The use of relaxation techniques to increase self-confidence and reduce performance anxiety in squash players
The effect of transcendental meditation on self-confidence is reported; one-way ANOVA revealed that self-confidence increases over time but only after 2 weeks of the start of the intervention. Qualitative data on the mechanisms of this effect reveal that it could be due to increased time for reflective practice and enhancing executive control. This is consistent with control theory (Jones, 1995) on the nature of performance anxiety in sport.
In the domain of Sport Psychology, there is a substantial amount of theory and practice surrounding performance anxiety in practically all sporting contexts. Here two individuals will be presented with an identified deficit in one particular mental faculty which research suggests is pertinent to performance in sport. These two individuals play squash in competitive tournaments at University.
Performance anxiety can vary in intensity and direction, and is a feeling of apprehension open to psychological interpretation and marked by biological indicators such as increased heart rate and galvanic skin responsiveness (Jones and Swain, 1993). Relaxation techniques refer here to any intervention aimed at either reducing or reinterpreting the anxiety than an individual is feeling (Hanton and Jones, 1999).
Jones (1995) advocated the multidimensional anxiety conceptualisation and subsequently developed a model of control to separate the nature and genesis of beneficial and detrimental anxiety in the literature. The multidimensional nature of anxiety in this model refers to the different qualitative ways in which performance anxiety can vary such as the presence and nature of cognitive intrusions and the temporal patterning of the anxiety response. The cognitive ability of an individual to appraise their anxiety and maintain executive control over their perceptions will ultimately define whether this anxiety helps or hinders them during performance. There is empirical support for the notion that facilitative interpretation of anxiety and greater executive control can elevate performance (Jones, 1995; Jones, Hanton and Swain, 1994; Jones and Swain, 1993) but this theory is developed from an overview of past research, and does not substantially acknowledge the potential weaknesses of this research. Moreover it fails to enter into a thorough debate over the mechanisms which could be responsible for the differing interpretations of anxiety between people. Without this, interpretation is left to completely determine the effect of anxiety and therefore the effect becomes inherently unpredictable.
Martens, Burton, Vealey, Bump and Smith (1990) conceptualised cognitive and somatic anxiety as separate phenomena. They theorise that cognitive anxiety will be inversely related to performance and somatic anxiety will have an inverted U-shaped relationship with performance. Importantly these authors also found a positive linear relationship between self-confidence and performance. This suggests that some somatic anxiety is needed for optimal performance, and perhaps self-confidence is also needed to curb cognitive anxiety and maintain composure in the presence of somatic anxiety. It should be noted though that Martens et al. (1990) used an obsolete measure of anxiety (Competitive State Anxiety Inventory-2) which does not incorporate measures of the athlete’s interpretation of their anxiety, focusing solely on intensity. This is a huge flaw since it is now widely acknowledged that psychologically talented and self-confident athletes can direct their anxiety towards facilitative ends (O’Brien, Hanton and Mellalieu, 2005).
Jones, Hanton and Swain (1994) suggest that it is the interpretation of anxiety which is of upmost importance. But the causes of differences in interpretation are not explored in this research. There is some evidence to suggest that self-confidence; the belief in one’s own ability to successfully complete the task at hand has a substantial influence over an individual’s ability to control or direct their anxiety (Carver and Scheier, 1988; Jones et al., 1994; Hanton, Mellalieu and Hall, 2004). This study will therefore focus on the effectiveness of an often used intervention; relaxation strategies in improving self-confidence.
There will be significant improvement in participants’ self-confidence after relaxation therapy. This increased self-confidence will significantly improve performance.
With the proposed theoretical frameworks outlined above in mind, there are many potential interventions which could be suggested to act on the proposed source of negative performance. This review will focus on research into the effects of relaxation therapies on the state of mind of athletes in competitive environments. These include stress inoculation training, mental imagery, massage, EMG biofeedback, progressive relaxation and various forms of meditation.
Stress inoculation training involves guided relaxation, mental imagery and making self-statements, it has been shown to be effective in improving gymnastic performance (Mace and Carroll, 1986). Mental imagery (Jones and Stuth, 1997) and massage (Jooste and Khumalo, 2012) have also shown to produce positive results. The above research measures success mainly in terms of stress and objective distress reduction, it did not however aim to help athletes to reinterpret their stress. Also individual differences pose a serious risk in terms of confounding variables in such research.
A very important study here is Eppley, Abrams and Shear (1989) who examined the effects of various forms of relaxation therapy against each other. The effect sizes of the reduction in trait anxiety were reported, making this piece of research particularly prominent since not every study will report this statistic. The authors found that most therapies had similar effect sizes, but transcendental meditation had a significantly larger effect size. At the least this has implications to inform the type of interventions which are most effective at reducing anxiety, and the authors even made efforts to control for confounding variables to strengthen their conclusions. However the justification for this research is in question (at least in a sporting context) because of other research to show that anxiety can be beneficial depending on how it is interpreted (Jones et al., 1994). This means that anxiety should not necessarily be seen solely as something to be eliminated; perhaps a better research question would examine the qualities which cause people to differ in their interpretation of their anxiety, and suggested coping strategies should focus more on appraisal than reduction of anxiety.
Transcendental meditation therapy was therefore settled upon for use in this study because unlike other therapies of this kind it offers ample opportunity for reflection and direction of anxiety which is so often cited as important (Hanton, Cropley and Lee, 2009). The control model and the theory or Martens et al. (1990) provide the theoretical rationale for this investigation.
The participants in this study were two individuals; one male, one female recruited from the University squash club who frequently competed in highly competitive tournaments. These two individuals were specifically identified using a short questionnaire administered just before the start of the tournament to identify weaknesses in self-confidence regarding squash performance. Participants were both aged 18-20 and considered themselves to be playing at a non-professional club level in highly competitive tournaments. Participants were verbally advised on the nature of the experiment and their freedom to withdraw at any time.
The dependent variable to measure is self-confidence. Competitive state anxiety was measured with the Revised Competitive State Anxiety-2 (Cox, Martens and Russell, 2003) but only the self-confidence sub-scale was used. The questionnaire is available in the appendix.
Design and Procedure
Participants were tested pre-intervention, at one week intervals during the intervention to monitor changes, and finally at post-intervention. Participants were not tested around the time of a tournament to avoid confounding effects of anxiety. After the intervention, semi-structured interviews were administered to both participants. A full transcript of these interviews is available in the appendix. The intervention consisted of three weeks of guided meditation, in which participants were encouraged to think deeply about meaningful things in their lives and to let their thoughts wander. They were encouraged also to think of themselves in relation to the world. This style of transcendental meditation involves little guidance and a quiet, supportive environment in which self-expression is encouraged. Sessions lasted one hour and took place 4 times a week.
A one-way repeated measures ANOVA was performed for both participants. Table 1 shows the descriptive statistics for the variables at each measurement period. As can be seen mean self-confidence ratings gradually increase with time during and after the intervention. The standard deviation also appears to increase however, showing more variability in ratings of self-confidence as therapy progresses.
Descriptive statistics for self-confidence ratings
Table 2 displays the post hoc tests for the comparisons between the measurements at the four time intervals. The overall ANOVA showed a significant effect of the treatment (F(3, 3)=9.356, p<.05). Table 2 shows where the differences occurred; self-confidence was significantly different between the pre-test and the post-test (p<.05), week 1 and week 2 (p<.05) and week 1 and the post-test p<.01). This suggests that meditation therapy was effective at increasing self-confidence ratings but only substantial differences only emerged by the second week of therapy. Assumptions of repeated measures ANOVA were inviolate in all cases.
Inferential statistics for the comparisons of confidence ratings at different stages of meditation therapy
|Interval Comparison||Mean Difference||Standard Error||Sig.|
This study has brought to light issues pertaining to the implications of increasing self-confidence in sport and a means to increase this psychological construct practically. Increasing self-confidence is a key factor in facilitative appraisal of anxiety and in remaining in executive control of cognitive anxiety (Carver and Scheier, 1988; Jones, 1995), making it a prime factor to investigate when the aim is improving actual performance. This study revealed that transcendental meditation if effective in increasing self-confidence, making other relaxation therapies potential targets for future research as well. As for the two individuals concerned in this case, they both reported feeling more relaxed, less anxious and more ready for the next tournament.
“I feel more in touch with myself and I haven’t had as many negative thoughts about the tournament as before.” – Participant 1
Statements like this back up the notion that relaxation therapies work not only by simply reducing anxiety, but also by enhancing executive control, managing cognitive intrusions and increasing self-confidence. This empowers athletes by giving them the confidence to interpret their anxiety in more facilitative ways (Jones and Hanton, 1996). This model is backed up by a theoretical framework and empirical support in the extant literature (Jones, Hanton and Swain, 1994; Jones, 1995). A direction for future research in this area would be to investigate the mechanisms underlying the relationship between meditation therapy and self-confidence. Discovering exactly what it was that caused participants self-confidence to increase would perhaps allow for improvements in the efficiency of such interventions. Some of this information was discerned from the brief interviews following the post-test.
“I would think about why I was anxious. Just really think about what was stressing me out about a situation and I started gradually to realise that I didn’t have to let it stress me out.” – Participant 2
The relaxation technique employed may also have given the participants time to engage in reflective practice. Reflection allows athletes to learn from incidents, and put them into perspective (Hanton, Cropley and Lee, 2009) which allows for learning which becomes easier with greater experience. Perhaps the meditation ensured the athletes had moments in which they could properly constructively reflect on their recent performance. This notion is backed up by reports from the interviews.
“When I was instructed to I would think about some recent things that happened [during play]… I guess it just gave me time to think that the bad moments didn’t really matter as much as I thought… and maybe that was distracting me while I was playing.” – Participant 1
“Sometimes I would think about the good moments [during play] because it was fun to… but maybe I really did learn something from that… it certainly made me feel good about myself.” – Participant 2
This suggests that the meditation helped participants to direct their anxiety into facilitative channels rather than managing or eliminating it, which is more consistent with the theory of Jones (1995) than Martens et al. (1990). Participants reported feeling anxiety but also reported that they were better able to direct their thoughts. Perhaps the therapy only became effective after 2 weeks because it took some time for participants to really commit to it and properly explore their thoughts.
The limitations of the current study of course include the limitations of all single-subject designs. Martin, Thompson and Regehr (2004) note that findings drawn from case studies are not necessarily generally applicable because of a lack of ecological validity as well as issues with statistical power; though the error term can be reduced, the amendments to the degrees of freedom for the error term can negate the increase in power which would otherwise be achieved with a within-subjects design. Another big limitation is that anxiety measures were not included in the analysis, meaning that conclusions drawn about the mechanisms of the observed effect are purely speculative albeit backed up with qualitative data.
The conclusion of the current research is that guided transcendental meditation increases self-confidence in a sporting context but only after 2 weeks. This delay could be due to the time it takes participants to commit to the treatment. Whether this effect is seen as a buffer against debilitating anxiety or a sort of harnessing of the power of anxiety depends on theoretical orientations. Either way, higher self-confidence is generally predictive of better performance, making it worthwhile of further investigation.
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