Competitive Anxiety and the “Selfish Brain”: a call for sport psychology

For many (elite) athletes, the profession of the Sport Psychologist is equal to that of a Psychiatrist. Some athletes refuse to even contact a Sport Psychologist, as they do not want to visit a “shrink” or they feel that they do not have a problem that needs to be “fixed”. Moreover, several athletes do not consider working with a Sport Psychologist because they think that they already know and exercise some mental training strategies. These common misconceptions, that you either do not need to “fix” problems or that you already have sufficient mental skills and therefore do not need mental training, need to change. The noted German mental trainer Thomas Baschab stated – in the popular German football magazine Kicker – that no athlete would ever stop conditioning training just because he/she has a good level of fitness already; so why should it be any different with mental skills training? You have to constantly practice and update your skills in order to ensure and improve their quality.

Dealing with stress in elite sports or working on decreasing competitive anxiety are issues that a Sport Psychologist can assist athletes with. The occurrence of anxiety before an important athletic event is a feeling that most, if not all, athletes are familiar with. However, many athletes would not consider working on decreasing their stress reactions as being a part of performance enhancement. Nonetheless, recent psychobiological research suggests that mental stress reactions can have a great impact on overall physical performance.

Athletes experience nervous moments when they are waiting for the start of their football game, the starting signal for their half-marathon, or any other important athletic event. Also, most of us are familiar with the feeling that when anticipating an athletic competition or a generally important event, we suddenly feel weak in the knees. An up-to-date psychobiological theory might offer an explanation as to why and how psychological stress reactions can affect the entire body.

Recently, Peters and colleagues developed the “Selfish brain” theory which provides a rationale for how perceived mental stress and anxiety could potentially lead to the experience of physical exhaustion and muscular fatigue. It has long been acknowledged that even though the human brain only constitutes about 2 % of the body`s weight, it utilizes around 50 % of the daily intake of carbohydrates, in stressful situations even up to 90 %. Therefore it is obvious that in energy metabolism, the brain occupies a primary position and the energy supply of the rest of the body is of secondary importance. Despite the need for a great amount of energy resources for maintaining its function, the brain has only a low capacity for actually storing the energy that it so desperately needs. Therefore, according to the German research group, the brain is able to orchestrate the metabolism of the entire organism in order to prioritize its own energy needs, making the brain a “selfish” agent. But how does the brain ensure its own energy supply at the expense of all other organs in times of stress?

When being confronted with mental demands, such as anticipative worrying, the brain needs high amounts of energy in form of glucose. The brain, however, is separated by the blood brain barrier from the general circulation and naturally, glucose cannot cross this barrier. Therefore, the brain activates several neurochemical and physiological stress mechanisms, such as releasing the stress hormone cortisol and activating the sympathetic nervous system, that make it possible for glucose to pass the blood brain barrier. Simultaneously, these processes inhibit the glucose supply to the rest of the body, thereby ensuring the brain`s position of priority with regard to the delivery of energy resources.

All in all, anticipative stress, worrying, and anxiety before an important athletic event lead to an increase of stress mechanisms within the body. According to the “Selfish brain” theory, these processes lead to an increase of available energy for the brain and a decrease of energy for the muscles. These mechanisms could explain why overly anxious athletes might feel physically exhausted before a competition or why we experience weak knees before an important event. So as not to suffer from these physiological consequences, athletes need to learn how to interpret competitive anxiety as “readiness” for performance and not as a source of psychological stress.

The aforementioned psychobiological findings are one more reason why the work of Sport Psychologists is so important: the more we can decrease competitive anxiety and perceived stress in athletes, the less affected their bodies will be. We have to make athletes aware of the fact that their mind can actually interfere with their body and that high perceived stress can potentially influence their athletic performance negatively. Hence, there should be no shame in contacting Sport Psychologists; in fact it is quite the contrary: if athletes want to have an edge over their competitors, they should be open to this type of performance enhancement.

Summing up, psychobiology delivers trendsetting research findings that are of great value for Sport and Exercise Psychology and it is essential to acknowledge that these two areas of research exist in parallel and can benefit greatly from one another.

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