Author: Sensei Lincoln

Anxiety and arousal play vital roles in many sporting contexts, none more so than in the world of competitive one-on-one Karate combat. Theories such as the multidimensional anxiety theory and optimal level theory both have a place in assisting us to understand the causes and subsequent effects of anxiety experienced before and during a Karate event.

The details of multidimensional anxiety and the link it has with Karate must be clarified before we can assess its significance to performance. Martens et. al. suggests that the multidimensional theory of anxiety can be divided into two separate components - cognitive and somatic anxiety. Cognitive anxiety relates to the psychological processes concerning negative expectations or negative self-evaluation. This can come in the form of worry, negative self-talk and unpleasant visual imagery. Somatic anxiety is the physiological component of anxiety that includes such responses as shortness of breath, rapid heart rate, clammy hands, butterflies in the stomach and a dry mouth. Both cognitive and somatic anxiety play important roles in the performance of a Karate competitor.

Amongst Karate competitors, it is commonly recognised that the key to successful performance comes not only from physical ability, but mental preparedness as well. A Karate competition takes place over a number of "rounds", with the winner fighting upto six bouts. Importantly, each fight does not only involve a win/loss outcome, but the likelihood of the competitor being seriously injured also poses an important "threat". These bouts are obviously physically and mentally draining, but it is the time between each bout that influences a competitor the most. It is during these periods that the athlete is under high levels of arousal, and thus, has time to focus on internal thoughts. It is here that cognitive anxiety becomes prevalent, and negative self-talk about losing or about getting hurt can override the athlete's concentration on the task at hand. As Neideffer describes it,

The person becomes distracted by his own bodily feelings (beating heart, dry mouth etc) and his thoughts (am I going to lose?, am I going to get hurt?). As attention is directed internally, the ability to concentrate on the game deteriorates.

Along with Nideffer, many researchers have surmised that not only does this internal shift of attention lead to a decrease in performance, but what is attended to internally affects performance. Multidimensional anxiety theory suggests that athletes with high cognitive anxiety suffer performance impairments because their attention is re-directed from task relevant cues such as "I have to punch faster" or "get out there and give 100%" to task irrelevant self cues such as "the judges are not giving me a fair go" or "why do I have to fight last year's champion?". Because of this, Wine (1980) predicted that increases in cognitive anxiety will cause performance levels to drop, ultimately increasing the competitor's chance of losing or being injured.

As mentioned earlier, the Karate competition involves a number of rounds, with the winner moving into the next round. Obviously, as the rounds progress, each fight becomes more difficult, increasing the complexity of the task. Sarason, Mandler and Craighill concluded that as a task increased in difficulty, so did the appearance of task irrelevant responses (worries about how the competitor was doing, how tired he felt and how apprehensive he felt), which interfered with performance. This may account for the often uncontrolled and desperate fighting tactics that occur in the "final" of a Karate tournament. These task irrelevant responses and their overt consequences suggest that task demands can facilitate performance at first, but as these demands increase, they tend to interfere with performance. This phenomenon is known as the Yerkes - Dodson law.

The Yerkes - Dodson law relates to optimal level theory and the Inverted U Hypothesis of 1908. Optimal level theory proposes that for every activity, there is a desirable arousal level that will allow the athlete to perform at his best, hence the Inverted U Hypothesis was formulated. (See Fig.1).

Fig 1. Inverted U Hypothesis showing the region of optimal arousal.

According to the Inverted U Hypothesis, low or high arousal levels would cause the karate competitor to either perform badly and/or be susceptible to injury. As stated earlier, the Karate bout is an extremely complex task involving fighting skill, stamina, strength, speed and the chance of injury. When the task is more complex, the best performance occurs at low levels of arousal. Hence Fig. 1 is too simplistic for the nature of Karate, and an altered explanation needs to be adopted. (see Fig. 2).

Fig 2. Arousal level for complex tasks.

It must be noted that the major limitation with this hypothesis is with the definition of "optimal". What is optimal for one fighter, may not be optimal for another. Generally, the Yerkes - Dodson law provides a valid framework for understanding the consequences of excessively high or low arousal. However the area between these parameters is vast and variable, and finding an individual fighter's optimal arousal level is a subjective assignment.

For a complex task such as Karate, greater activation of arousal levels increases the risk of disorganising the performance. Hence, a lower cognitive arousal level assists the Karate competitor remain calm and focussed on the task, yet still mentally prepared to fight. Lee (1979) asserts,

The state of the athlete's mind as he faces his event determines the degree of excess tension he will carry into the event. The athlete free from excess tension as he awaits his performance is typically self-confident.

Low cognitive anxiety and low "tension" levels have been linked to increases in self confidence. As previous research has demonstrated, performance should increase linearly with increases in self confidence. For this reason, the athlete should aim to be self confident before and during the event - this will reduce tension levels and hopefully increase performance.

Although much research has identified the effects of cognitive anxiety on performance, the importance of somatic anxiety on performance should not be underestimated. With Karate being a physical contest between two competitors, it would be suggested that somatic anxiety may be more significant than cognitive anxiety, especially in the periods leading up to competition.

Burton proposes that cues are used as "triggers" to initiate arousal and somatic anxiety. These cues consist primarily of conditioned responses to various stimuli. These stimuli could include locker room preparation, pre-contest stretching routines or the crowd in the stands. These antecedents remain fairly consistent across competitive situations and hence, somatic anxiety usually exhibits an idiosyncratic pattern of change before competition. Physical anxiety seems to gradually increase as competition time draws near, reaches its peak as the competition begins and then decreases rapidly. Burton continued, suggesting that somatic anxiety should primarily affect initial performance when competitors are still feeling nervous or "tight", and exert only minimal impact on ongoing performance. It must be noted here that the Karate bout takes about 2 minutes to complete or as soon as a fighter wins three points. Consequently, there is not much time for the competitor to relax and settle down after the "initial" nerves (unlike in football for example), and by the time he does, the fight may be virtually over. From this, it can be emphasised that somatic anxiety does play a more significant role in Karate competition than in other sports. However, Burton (1988) did not identify if the amount of somatic anxiousness had an effect on performance or whether anxiety levels changed during the competition.

Along with cognitive anxiety, the optimal levels of somatic anxiety are important variables when looking at Karate competition. The Inverted U Hypothesis can also be applied to somatic anxiety before and during the competition. In relation to Fig. 1, under arousal and over arousal can have adverse effects on somatic performance, but like cognitive anxiety, this model is a little too simplistic for Karate. Therefore, Fig. 2 also needs to be applied to the Karate competition. Successful Karate competitors are very fast fighters, and put a major emphasis on speed and flexibility. High somatic anxiety induces a shortness of breath and most importantly, tense muscles. Consequently, elevated levels of somatic anxiety will cause fighters to react slower to cues provided by his opponent and eventually lead to his defeat. For this reason, optimal arousal levels for a Karate competitor are lower than for basic or moderate skill level activities.

Arousal levels can also fluctuate during the actual Karate bout. A competitor fighting within his optimal levels of somatic arousal may instantly become over aroused and highly anxious if faced with a "thirty-seconds to go, next point wins" situation. These positions are common in most sports, with the athlete who gets the most over aroused likely to falter and lose. Somatic anxiety may influence performance more directly than cognitive anxiety because the physical demand of fighting often necessitates the attainment of optimal physiological readiness for best performance.

In their study with a purely physical activity - pistol shooting, Gould, Petlichkoff, Simons and Vevera (1987) found that an inverted U relationship was found between somatic anxiety and performance, and hence concluded that, somatic anxiety influenced performance more than cognitive anxiety. This resolution highlights the importance of physical anxiety on performance during a Karate competition.

Various researcher's have found different results during their studies on anxiety. Burton (1988) concluded that cognitive worry more directly impairs performance than does somatic arousal levels. Moreover, Gould, Petlichkoff, Simons and Vevera (1987) found that somatic anxiety influenced performance more than cognitive anxiety. Although contradictive, these results support the view that many activities contain elements of both these conclusions and that Karate performance, like most sports, is affected by both cognitive and somatic anxiety.

The multidimensional anxiety theory and the optimal level theory are both valid measures and determinants of anxiety and arousal in Karate competitions and sport in general. It is correct to suggest that cognitive anxiety causes worry and negative self-talk and that somatic anxiety causes tension and shortness of breath. Together, these forms of anxiety can have a marked effect on an athlete's ability to compete at his greatest potential. Coupled with the multidimensional anxiety theory, the Inverted U Hypothesis enables the athlete and practicing sports psychologist to further understand the fundamental principles behind performance and the causes and subsequent effects of anxiety in Karate.

Reference List

1. Albrecht, R.R., & Feltz, D.L. (1987). Generality and specificity of attention related to competitive anxiety and sport performance. Journal of Sport Psychology, 9, 231-248.

2. Burton, D. (1988). Do anxious swimmers swim slower. Re-examining the elusive anxiety-performance relationship. Journal of Sport And Excersise Psychology, 10, 45-61.

3. Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioural change. Psychological Review, 84, 191-215.

4. Coon, D. (1989). Introduction to Psychology, (5th ed.) USA: West Publishing Company.

5. Gould, D., Petlichkoff, L., Simons, J., & Vevera, M. (1987) Relationship between competitive state anxiety inventory-2 subscale scores and pistol shooting performance. Journal of Sport Psychology, 9, 33-42.

6. Lee, B. (1975) The Tao of Jeet Kune Do, USA: Ohara Publications.

7. Sarason, S.B., Mandler, G., & Craighill, P.G. (1952) The effect of differential instructions on anxiety and learning. In D.C. McClelland (ed.) HumanMotivation, (p90). USA: Scott Foresman & Co.

8. Wine, J.D. (1980) Cognitive attentional theory of test anxiety. In I.G. Sarason (ed.). Test Anxiety: Theory, Research and Applications, (pp349-385). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.