Implementing a Breathing Technique to Manage Performance Anxiety in Softball

Abstract

An intervention strategy was developed, implemented, and evaluated that aimed at minimizing performance anxiety. The goal was to guide NCAA Division I softball athletes in using a breathing technique that, by contributing to the management of performance anxiety, would help each athlete reach full potential on the softball field. The strategy focused on the effects of the breathing technique on the participants’ heart rates, in relation to daily anxiety events; a heart rate monitor and anxiety logs were used to obtain data. All 4 of the athletes studied indicated improvement at various stages in the program.

Top high school athletes who are recruited to college teams may have seen little—or even no—failure in their athletic careers to that point. But at the college level, there are aspects that separate the good athlete from the great. The separation can be the difference between winning and losing. For some athletes, the first real failure is faced during the freshman year in college. First-year college softball athletes, for instance, may begin to realize that the game is quicker, the opponents are stronger, and their teammates share skills and strengths similar to their own. Some athletes rise to the challenge, while others become anxious and may fail.

It is not uncommon for a coach to witness an athlete succumb to such anxiety. Sometimes, an athlete simply walks to the plate mentally defeated, before a single pitch has been thrown. But coaches strive to prepare all athletes with the skills they need to perform in these situations. So why do some athletes perform well, while others cannot?

Those who perform well manage their emotions in critical situations, in a way that enables them to develop an ideal mental state that fosters maximum performance. During competitions in which they fail to achieve this state, many athletes become victims of their own anxieties. The performance psychologist David Roland defined performance anxiety as stage fright, suggesting artists feel apprehensive about approaching the stage and performing (1997). Athletes may also suffer from stage fright and may experience a debilitating effect on their performance.

Anxiety and Performance
In this study, anxiety is identified specifically as competitive anxiety, anxiety experienced while competing. Anxiety is under the umbrella of arousal, but it is typically associated with negative cognitive thoughts, such as worry or a perception of threat (Gill, 2000; Landers & Arent, 2006). An example might be a field goal kicker who is remembering an earlier missed field goal attempt or a batter who does not want to hit in a close-scoring game. Anxiety is a complex behavior with emotional, mental, and physical dimensions. Typically, anxious individuals experience a variety of bodily and mental symptoms such as loss of concentration, thoughts about failure, agitation, increased breathing (Roland, 1997).

Purpose of Study

Performance anxiety is rarely addressed, though coaches often identify certain athletes as “chokers” under pressure. The current study’s purpose, therefore, was to develop a strategy that would guide softball athletes in becoming relatively more aware of their somatic anxiety levels and offer a means of minimizing their performance anxiety.

Methods

Participants
The participants in this study were 4 members of a 2008 NCAA Division I collegiate softball team ranging from 18 to 21 years of age, 2 pitchers and 2 position players. One pitcher was a first-year student; the other 3 athletes were upperclassmen. No participant had prior exposure to or experience with breathing techniques or breathing exercises.

Procedure and Data Collection
The study included three stages. The first stage was completed with an overview of the relationship between performance and anxiety. The second stage involved working with a sports psychologist to determine a breathing technique strategy and to implement the strategy. The third stage involved measuring the effects of the program on the 4 athletes.

Anxiety Measurement Tools
This study incorporated the Sport Competition Anxiety Text (SCAT) first developed by Martens in 1977 as a self-report measurement of competitive anxiety. The SCAT consists of 15 questions that measure how a person feels during competition (Martens, 1990). This test has met the accepted standards for psychological tests and has been deemed valid and reliable (Gill, 2000). Smith et al. (1990) expanded on Martens’ SCAT and multidimensional models, developing the Sport Anxiety Scale (SAS), a sports-specific anxiety scale for sports-specific measurements of anxiety using cognitive traits (worry, concentration) and somatic traits (heart rate, breathing) (Gill, 2000).
Also used in the current study was the Competition State Anxiety Inventory 2 (CSAI 2), which is a multidimensional inventory intending to measure sports-specific state anxiety. The CSAI 2 also separately evaluates cognitive worry and somatic anxiety (Gill, 2000). It consists of 27 questions.

Breathing Techniques
Breathing techniques have been used for years to manage anxiety. Practicing slow, deep breathing is one way to control the autonomic response to anxiety (Gill, 2000). Ungerleider (2005) identified how breathing impacts performance. He indicated that oxygenated blood can energize the brain, nerves, and muscles. The present study incorporated Ungerleider’s breathing technique, a regimen that involves breathing using the diaphragm. The technique helps fill the lungs from bottom to top, impacting the amount of air taken into the body and thus how much oxygenated blood is available throughout the body.

Program and Intervention
During Week 1 and Week 2 of the study, baseline data for heart rates were recorded. The data included heart rate measures taken during practice, during drills, and during games, without the participants’ receiving any intervention or instructional strategies. Each participant’s heart rate was recorded daily on the heart rate monitor and the data transferred to a computer program that indicated the daily levels.

During these initial weeks, the athletes were introduced to the heart rate monitors they would wear at every practice and game for 5 weeks, to measure the effect of the intervention strategies. The participants utilized Team Polar Heart Rate Monitors. At the conclusion of each practice or game, each monitor was linked to a computer system and the collected information was downloaded to a computer. The athletes were instructed to “spike” their heart rates at a specific time prior to each practice or game. To spike the heart rate, a participant sprinted 200 feet. At the conclusion of the sprint, a stopwatch was started and stopped at 2 minutes and 30 seconds. The stopwatch was used to identify specific times in practices and games as a time stamp when the heart spiked. These time stamps were recorded, noting specifically what the athlete was doing during this interval. These time stamps were also used and matched with specific anxiety events in order to indicate specific heart rate levels.

Week 3 was spent instructing the athletes concerning somatic anxiety and introducing them to a breathing technique and anxiety log devised by sports and performance psychologist Dr. Chris. Carr (personal communication, December 21 2007 ). For the next 3 weeks, the 4 athletes were asked to practice the breathing technique 1 time each day, during their spare time. They were also to complete the anxiety log immediately following practice and games. They were taught to identify the anxiety responses of muscle tension, changes in heart rate, changes in breathing, and sweating. These lessons were implemented so that the participants would understand somatic anxiety responses and be able to maintain the anxiety log in greater detail.

The 4 athletes were taught to use the breathing technique for relaxation; eventually, they were able to use the technique to relax even in noisy environments. The technique required the athlete to lie down, get comfortable, and begin rhythmic breathing (i.e., inhaling into the belly and exhaling). As breathing began to slow, participants were instructed to focus on the release of tension, relaxing every muscle of the body from top to bottom. The sole purpose behind the breathing technique was to control tension in the muscles.

The anxiety log was used by the participants to record their anxiety levels during practice and competition. In the log, a participant assigned a number 1 through 10 (1represented weak, 10 represented high) to her anxiety level and listed any applicable somatic anxiety responses associated with that number. The anxiety log was also used to indicate when specific events at practice or in a game had been accompanied by anxiety. These specific events were coded with chronological times, so that they could ultimately be coded with specific heart rates. For example, if an anxiety log noted that a participant had felt anxious during her third time at bat, when runners were in scoring position, the researchers then located the chronological time of her third at bat and matched it with a specific heart rate associated with the participant’s third at bat.

In Week 4 and Week 5, the participants were asked to note any onset of somatic anxiety responses and to immediately begin a shortened breathing exercise to regain control of those somatic responses. They were asked to record in their anxiety logs how successful they had been at reestablishing control. This use of the shortened breathing exercise during Week 4 and Week 5 was in addition to their daily assigned breathing exercises.

Data Analysis
Using the heart monitor data, the researchers determined each participant’s average heart rate during Weeks 1–2 (baseline), during Week 3 (implementation), and during Weeks 4–5 (program). Each day during the program phase (Weeks 4–5), participants had noted at least one specific anxiety event and described the heart rate accompanying that event as either high, average, or low. The daily heart rates overall during the baseline, implementation, and program phases were then described as being accompanied by, on average, either a high, average, or low heart rate. Using these averages, evaluation was made of whether and to what extent the participants’ heart rates during anxiety events had changed over the course of the 5-week program.

The anxiety logs were also collected and reviewed for evidence of how the intervention techniques affected participants during the implementation and program phases. Daily anxiety log levels were also matched with heart rates (high, average, low) during anxiety events, using the time stamps on these events as they occurred during practices and games. Anxiety logs and heart rate data were then compared for each anxiety event, generating evidence of how the breathing techniques had affected the participants.

Results, Discussion, and Conclusion

For all 4 athletes in the study, a decrease in average heart rate was recorded during the implementation phase of the study; 3 athletes experienced a decrease in average low heart rate during this period. In addition, 75% of participants saw their average low heart rate decrease, while 50% saw their average high heart rate decrease.

Player KM, one of the position players in the sample, started the study with an average spiked heart rate of 142 bpm (beats per minute) (see Figure 1). After entering the implementation phase, Player KM’s heart rate decreased slightly, to 140 bpm, and in the program phase it ranged up to 151 bpm (see Figure 1). This is possibly due to the anxiety events Player KM dealt with in the concluding 2-week program phrase. In two instances, she recorded extremely high heart rates, and she noted in her anxiety log, “When I first made the error I was mad I could feel my heart racing, I did my breathing, felt tense and still remained angry while breathing, couldn’t get my body to relax and recover.”

Player AS, the other position player, recorded an average heart rate of 149 bpm during the baseline phase, of 144 during the implementation phase, and of 139 during the program phase (see Figure 1). She had a greater improvement in the implementation and program phases of the study . On numerous occasions, Player AS noted in her anxiety log that she had felt her body relax as she continuously participated in the breathing exercise. Player AS’s log included precise detail about her recognition of somatic anxiety responses, as for example, “hitting off Coach, emotions took over, started to think about other things, started to get tight all over and it became harder to breath[e] with every swing.” Across the implementation and program phases, Player AS became more aware of her somatic responses, resulting in her ability to immediately implement the breathing exercises.

In the study Player SR, a pitcher, recorded a baseline of 150 bpm, an implementation phase average of 141 bpm , and a program phase average of 150 bpm (see Figure 1). Player SR’s average heart rates decreased during implementation but then returned to 150 bpm during the program phase. While pitching during the final 2 weeks of the season, which coincided with the program phase, Player SR gave up many hits. Her anxiety log indicated that she failed to control her anxiety levels: “Heart pounding tension in upper body, tried to breath[e] and calm myself, but it didn’t help.”

Player DA, another pitcher, exhibited little to no decrease in average heart rate during the implementation phase, moving only from 141 to 140 bpm (see Figure 1). However, during the program phase, her average heart rate fell to 132 bpm. As was validated by the heart rate data and her anxiety log, Player DA managed to control her emotions during stressful situations. She noted, “Was calm prior to inning feeling relaxed, as I got behind in the count I refocused on my task, began breathing and felt body regain control.”

Figure 1. Average participant heart rates (in beats per minute) across baseline, implementation, and program phases of breathing technique study.

By Week 3, after implementation, Player AS and Player 4 had decreased their average heart rates, and they continued to decrease them throughout the program phase (see Figure 1). Very little change occurred in any participant’s recorded “average of low ” heart rate (see Figure 2). Player KM recorded a baseline of 131 bpm, an implementation-phase rate of 127 bpm, and a program-phase rate of 141 bpm (see Figure 3). In the 2 weeks of the program phase, Player KM exhibited a higher heart rate, while implementing the breathing technique. As she indicated in her anxiety log, she “couldn’t bring my breathing down and could feel heart pounding after error even after attempting to breath[e].” This inability to gain control of her breathing had a direct role in Player KM’s heart rate remaining high. Player AS had a baseline of 111 bpm, an implementation-phase rate of 126, and a program-phase rate of 118 (see Figure 2). No anxiety events were recorded in Player AS’s anxiety log during the implementation period that would seem to account for her elevated average heart rate. For Player SR, the average of low heart rates of 137 bpm, 121 bpm, and 134 bpm, respectively, were recorded during the baseline, implementation, and program phases (see Figure 2). Player SR noted in her anxiety log that, “As I recognized my heart rate increasing I began to notice how quickly I could make it slower while just breathing.” Player SR indicated that on occasion while using the breathing techniques, she felt her body became calm, and when it did she could lower her heart rate almost at will.

The least amount of change in “average of low” heart rate levels was exhibited by Player DA. For her, rates of 126, 124, and 120, respectively, were recorded during the baseline, implementation, and program phases (see Figure 2). Player DA indicated in her anxiety log that she had a good awareness of her body and that as her heart rate stayed consistently low, so did her anxiety level, which was the intent.

Player AS showed an increase from her baseline average low to her program average low; whereas Player SR and Player DA showed a decrease , which was the intent (see Figure 2). This may be explained by the fact that all participants were to reach a standard low heart rate associated with a reduction in somatic anxiety responses. For example, if Player DA feels few somatic indications of anxiety while experiencing a heart rate of 125 bpm, then whatever the situation on the field, another player who reaches 125 bpm may not perceive a need for a heart rate below 125 bpm.

Figure 2. Average of lows (in beats per minute) across baseline, implementation, and program phases of breathing technique study.

The recorded average high heart rate for each player accompanying specific anxiety events noted in the anxiety log indicated that for 2 players, average high heart rate significantly decreased, whereas for 2 it increased. Player KM’s average high heart rate increased; she recorded 152, 153, and 161 bpm for the baseline, implementation, and program phases, respectively (see Figure 3). These increases in average high heart rate can be linked to Player KM’s anxiety log, which indicates that she twice became extremely frustrated prior to attempting to implement the breathing technique.

Player AS displayed impressive improvements in her average high heart rate level. She recorded lower levels throughout the study: 165 bpm, 163 bpm, and 159 bpm, respectively, for the baseline, implementation, and program phases (see Figure 3). Player AS indicated in her anxiety log her ability to recognize somatic anxiety responses immediately and follow through by beginning the breathing technique. Using the breathing technique, she saw her high heart rate gradually decrease , which was the intent.

Player SR recorded heart rates of 163 bpm, 151 bpm, and 167 bpm, respectively, for the baseline, implementation, and program phases (see Figure 3). Her anxiety logs indicated that she was well able to recognize anxiety events and somatic responses, but she failed to implement the breathing technique right away when the responses were noted.

For Player DA, average high heart rate decreased; she recorded a rate of 151 bpm during the baseline phase, 156 bpm during the implementation phase, and 144 bpm during the program phase (see Figure 3 ). Player DA’s significant heart rate decrease over the final two weeks of the season and the study may be directly related to her mastery of the breathing technique.

Figure 3. Average of high (in beats per minute) across baseline, implementation, and program phases of breathing technique study.

The purpose of this study was to evaluate the use of a breathing technique to decrease performance anxiety in collegiate softball athletes. Measures of the athletes’ heart rates showed that each of the 4 was able to use the breathing technique to decrease heart rate at some point during the implementation and program phases of the study. Overall, however, Player AS and Player DA reached the intent by exhibiting a decrease in heart rate, but Player KM and Player SR did not.

The anxiety logs describe the participants’ experiences beyond simple heart rate fluctuations. At the conclusion of the baseline phase, all of them noted improvement in their ability to recognize anxiety events; all but one used precise detail to describe personal somatic responses to anxiety.

Once the players understood somatic anxiety responses, they were asked to utilize the breathing technique during anxiety events. Athletes acknowledged and rated the anxiety they experienced. For Week 4 and Week 5, the program phase, the players’ anxiety logs described lower anxiety levels and indicated fewer feelings of apprehension or nervousness. Player SR rated one specific event as an 8: “Runners on 1st and 2nd, tension in shoulders, negative thoughts. Told myself to stay positive and breath[e] . . . got out of the inning!” This is one example where a player rated the event anxiety level, recognized somatic responses, and implemented the breathing technique, deriving a positive result. This same player’s heart rate, however, exhibited an increase in average and average high levels across the study (see Figures 1 and 3), and the evidence from the anxiety log is not supported by the player’s heart rate data.

All 4 players’ anxiety logs indicated at some point that the newfound awareness of somatic responses to anxiety made the experience of anxiety less intimidating . The players indicated that they felt in control as they managed their breathing patterns. The 4 athletes reported that while engaging in the breathing exercises, they felt able to regain control over their anxiety.

Many factors, some unknown, may affect an athlete’s anxiety level, and the factors may or may not be controllable during studies. Nevertheless, this study of a proposed anxiety-reducing breathing technique created successful results for the 4 softball athletes studied, decreasing their heart rates during various anxiety events at softball practices and games.

References

Gill, D. L. (2000). Psychological dynamics of sport and exercise (2nd ed .). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Landers, D. M., & Arent, S. M. (2006). Arousal-performance relationships. In J.M. Williams (Ed.). Applied sport psychology (pp.260-284). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Martens, R., Vealey, R. S., & Burton, D. (1990). Competitive anxiety in sport. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Roland, D. (1997). The confident performer. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Smith, R., Smoll, F., & Schutz, R. (1990). Measurement and correlates of sport-specific cognitive and somatic trait anxiety: The Sport Anxiety Scale. Anxiety Research, 2, 263–280.

Ungerleider, S. (2005). Mental training for peak performance. Emmaus, PA: Rodale.


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