But, significantly, they were not evident during practice trials.