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Self-confidence and anxiety interpretation: A qualitative investigation

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Objectives: To examine performers’ retrospective explanations for the relationship between self-confidence, competitive anxiety intensity, and symptom interpretation toward performance.Method: Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 10 elite performers to determine how self-confidence levels influenced the perceived effects of pre-competitive anxiety intensity and identify the confidence management strategies used to protect symptom interpretation.Results: Two causal networks were identified, showing self-confidence to influence the relationship between competitive anxiety intensity and symptom interpretation. In the absence of self-confidence, increases in competitive anxiety intensity were perceived as outside of the performers’ control and debilitating to performance. Under conditions of high self-confidence, increases in symptoms were reported to lead to positive perceptions of control and facilitative interpretations. To protect against debilitating interpretations of competitive anxiety, performers reported the use of cognitive confidence management strategies including mental rehearsal, thought stopping, and positive self-talk.Conclusions: The findings highlight self-confidence as an essential quality for elite athletes to possess in order to protect against potentially debilitating thoughts and feelings experienced in competitive situations.
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Psychology of Sport & Exercise 5 (2004) 477–495
www.elsevier.com/locate/psychsport
Self-confidence and anxiety interpretation: A qualitative
investigation
Sheldon Hanton
a
, Stephen D. Mellalieu
b,
, Ross Hall
c
a
University of Wales Institute, Cardiff, UK
b
Department of Sports Science, University of Wales Swansea, Singleton Park, Vivian Tower,
Swansea SA2 8PP, UK
c
University of Glamorgan, Pontypridd, UK
Received 24 September 2002; received in revised form 15 April 2003; accepted 8 July 2003
Abstract
Objectives: To examine performers’ retrospective explanations for the relationship between self-confi-
dence, competitive anxiety intensity, and symptom interpretation toward performance.
Method: Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 10 elite performers to determine how self-con-
fidence levels influenced the perceived effects of pre-competitive anxiety intensity and identify the confi-
dence management strategies used to protect symptom interpretation.
Results: Two causal networks were identified, showing self-confidence to influence the relationship
between competitive anxiety intensity and symptom interpretation. In the absence of self-confidence,
increases in competitive anxiety intensity were perceived as outside of the performers’ control and debili-
tating to performance. Under conditions of high self-confidence, increases in symptoms were reported to
lead to positive perceptions of control and facilitative interpretations. To protect against debilitating
interpretations of competitive anxiety, performers reported the use of cognitive confidence management
strategies including mental rehearsal, thought stopping, and positive self-talk.
Conclusions: The findings highlight self-confidence as an essential quality for elite athletes to possess in
order to protect against potentially debilitating thoughts and feelings experienced in competitive sit-
uations.
#2003 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Competitive anxiety interpretation; Self-confidence; Protection mechanisms
Corresponding author. Tel.: +44-1792-513-101; fax: +44-1792-295-086.
E-mail address: s.d.mellalieu@swan.ac.uk (S.D. Mellalieu).
1469-0292/$ - see front matter #2003 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
doi:10.1016/S1469-0292(03)00040-2
Introduction
The theoretical relationship between competitive anxiety and sporting performance is recog-
nised as one of the most widely debated and researched areas in sport psychology (see Wood-
man & Hardy, 2001). Considerable understanding of this relationship has been achieved
through the development of the competitive state anxiety inventory-2 (CSAI-2; Martens, Bur-
ton, Vealey, Bump, & Smith, 1990) and the subsequent theoretical predictions of multidimen-
sional anxiety theory regarding the relationship between the CSAI-2 subcomponents and
performance (Martens et al., 1990). However, in spite of these advancements, empirical findings
investigating the anxiety–performance relationship have proved somewhat inconsistent, account-
ing for less variance in performance than expected (Woodman & Hardy, 2001). This has led to
the criticism that studies have focussed upon the additive rather than the interactive effects of
the subcomponents of state anxiety upon performance (Hardy, 1990).
In an attempt to examine the interactive effects of multidimensional anxiety and performance,
catastrophe models have been proposed (e.g., see Hardy, 1990, 1996a,b). The predictions of the
cusp model suggest that under conditions of high physiological arousal, elevated cognitive anxi-
ety will debilitate sporting performance, whereas increases in the intensity of the cognitive
component under conditions of low arousal can be beneficial to performance. Indeed, empirical
support for these predictions has been provided by several investigations across a range of
sports (Edwards & Hardy, 1996; Hardy & Parfitt, 1991; Hardy, Parfitt, & Pates, 1994; Krane,
Joyce, & Rafeld, 1994). In addition, a five dimensional butterfly catastrophe model has been
forwarded that suggests self-confidence moderates the effects of cognitive anxiety and physio-
logical arousal upon performance. Specifically, self-confidence is purported to increase the prob-
ability that cognitively anxious performers can tolerate higher levels of arousal before
experiencing a decrement in performance (Hardy, 1990). Subsequently, participants who experi-
ence high intensities of anxiety and confidence simultaneously may still perform successfully,
while performers who experience high anxiety intensities without the accompanying feelings of
confidence may suffer performance decrements.
One dimension not incorporated within catastrophe models that may aid in the understand-
ing of the role of self-confidence in the anxiety–performance relationship is that of ‘direction’.
Jones (1991, 1995) introduced the distinction between the ‘intensity’ (i.e., level) of symptoms
purported to signify the presence of anxiety, and the ‘direction’ of individuals’ interpretations of
thoughts and feelings as being facilitative or debilitative to subsequent performance. Support
for this view has been provided by the examination of the direction response as a function of
both personal and situation variables including the antecedents and temporal patterning (Han-
ton & Jones, 1997; Wiggins, 1998), the use of psychological skills (Fletcher & Hanton, 2001),
perceptions of control (Jones & Hanton, 1996), and hardiness (Hanton, Evans, & Neil, 2003).
In addition, incorporating the work of Carver and Scheier (1986, 1998),Jones (1995) has pro-
posed a control model of debilitative and facilitative anxiety suggesting that performers who
have the most confidence in their ability to control both themselves and the environment (e.g.,
goal attainment expectations) will report facilitative interpretations of symptoms experienced in
competitive situations. Those performers who have less control are suggested to experience
debilitative symptom interpretations (Jones & Hanton, 1996).
S. Hanton et al. / Psychology of Sport & Exercise 5 (2004) 477–495478
Support for self-confidence as an important variable in the experience of anxiety interpret-
ation can be found in several investigations that have consistently observed individuals who
interpret intensities of symptoms as facilitating towards performance to possess higher levels of
self-confidence than those who view symptoms as debilitating (e.g., Jones, Hanton, & Swain,
1994; Jones & Swain, 1995). Further, investigations examining the content and labelling of the
pre-competitive response have observed the ‘confident’ label as the most frequently indicated
feeling state in over 80% of individuals who interpreted symptoms as facilitative, compared to a
mere 10% of performers with debilitative interpretations (Jones & Hanton, 2001; Mellalieu,
Hanton, & Jones, 2003).
Despite the encouraging findings, investigations have largely been unsuccessful in explaining
why or how self-confidence influences the interpretation of the competitive anxiety response
towards performance. To date, anxiety–direction researchers have devoted their attention
towards identifying the ‘shape’ of the relationship between competitive anxiety symptoms and
the perceived effect upon performance (c.f., Hanton, Mellalieu, & Young, 2002). This has been
to the detriment of explaining the potential reasons why self-confidence influences anxiety inter-
pretations in a certain direction (Hanton & Connaughton, 2002), and the exact mechanisms by
which self-confidence protects against debilitating interpretations of symptom intensity towards
performance (Hardy, Jones, & Gould, 1996). A further restriction to this understanding has
come from the notion that self-confidence and cognitive anxiety represent opposite ends of the
cognitive evaluation continuum (i.e., Martens et al., 1990; Vealey, 1986). Although intuitively
appealing, this proposal is somewhat inconsistent as the cognitive anxiety and self-confidence
constructs were derived from the initial development of the CSAI-2 scale via exploratory factory
analysis procedures that aimed to identify orthogonal, or independent, rather than related con-
structs (c.f., Hardy et al., 1996). Support for this relative independence has been provided in
empirical investigations that report less than 40% common variance between the two factors
(see Jones, 1995; Jones & Hanton, 2001). Indeed, as Hardy et al. (1996, p. 56) noted, ‘‘While it
appears therefore that there is some degree of independence between the constructs the empiri-
cal work suggests that a fair degree of performance can be explained by a very complex interac-
tion between the two constructs’’.
While traditional quantitative investigations have yielded relatively few explanations for the
effects of self-confidence upon competitive anxiety, recent advancements have been made by
adopting qualitative methods of study. Hanton and Connaughton (2002), for example, inter-
viewed elite and nonelite swimmers and compared their retrospective interpretations of cognitive
and somatic symptoms, self-confidence and the perceived effects of these components upon per-
formance. Consistent with Carver and Scheier’s (1988, 1998) model, responses perceived to be
under control were interpreted to have facilitative consequences for performance; however,
symptoms perceived to be outside of the performers’ control were viewed as debilitative. In dis-
cussing the relationship between anxiety and self-confidence, the authors also suggested that the
confidence strategies employed to cope with the competitive situation might determine the
interpretation of the symptoms experienced and the subsequent impact upon performance.
Initial explanation for these findings suggests therefore that self-confidence influences or impacts
on the relationship between the intensity of pre-competition symptoms and the subsequent
directional interpretations towards performance. Specifically, high levels of self-confidence are
suggested to protect against or override negative interpretations of anxiety responses by facili-
479S. Hanton et al. / Psychology of Sport & Exercise 5 (2004) 477–495
tating coping resources (e.g., rationalisation of thoughts and feelings) and enabling performers
to perceive that they can remain in control in the pressure environment of competition (c.f.,
Hanton & Connaughton, 2002; Hardy, 1990; Jones & Hanton, 2001).
Collectively, existing studies examining competitive anxiety and the perceived effect of symp-
toms towards performance have suggested that self-confidence is one of the most powerful qual-
ities that elite performers possess in protecting against the effects of potentially debilitating
interpretation of symptoms (Hardy et al., 1996). Consequently, the primary aim of this study
was to examine elite athletes’ perceptions and causal beliefs regarding the relationship between
competitive anxiety, self-confidence and symptom interpretation towards performance. Consist-
ent with recent studies advocating the use of qualitative approaches to establish detailed infor-
mation (e.g., Gould, Eklund, & Jackson, 1993; Gould, Jackson, & Finch, 1993; Hanton &
Connaughton, 2002; Hanton & Jones, 1999a), the present study utilised semi-structured inter-
views. Specifically, this approach was used to probe performers’ perceptions of the mechanisms
by which self-confidence influences the effects of competitive anxiety intensity upon directional
perceptions together with the protection strategies employed to maintain self-confidence and
prevent debilitating symptom interpretation.
A final matter of concern here is the conceptual debate surrounding the notion of ‘facilitating’
or ‘positive anxiety’ which postulates that either high levels of cognitive anxiety can be per-
ceived as facilitating to performance (Hardy, 1997) or that such symptoms merely reflect posi-
tive expectations of coping and goal achievement that lead to positive emotions perceived as
beneficial for performance and not indicative of facilitative anxiety (see Burton & Naylor, 1997;
Hardy, 1997, 1998; Jones & Hanton, 2001). Given this area of contention surrounding anxiety
interpretation, it is therefore necessary to define the key constructs under examination. First, for
the purposes of the current paper, we have adopted the traditional definition of anxiety (Hardy
et al., 1996; Jones, 1990; Jones & Hanton, 2001; Lazarus, 1966) that refers to the construct as a
negative, cognitive and perceived physiological response to uncertain appraisals of coping with
the demands of a stressful situation (e.g., competition). Second, Jones and Hanton (2001) sug-
gest that while negative interpretations of competitive anxiety symptoms are likely to signify a
state of anxiety, positive or facilitating interpretations of such responses may refer to another
state previously mislabelled by researchers as anxiety. Consequently, for the current study, the
performer’s cognitive evaluation of the pre-performance stress response will be referred to as
interpretations of symptoms associated with competitive anxiety.
Method
Participants
Selection of participants was conducted via purposive sampling procedures concurrent with
qualitative methodologies (e.g., Lincoln & Guba, 1985; Patton, 1990). Specifically, information
rich cases were selected whose examination would illuminate the questions under investigation.
Information rich cases are participants who are selected in order to allow the investigator to
learn a great deal about issues of central importance to the purpose of the research (Patton,
1990).
S. Hanton et al. / Psychology of Sport & Exercise 5 (2004) 477–495480
Ten male elite athletes were selected for interview in this study. The selected participants were
first contacted and informed of the nature of the study and invited to take part. At this point, it
was emphasised to potential participants that the purpose of the project was to gain an in-depth
understanding of their experiences prior to performing in competition. All athletes agreed to
take part in the study. The participants ranged in age from 20 to 38 years (M age ¼26:20 years,
SD ¼4:95). The criteria for ‘elite’ status were based upon previous classifications that stated the
participants had to be currently competing or have competed at senior international level (e.g.,
Hanton & Connaughton, 2002). Participants were drawn from team and individual sports
including rugby union, soccer, swimming, gymnastics and modern pentathlon and had all com-
peted at elite level in major championships or competition, including Olympic games, world
championships and international tournaments. Prior to participation, written informed consent
was obtained from each individual with confidentiality of information emphasised.
Interview guide
Following procedures adopted by Gould et al. (1993), Hanton and Connaughton (2002), and
Hanton and Jones (1999a), an interview guide was developed for the purpose of the study
(available from the lead author). Both open and closed sport-specific questions were generated
from empirical findings in the competitive anxiety and self-confidence literature, including the
multidimensional nature of anxiety (Martens et al., 1990), the distinction between intensity and
direction of symptoms (Jones & Swain, 1992), Jones’ control model of facilitative and debilita-
tive anxiety (Jones, 1995) and the conceptualisation of sport confidence (Vealey, 1986). The
interview schedule was pilot tested on a sample of highly experienced performers (n¼3) and
feedback resulted in minor refinements to question phrasing and narrative.
The full interview schedule comprised four sections. In section one, introductory comments,
aims and objectives of the study, and a declaration of the individual’s rights were presented to
each participant. In section two of the guide, it was explained to the participants that they could
draw upon all aspects of their experience as an athlete to create an overall picture of the com-
petitive phenomenon. Questions were asked relating to training regimes, competitive history,
and personal reasons for competing. Instructions were then provided asking about competing at
recent important events, but if recall was problematic, the participants were asked to take their
time, and if they still could not remember, to tell the interviewer rather than guess (no parti-
cipants stated experiencing recall problems during the interviews). The third and main section of
the interview comprised general and specific questions related to the relationship between com-
petitive anxiety, self-confidence and interpretation of symptoms towards performance. Specifi-
cally, the athlete’s thoughts and feelings prior to competition, the subsequent effects upon
performance, and any strategies employed to influence the nature of the symptoms experienced.
In order to understand the relationship between competitive anxiety, self-confidence and sub-
sequent interpretations of symptoms, the participants were first asked to identify, describe, and
then explain their experiences prior to competition, specifically, in the context of when they
experienced high or low levels of self-confidence. To facilitate recall, the participants were ori-
entated with suitable definitions of the constructs under investigation, including competitive
anxiety and self-confidence (Jones, 1990; Jones & Hanton, 2001; Vealey, 1986). The participants
were requested to address issues such as perceived control, the interpretation of symptoms with
481S. Hanton et al. / Psychology of Sport & Exercise 5 (2004) 477–495
regard to performance, why symptoms were perceived as positive or negative, and where appro-
priate, the psychological strategies employed to maintain self-confidence and protect against any
debilitating interpretations of symptoms. The closing section summarised the interview experi-
ence and invited the interviewee to discuss any issues that may have been overlooked by the
researcher.
Procedure
In order to maximise the retrieval of data, the participants were sent a copy of the interview
guide and asked to reflect on their answers in preparation for the interview 1 week before the
meeting time (c.f., James & Collins, 1997). A structured format was used for the interview
schedule where each participant was taken through a standardised set of questions asked in a
similar way (Patton, 1990). To minimise possible situational influences, such as the competition
atmosphere, all interviews were conducted face-to-face and away from the competitive environ-
ment. In order to reduce memory distortions and ensure that experiences were salient in the
mind, all participants were interviewed regarding competition in general within the period of the
regular season (Edwards, Kingston, Hardy, & Gould, 2002). All interviews were conducted by
the third author, who was extensively trained in qualitative research methods and was an
experienced former competitive athlete. This allowed greater empathy with the participants and
the ability to converse in the specific terminologies and idiosyncrasies associated with competi-
tive sport. Interviews lasted approximately 90 min, were tape recorded in their entirety and tran-
scribed verbatim yielding over 300 single-spaced typed pages.
Analysis
Based on the procedures identified by Miles and Huberman (1994) and adapted to sport psy-
chology by Hanton and Connaughton (2002), data regarding the athletes’ causal beliefs about
self-confidence and symptom interpretation were displayed via means of causal networks. Essen-
tially, causal networks are seen as a visual representation of the relationships (shown by arrows)
between the most important variables in an investigation. They contain streams, which are
unbroken chains of variables, and consist of multiple channels that either lead in different direc-
tions or culminate at the same place via a different route (Miles & Huberman, 1994). The net-
works are then supported by an associated analytic text describing the meaning of the
connections among factors. Causal networks therefore provide visual representations of the
data that bring together the variables and are supported by an accompanying narrative to
explain emerging relationships in a coherent picture (Hanton & Connaughton, 2002).
Data analysis procedures for the present study comprised six stages: (1) transcripts were stud-
ied by all three authors independently to ensure full content familiarity; (2) causal streams were
then identified in the form of quotations from the transcripts. Specifically, in line with Hanton
and Connaughton (2002), these were identified and coded by sentiments (raw data quotations)
such as: ‘‘when I am confident the worries don’t bother me. I can control my thoughts, stay
positive and maintain my concentration’’; (3) separate deductive networks were then developed
for each theme and the frequency of each stream was recorded; (4) deductive analysis was con-
ducted to verify that all themes were present; (5) researcher bias was controlled using consensus
S. Hanton et al. / Psychology of Sport & Exercise 5 (2004) 477–495482
validation whereby each investigator identified independently the streams and discussed the net-
works until agreement was reached. An independent experienced qualitative researcher, familiar
with the relevant literature, was used for confirmation on all networks (i.e., that the maps
reflected the sentiments contained within the transcripts) and; (6) the maps were sent to the
participants, and comments regarding their accuracy were solicited. The networks were deemed
to give an accurate reflection of the overall pre-competition experience and causal beliefs
regarding the relationship between self-confidence, anxiety intensity and subsequent interpret-
ation towards performance.
Results
Analysis of interview transcripts produced causal streams resulting in two conceptual frame-
works depicting the reported effects of high and low levels of self-confidence upon the relation-
ship between symptoms associated with competitive anxiety and the subsequent directional
interpretation towards performance (Figs. 1 and 2; Causal networks A and B). The frameworks
consist of two major elements: (1) a set of variables linked together by a series of arrows illus-
trating the relationship interpretation; and, (2) for each of the variables, a percentage of the
number of participants who identified the symptoms and their perceived effects on performance.
Due to the direction of the relationship, the maps are best interpreted from left to right. In
Fig. 1. Causal network A: The effects of low self-confidence upon interpretations of symptoms associated with com-
petitive anxiety. Arrows illustrate the relationship direction of the linked variables. Percentages represent the number
of participants reporting experiencing the variable. Due to the direction of the relationship, maps are best interpreted
from left to right. increased and decreased.
483S. Hanton et al. / Psychology of Sport & Exercise 5 (2004) 477–495
order to clarify analysis points and the data, the networks are accompanied by a descriptive narra-
tive of the findings and direct quotations from the transcripts.
Causal network A: The effects of low self-confidence upon interpretations of symptoms associated
with competitive anxiety
Figs. 1 and 2 display the data in a consistent pattern which suggest that, under both low and
high self-confidence conditions, an increase in symptoms associated with competitive anxiety
intensity was experienced within the last hour prior to competition. The networks subsequently
present the performers’ identification of the actual symptoms experienced; the personal expla-
nation of the effect of these symptoms; the level of perceived control felt and the resultant direc-
tional interpretation of the symptoms (facilitative or debilitative) towards performance.
Symptoms associated with competitive anxiety under low levels, or in the absence of self-con-
fidence prior to performance, are presented in Fig. 1. Overall, it appeared that the relationship
between the variables was a cyclical process. Specifically, symptoms were appraised by the parti-
cipants as outside of their control and subsequently interpreted as debilitative to performance,
reducing self-confidence levels further. For example:
If I am not confident then the doubts override things. There would be a huge downward spi-
ral... I get more bad thoughts and feelings and my control of them goes out of the window. It
Fig. 2. Causal network B: The effects of high self-confidence upon interpretations of symptoms associated with com-
petitive anxiety. Arrows illustrate the relationship direction of the linked variables. Percentages represent the number
of participants reporting experiencing the variable. Due to the direction of the relationship, maps are best interpreted
from left to right. increased and decreased.
S. Hanton et al. / Psychology of Sport & Exercise 5 (2004) 477–495484
has a knock on effect of not being able to switch the thoughts and feelings off, which brings
my confidence down even further, and then I perform badly.
Three explanations emerged for this network for the effects of low self-confidence prior to
performance. First, the participants reported experiencing an increase in symptoms associated
with competitive anxiety, including ‘concerns about performing as well as you could’ (50%),
‘self-doubts about performance’ (40%) and ‘worried that I won’t be able to concentrate’ (50%).
A typical comment was:
Low confidence leads to an increase in negative thoughts. With it (low self-confidence) nega-
tive thoughts and feelings increase and have the overall affect of decreasing performance. You
are not really thinking of anything positive, just negative things... apprehensive and nervous
about how you are going to perform.
These symptoms were then reported to result in an increase in negative thoughts surrounding
performance, which the participants indicated they were unable to actively control (90%). This
increase in negative thoughts was deemed to lead to the development of negative expectancies
regarding performance. The participants also reported that the increase in negative thoughts led
to a reduction in focus and concentration (50%). For example, one athlete stated:
Because you are worried you have too many things going through your mind, you’re not
settled... you’re just not focussed and that’s very negative for the competition.
In addition to the rise in negative cognitions, a second theme that emerged was an increase in
the participants’ negative feeling state regarding forthcoming performance (40%). This was sub-
sequently reported to result in a reduction in positive feeling states experienced prior to compet-
ing (40%). For example:
If self-confidence is low then the feelings would start to edge towards the negative which
would be a very bad thing for performance. As soon as they (the thoughts) go from positive
to negative the feelings go as well... from adrenaline to anxiety... which is even worse.
These symptoms experienced were again perceived to be out of the participants’ control and
were viewed as debilitating to forthcoming performance. The final line of reasoning for the
effects of low levels self-confidence resulted from the participants reporting experiencing nega-
tive images about forthcoming performance (30%) and an increase in the recall of images of
previous poor performances (30%). These experiences led participants to report being unable to
stop or prevent the negative image content entering their minds (60%). Again, these symptoms
were perceived to be out of the participants’ control and interpreted as harmful for perform-
ance:
Low self-confidence would then cause more negative thoughts, which would make you more
anxious, which would bring about a lower level of performance. Because you are low in con-
fidence the pictures you are creating aren’t good pictures.
485S. Hanton et al. / Psychology of Sport & Exercise 5 (2004) 477–495
Causal network B: The effects of high self-confidence upon interpretations of symptoms associated
with competitive anxiety
The experience of symptoms associated with competitive anxiety and high self-confidence lev-
els prior to performance are presented in Fig. 2. Symptoms appraised by the participants were
deemed to be under control, interpreted as facilitative to performance, and perceived to increase
levels of self-confidence further. A recurring cyclical process between self-confidence, symptoms
associated with competitive anxiety and the resulting directional perceptions was once again evi-
dent from the analysis, as one athlete stated:
High self-confidence increases the intensity of thoughts and feelings that I can control... I
think it is a kind of spiral... they have a knock on effect on each other. If you are confident
you stay in control of your thoughts and choose what you think about. By choosing to think
positive, by making sure you control your confidence, by generating the right thoughts and
expectations, you are influencing the levels of positive thoughts you experience... ultimately
you are controlling your performance.
The network reporting the effects of high self-confidence prior to performance identified three
main categories of reasoning. The first was related to the increase in the experiences of positive
thoughts and images regarding forthcoming performance. Specifically, the participants stated
that they experienced an ‘increase in positive thoughts about performance’ (30%) together with
the recall of previous good performances (30%):
The level of my thoughts is still quite high... if you’ve got high self-confidence you are not
going to think negatively. I think you can pick out the positive thoughts, if you are high in
self-confidence you haven’t got any negative thoughts. You are just thinking positively, you
are not thinking negatively.
These symptoms experienced were then indicated to increase the participants’ level of focus
and concentration, which was suggested to contribute to an enhanced positive mental state
overall (60%) and lead to the symptoms to be perceived as under the participants’ control
(100%). For example:
When your confidence is high you don’t over analyse prior to the race, your confidence is
high and your thoughts aren’t on the other competitors... they are controlled on listening for
the gun, you are not put off by other people doing a false start or things like that. Confidence
maintains your concentration and focus.
Second, the participants also reported experiencing an increase in the level of positive feeling
states related to competition and forthcoming performance (40%), including feelings of excite-
ment and enjoyment. These symptoms were then thought to contribute to an increase in the
overall positive mental state of the individual (40%). A third line of reasoning reported by the
performers was the experience of an increase in general thoughts about competition (40%)
together with an increase in symptoms associated with competitive situations. Amongst these
symptoms reported were worries regarding forthcoming competition and the opposition (50%)
and concerns regarding goal achievement (20%). The increase in thoughts and concerns regard-
S. Hanton et al. / Psychology of Sport & Exercise 5 (2004) 477–495486
ing competition was subsequently viewed as positive to performance by the individuals. This
was reported to be due to the performers possessing a confident outlook towards their ability to
cope with the forthcoming competition, and their ability to produce successful performance:
Even if you get negative thoughts entering you know everything is fine because you are confi-
dent, you know you can cope... you don’t let the thoughts or worries bother you because
you are confident you will be fine.
Finally, some participants reported experiencing increased concerns and worries regarding
performing as well as they could in competition (30%) and concerns about performing poorly
(30%). These symptoms were viewed by the individuals as facilitative to competition as they
were suggested to activate an increase in effort and motivation towards preparation for forth-
coming performance. In addition, increases in effort were also reported to increase positive
interpretations of symptoms by contributing to confident thoughts about successful perform-
ance and coping (100%):
When I feel myself getting more nervous, you know... Worried about doing well and per-
forming to my best... When I feel good (confident) it just drives me on more and makes me
try harder, raises my game and the intensity of my effort and preparation.
Psychological strategies employed to protect against debilitating interpretations of symptoms
towards performance
Having established the participants’ causal beliefs regarding the relationship between self-con-
fidence, and the perceived effects of pre-competitive anxiety symptoms, the final aim of the
study was to identify the confidence management strategies used to protect symptom interpret-
ation. The mechanism by which such strategies functioned was reported to occur through high
levels of self-confidence allowing the performer to feel comfortable when experiencing symptoms
associated with competitive anxiety. This psychological state was then suggested to allow the
performer to use learned cognitive strategies to sustain or enhance the level of positive images,
thoughts and feelings towards competition. Any negative symptoms are subsequently ignored or
reduced, allowing performers to maintain a positive outlook and interpret symptoms experi-
enced towards performance in a positive manner. Consequently, self-confidence was suggested
to be enhanced or maintained:
Even though you may be having a lot of doubts or concerns in your head it doesn’t matter if
you are confident... confidence makes you bullet proof and protects you against the negative
effects of these thoughts. I just accept them (the thoughts) as part of the process and use them
to focus on my performance.
The participants reported the use of four main cognitive strategies for this reasoning includ-
ing mental rehearsal, self-talk, cognitive thought stopping and restructuring. One of the most
prominent strategies employed to change thought content was that of mental rehearsal. This
strategy was reported to constitute mental imagery of successful forthcoming skill performance
487S. Hanton et al. / Psychology of Sport & Exercise 5 (2004) 477–495
to achieve positive thoughts. This technique was suggested to allow the athlete to remain confi-
dent and thereby promote an optimal mental state for performance. For example:
Doing it, seeing yourself doing it... imagery gives me that visual picture of me succeeding that
is positive. I can control the environment and just run through my mind being successful.
That puts me in a frame of mind that is positive, where I can see myself succeeding.
The participants also reported employing mental rehearsal of previous good performances to
enhance confidence and maintain a positive outlook for performance:
Most important (for maintaining positive thoughts) is seeing previous good performances. I
use imagery a lot because I can look back at past good performances and draw positive
things from all of them. You use it to visualise good quality performance, skills that I am
perhaps a bit apprehensive about.
Participants reported that under conditions of high self-confidence, the use of mental
rehearsal allowed the athlete to maintain a positive outlook towards performance, preventing
any negative thoughts entering the mind. Subsequently, the athlete is able to focus upon the
existing positive thoughts and images, ignoring any negative anxieties or worries, and further
contributing to an increase or maintenance of self-confidence levels. Indeed:
When I visualise something going successfully then it counteracts any negative feelings that I
experience. By using imagery there’s no room for negative thoughts because it’s all positive
and linked to positive thoughts, filling your brain with good stuff.
In addition to the use of mental rehearsal, athletes also reported thinking about previous
good performances to maintain a positive outlook towards competition. Recall of past perform-
ances was then suggested to contribute to an increase in positive thoughts about the athlete’s
ability. The subsequent mental state experienced was reported to allow the athlete to maintain
positive perceptions towards performance, in the face of negative symptoms, and was reported
to raise levels of self-confidence overall:
If I am having a bad time of it, going through a bad patch... say where I am not scoring in
the match... I tend to revert back thinking about my previous good performances... that
increases my positive thoughts and builds my confidence.
A second line of reasoning related to cognition management was reported as the ability of the
athlete to stop any negative thoughts and focus on the positive ones experienced. Here, several
athletes reported the use of thought stopping or restructuring cognitions from negative to posi-
tive:
I’ve got a system to deal with the negative—as soon as it gets in I highlight it straight away...
A negative thought comes in and I think of something positive. Whatever it is... I smile... I
do something to take my mind totally away from it.
A third cognitive strategy reported by the athletes was the use of self-talk as a form of inter-
nal verbal persuasion to maintain or increase a confident outlook directly prior to competition.
Athletes identified the use of self-talk as having two main contributions to coping with symp-
S. Hanton et al. / Psychology of Sport & Exercise 5 (2004) 477–495488
toms associated with competitive anxiety. First, self-talk acted as a focussing agent to direct
attention and thoughts from negative to positive and maintain levels of self-confidence:
If I am coming into something that I feel is negative, or taking my concentration away from
the task in hand, then I use positive self-talk to stop me thinking about negative experiences.
The more positive thoughts you have the more control you have over the levels and feelings
of anxiety. This keeps your confidence up and you have more positive thoughts, which brings
an improvement in the level of performance.
Further, positive self-statements were also suggested to be employed in attempting to alleviate
any negative thoughts or feelings by raising activation levels or ‘psyching up’. Again, this was
reported to be utilised as a short-term strategy, directly prior to performance, as highlighted by
one of the athletes, ‘‘Talking to myself before I get the kit on is important. You are firing your-
self up to perform. It helps in geeing you up’’.
In addition to the use of cognitive strategies by the athlete, the use of verbal persuasion tech-
niques by the coach or significant others, to maintain the performer’s self-confidence, was also
suggested to be prominent. Here, the athletes suggested that the external strategies used by the
significant others in the competitive environment around them helped to maintain focus and
levels of self-confidence in the advent of any anxieties or concerns experienced. For example,
one athlete stated:
Being verbally persuaded by your coach is the best protection against any worries or con-
cerns. It’s linked to your confidence... you don’t think negative when you’ve got positive
thoughts in your mind and the coach is saying to you that you are going to do it. You know
it’s going to be a positive feeling and a good performance.
This form of encouragement or persuasion appeared to be particularly significant if it was
derived from sources close to the athlete with knowledge of the performance environment, such
as the coach or significant others. The mechanism for this effect was suggested to be through the
encouragement allowing the athlete to maintain a positive frame of mind and raise or instill the
belief that the individual could succeed in the forthcoming competition:
Positive encouragement—whoever it comes from is always good and can always boost your
confidence. When you are told you can do it, you are good enough, in your mind you are
going to start thinking that. The encouragement does need to be realistic though.
Discussion
The purpose of this study was to examine in detail the relationship between self-confidence,
symptoms associated with competitive anxiety and the resultant directional interpretations
towards performance. The findings confirmed that self-confidence is an important variable in
influencing the performers’ experience of symptoms associated with competitive anxiety, their
perception of control, and the subsequent directional interpretations. The experience of
increased pre-competitive symptoms in the absence of self-confidence was reported to result in a
loss of perceptions of control, leading to problems with focus and concentration, and debilitat-
489S. Hanton et al. / Psychology of Sport & Exercise 5 (2004) 477–495
ing symptom interpretations with regard to forthcoming performance. In contrast, under con-
ditions of high self-confidence, increases in symptoms experienced in competitive situations were
also reported by performers. However, due to the experience of high levels of self-confidence,
leading to increases in motivation and effort, athletes were able to maintain a confident outlook
towards performance, allowing such responses to be perceived as under the athlete’s control and
facilitative in nature. A further aim of the investigation was to identify the specific strategies
used that allow self-confidence to prevent debilitating interpretations of symptoms occurring.
Protection from negative symptom interpretations was suggested to be maintained via cognitive
confidence management strategies including mental rehearsal, thought stopping, and positive
self-talk.
The current findings provide support for the relationship between self-confidence and symp-
toms associated with competitive anxiety and the subsequent directional perceptions towards
performance (e.g., Bandura, 1982; Hanton & Connaughton, 2002; Jones et al., 1994). Partial
support is also provided for Jones’ (1995) control model of debilitating and facilitating competi-
tive anxiety. Specifically, athletes who perceived positive perceptions of control over themselves
and the environment reported experiencing facilitating interpretations of pre-performance symp-
toms. A perceived lack of control was associated with debilitating interpretations of symptoms
towards forthcoming performance (c.f., Jones & Hanton, 1996). In addition to Jones’ (1995)
model of control, the present study also provides support for Eysenck and Calvo’s (1992) proc-
essing efficiency theory (PET). One of the major tenets of PET suggests that under conditions of
high cognitive anxiety, performance can be maintained or even enhanced, provided the per-
former is moderately confident of success. Such high levels of self-confidence are purported to
lead to enhanced motivation and effort to increase concentration levels in order to maintain or
even facilitate performance under the conditions of high anxiety (c.f., Eysenck & Calvo, 1992;
Hardy, 1997). In the present investigation, under conditions of high self-confidence, symptoms
associated with competitive anxiety were viewed as facilitative to performance as this was sug-
gested to enhance the athletes’ levels of effort and motivation. Similarly, the experience of
increasing competitive anxiety symptoms in the absence of self-confidence was reasoned to con-
tribute to a loss in the athletes’ focus and concentration and a subsequent negative interpret-
ation towards performance. In addition, more recently, the authors of the work upon which
Jones’ (1995) adapted model of control was based (Carver & Scheier, 1986, 1988) have further
discussed the mechanisms by which self-confidence influences the stress, coping and self-regulat-
ory processes (Carver & Scheier, 1998, 1999). Specifically, the authors suggest that, when faced
with adversity in trying to move towards goal attainment, the individual who is confident of
coping will respond to anxiety with renewed effort and attention toward the goal. Those athletes
who lack the confidence of being able to cope are unlikely to persist when experiencing anxiety
symptoms. These individuals are likely therefore to disengage and undertake a ‘phenomenology’
of repetitive negative rumination, often leading to a focus on self-doubt and perceptions of
inadequacy (sic low self-confidence), which are both unpleasant and performance impairing
(Carver & Scheier, 1999). Interestingly, the findings of the current study provide some support
for these proposals such that athletes who are high in self-confidence are able to maintain facili-
tating perceptions of pre-performance symptoms through thoughts of ‘confident coping’ and
increases in motivation and personal effort (c.f., Jones & Hanton, 2001).
S. Hanton et al. / Psychology of Sport & Exercise 5 (2004) 477–495490
Self-confidence is proposed to be one of the most powerful qualities that elite athletes possess
and is suggested to exert influences upon performance over and above that exerted by cognitive
anxiety and physiological arousal (c.f., Hardy et al., 1996). This belief would appear to be sup-
ported by several studies that have observed self-confidence to discriminate anxiety interpret-
ation (Hanton & Connaughton, 2002; Jones & Hanton, 2001; Jones et al., 1994; Mellalieu
et al., 2003). However, despite the findings, only tentative explanations exist as to the mech-
anism by which elite athletes use self-confidence to protect against debilitating symptom
interpretation (e.g., Hanton & Jones, 1999a,b; Jones et al., 1994). The findings of the current
study provide preliminary support to suggest that increased self-confidence allows athletes to
enhance or maintain a facilitating outlook towards forthcoming competition. Further, athletes
are able to enhance and protect their level of self-confidence using cognitive strategies including
thought stopping, positive self-talk and mental rehearsal. These strategies function by allowing
the performer to control any negative thoughts or images experienced, and, assisted by
enhanced effort and motivation, maintain positive perceptions of control and interpret symp-
toms experienced as facilitating towards performance (Carver & Scheier, 1998, 1999; Jones &
Hanton, 2001).
An important confidence management strategy employed within this protection mechanism
appears to be the use of mental imagery of forthcoming or prior successful skill performance.
This observation supports previous findings that have shown mental imagery can be prevalent
in influencing athletes’ cognitions and respective thoughts and beliefs (Murphy, 1994; Suinn,
1996). Specifically, research has investigated the use of motivation general-mastery imagery
(MG-M) by athletes, referred to as images representing effective coping and mastery of chal-
lenging situations such as being confident during competition (Munroe, Giacobbi, Hall, &
Weinberg, 2000). Here, MG-M has been observed to have positive effects upon both levels of
self-efficacy (Feltz & Riessinger, 1990; Mills, Munroe, & Hall, 2000–2001) and self-confidence
(Callow, Hardy, & Hall, 2001; Moritz, Hall, Martin, & Vadocz, 1996). In addition, the findings
in the empirical literature have also been supported by professional practice observations (cf.,
Martin, Moritz, & Hall, 1999). One area of reasoning to explain this relationship is provided by
self-efficacy theory (Bandura, 1982, 1997) which suggests that efficacy beliefs are constructed
from four informational sources: enactive mastery, vicarious experience, verbal persuasion and
physiological and affective states. Specifically, Bandura (1997) has proposed that positive visual-
isations of these sources (particularly performance accomplishments) may enhance self-efficacy
by hindering negative images in circumstances where athletes may doubt their own abilities.
Supported by the evidence from the current investigation, it could be conceptualised that when
athletes experience symptoms associated with doubts and negative images of performance, they
are able to visualise or recall forthcoming or past successful skill performances to protect
against the negative manifestations experienced. Similarly, the use of other cognitive strategies,
such as self-talk and cognitive restructuring, may serve a similar confidence management func-
tion in that they reduce, remove or alter the negative ‘doubting’ cognitions the athlete is experi-
encing. Consequently, it may be that these cognitive strategies serve to alter the overall mental
experience of the athlete from one of a negative state to a more positive confident outlook
towards forthcoming competition and performance. These suggestions would appear to concur
with the proposals of Carver and Scheier (1998, 1999) with regard to how individuals use self-
confidence to cope with adversity when trying to attain goals. Specifically, the authors suggest
491S. Hanton et al. / Psychology of Sport & Exercise 5 (2004) 477–495
that when appraising the likelihood of goal attainment, individuals retrieve and utilise expect-
ancies in the form of behavioural scenarios that are played through mentally (i.e., imaged).
Those individuals who image positive scenarios and positive outcomes are suggested to lead to
positive expectancies (i.e., enhanced self-confidence), while negative scenarios are reported to
lead to reduced expectances and levels of self-confidence in the ability to reach goal attainment.
Although the findings of the current investigation highlight significant advancements in the
understanding of the relationship between self-confidence and competitive anxiety interpret-
ation, it must be remembered that direct causality cannot be inferred from a study employing a
design of this nature. However, this study has identified some potential explanations of the
mechanisms by which this proposed relationship functions. Subsequently, future research should
examine the efficacy of confidence management strategies with athletes who suffer performance
decrements due to low self-confidence and debilitating symptom interpretation. The study has
also highlighted that the proposed relationship between symptoms associated with competitive
anxiety, self-confidence and subsequent symptom interpretation is a cyclical process. Although
the downward negative spiral of this relationship concurs with the existing concept of ‘perform-
ance catastrophes’ emphasised by Hardy (1990, 1996a), the positive spirals that occur between
self-confidence, performance expectations and the athlete’s overall mental state are potentially,
if not more important than the negative spirals, and worthy of further exploration. One poten-
tial explanation for the positive spirals to explore here is through Bandura’s (1997) performance
accomplishments mechanism, whereby enhanced efficacy expectations using cognitive strategies,
allow performers to protect themselves against debilitating anxiety interpretation and further
enhance levels of self-confidence. In addition, when considering the spiral nature of this
relationship, of particular interest for investigators adopting a temporal design is whether the
specific variables of anxiety interpretation and self-confidence interact in a relatively stable man-
ner, or, are more transitory and fluctuate across the pre-competition period and during actual
performance (c.f., Hanton et al., 2002; Wiggins, 1998). This research direction is particularly
important given the recent emphasis from applied sport psychology on the need to increase
knowledge and understanding beyond that of the athletes’ experience ‘directly prior’ to per-
formance to that of the ‘lead-up’ time to competition (Hardy et al., 1996; Mellalieu et al., 2003).
The practical implications of this study emphasise that high self-confidence, via certain cogni-
tive strategies, protects against debilitating interpretations of symptoms traditionally associated
with competitive anxiety in high stress situations. This provides further evidence to support the
findings that indicate self-confidence as a more powerful quality for elite athletes to possess,
over and above the skills of anxiety and arousal management (Hardy et al., 1996). In order to
achieve more enduring and consistent performance effects interventions should place emphasis
primarily upon long-term strategies to build and maintain confidence in addition to those that
focus upon short-term stress management interventions. The current findings also highlight that
the specific antecedents of self-efficacy, in particular, images of enactive mastery are utilised by
athletes when employing cognitive confidence enhancement strategies. These findings would
appear to agree with Bandura’s (1982) self-efficacy theory that highlights enactive mastery as the
most salient source of an individuals’ self-efficacy. Consequently, confidence protection strat-
egies should focus directly on building robust perceptions of the athlete’s enactive mastery or
performance accomplishments, as they appear to have the most salient influence upon self-confi-
dence symptoms and protection against anxiety debilitation. Finally, the current study also sug-
S. Hanton et al. / Psychology of Sport & Exercise 5 (2004) 477–495492
gests that athletes employ a combination of cognitive strategies to protect confidence levels (cf.,
Hanton & Jones, 1999a,b). In conjunction with the use of mental imagery, the practitioner
should encourage the development of individual-specific mental skill packages that incorporate
other forms of efficacy enhancement. These may include forms of verbal persuasion such as
positive self-talk or external encouragement from the coach or significant others.
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... intensity. These specific classes of sustained vowels are chosen due to their relation to anxiety literature -For example, negative emotion can often be masked as positive [19] (sad, smiling) and typically those with an anxiety disorder are less self-confident [20] (comfortable, powerful). ...
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