Sprinter Usain Bolt carries with him an enormous weight of expectation. He carries his own expectations, those of his family and his country, and those of the outside world. But he also faces the possible annihilation of a “self” which he has built up over a decade.
These factors can all interact to create an underlying anxiety or “mood” based on fear of the loss of self and identity – and therefore lead to a dependence on success. This form of anxiety is not often addressed directly in professional sports.
There are two types of sporting anxiety: “performance anxiety” which we experience immediately before the race and “mood”, an anxiety which underlies our everyday life.
Much attention is paid to performance anxiety, to tension and stress in sporting competition. It is well-known that in the space of a ten-second race you can experience many negative thoughts which can create resistance and cause the athlete to tense up. Through relaxation and other common techniques the athlete can reduce performance anxiety and improve his or her chance of success. If the body is seen as a system or an engine, than over-arousal and excessive energy-output leads to a lessening efficiency and overheating. Reducing perfomance anxiety is therefore a mechanical way of increasing efficiency.
Bolt’s technique is not the best, particularly at the start, but he appears to have mastered performance anxiety. He seems able to focus on the task rather than on the man next to him. In controlling this anxiety his muscles stay loose and relaxed. In his own words: “in last ten metres you are not going to catch me.”
Traditional sports psychology focuses on performance anxiety and tends to underestimate the layer which we call “mood”. This is the underlying anxiety and apprehension that an athlete – or any human for that matter – carries with them on a daily basis. We face this form anxiety in all our activities. By ignoring it in the training and preparation of athletes, we risk overlooking this broader aspect of the athlete’s life and experience which can affect his performance in professional competition.
In the 2011 World Championships Bolt made a false start. There had been doubts about his fitness and his attitude to the race, and he appeared quieter and more introverted. His attitude was different: we saw none of the characteristic striding around and interacting with the audience. The “mood” he brought to the race was different – quite likely a reflection of issues from off the track as well as doubts about his fitness. In this situation his usual methods for dealing with performance anxiety were not effective, he was overwhelmed by “mood” and unable to manage himself in the normal way – hence the false start.
Performance anxiety can be seen as the product of physiological arousal and negative thoughts. By focusing on this alone we miss the importance of “mood”. By attempting to eliminate anxiety in aid of better performance we may attempt to eliminate the “normal” anxiety which we all experience and which is associated with personal growth. Suppression of “normal” anxiety takes effort and pressure, and this too affects performance.
In the race on Sunday Bolt is faced with his greatest fear: the possibility of being overtaken by Yohan Blake. Their coach keeps them apart in training, and in practice Blake tries to beat Bolt to gain a psychological edge.
Bolt faces not only expectation but the possible loss of the “sense of self” which he has developed around his racing success. This is a fear which cannot be quantified or managed through traditional sports MST (mental skills training). Bolt’s dependence on success is ultimately fragile and must end eventually. Many sports men and women when faced with this prospect go into a state of mental collapse – a career ending when they are not yet formed as a human being. Such is the underlying anxiety that it could be likened to facing an early death.
When Bolt lines up on the track on Sunday he is facing not only the other competitors. He is facing possible annihilation of a “self” he has built up over a decade. Can he be in the world without complete dependence on material success? With less fear he will find greater calm and relaxation. If Bolt can get in touch with this deep layer of his being, he will almost certainly win.