Stress and competition

When you look closely you will find world-class athletes that experience severe nerves before a competition and world-class athletes that don't get nervous at all.  If they are world-class the fact is they have learned to harness mind and body to find peak performance despite (or maybe because of) the pressures of competition.  They have learned strategies that help them manage their mind-body state - what they think, feel and do - despite the pressures of competition.

We need arousal (stress) to perform at our best - but not too much. So how do we find the peak?

Undoubtably there are athletes seeking peak performance that have all the technical skills to be world-class but they are underperforming because they can't seem to overcome the consequences of their mind-body arousal as competition looms.

Sports psychologists have long been interested in the stress responses of athletes in, or approaching, competition. Many theories and hypotheses have been put forward to model and therefore predict this behaviour.

For example, the idea of an inverted ‘U’ relationship between arousal and performance is one that is frequently discussed.  This model suggests that performance will tend to increase as arousal levels increase from a low level. However, once a particular individual level of arousal is passed then performance tends to decrease.  This seems like a rational model but it has been hard to support with hard data gathered during competition.  

Few research studies have been designed to tease out and measure physiological arousal reactions in real time whilst subjects are actually performing.  In those studies where arousal has been measured it has tended to be by looking at just one factor - for example via heart rate monitoring.  The problem with this is that the stress response is multifactorial. Without looking at a number of aspects of the autonomic nervous system at the same time we have insufficient means of determining how to achieve better balance.  If we really don’t know the psychophysiological response in detail, we can’t devise a strategy to help the athlete.

the NeXus 10 supports multichannel measurement and bluetooth connection to your computer

With modern multi-modal instrumentation such as offered by the NeXus systems, we can now monitor the response of the nervous system in real time and look at respiration rate, skin temperature, muscle tension (EMG), Heart rate (ECG or BVP), Electrodermal activity (Galvanic skin response) and even EEG all at the same time.

With the non-athlete when stress is an issue we can easily conduct a stress test and simultaneously measure their psychophysiological response along multiple dimensions. By observing multiple sensors we can easily see for example that the subjects trapezius muscles are contracting strongly and their breathing has become rapid and shallow.  If we were to observe just one physiological signal we might miss something of fundamental importance.  

By looking at a number of physiological signals simultaneously we can more easily identify possible strategies for biofeedback training or some other cognitive-behavioural strategy that can help achieve a performance breakthrough.

This measurement and biofeedback training ability can be applied relatively easily in sports such as archery, rifle and pistol shooting or golf.  Of course this is ideal but this is not always possible in sport.  When it comes to team sports like football, rugby or cricket we cant so easily perform direct measurements in competition but there is still much we can learn in scenarios such as the lead up to competition.  Multichannel, real-time monitoring of the physiological state of athletes still has much to reveal to us.