Training in self control may help high performers overcome anxiety

Sports people and other high achievers could benefit from training in how to control their concentration in order to beat performance-related anxiety, according to a leading psychologist presenting at the 47th APS Annual Conference.

Professor Michael Eysenck, one of the best-known psychologists in the UK and the author of 46 books, said that attentional control is crucial in enabling high performers to overcome the drain that anxiety places on their resources.

He said: “We know that anxiety can impair people’s performance on many tasks, including those that involve thinking, such as maths problems, and those that require motor skills, such as sports activities, but research has shown us anxious individuals typically respond to the adverse effects of anxiety by becoming more motivated and putting in extra effort.”

But Professor Eysenck said that even though individuals were able to combat underperformance with this overcompensation, doing so remained a drain on their cognitive resources, with the anxiety and related efforts to overcome it deflecting attention and processing resources to activities irrelevant to the task at hand.

The extra brain activity required could affect individuals in others ways, or over the long term, which represents anxiety’s “hidden costs”.

Professor Eysenck, who developed attentional control theory with several colleagues, said: “One of the most obvious places where we see problems with attentional control is in the sporting arena. For instance, expert shooters perform best when they have a long-duration of ‘quiet eye’ steady fixation prior to shooting. But we know the duration of this crucial quiet eye period is much shorter when a competitor is under pressure and experiencing anxiety.”

Professor Eysenck said that, with growing understanding of the science behind how anxiety undermines performance, it was possible to train individuals to increase their attentional control, freeing them to perform at their best.

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Professor Michael Eysenck, Emeritus Professor of Psychology and Honorary Fellow at Royal Holloway, University of London, and a Professorial Fellow at Roehampton University, in the UK, is a leading cognitive psychologist. His main area of research is on anxiety and cognition, an area in which he has developed several theories, including attentional control theory with three colleagues in 2007. A prolific writer and researcher, he has produced 46 books and more than 200 research articles and, according to Google Scholar, his research has been cited almost 15,000 times.
He will present on attentional control at the 47th APS Annual Conference, at the Perth Convention and Exhibition Centre, on Saturday 29 September, at 8.30am.

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