On the edge of danger – is stress your friend or foe?
Stress affects all of us, differentially and often unexpectedly. The term "stress" can conjure up images of unpleasant physical and emotional states; racing hearts, sweating palms, lapsed concentration and mental strain. The association is typically a negative one. So what of those individuals who choose to place themselves under great stress for the fun of it, to test themselves to the maximum in the name of dangerous sport? What kind of person is able to physically and mentally try themselves out when the stakes are so high? This article takes the example of racing superbikes to gain an insight into the world of the peak performer and ask “what is the state of motivation which underpins peak performance in such a high-risk sport?”.
The Australian Superbike Championship is the arena for elite riders to test their skill and their wits against stiff competition at defiant speeds of up to 300kph. It’s an extremely physical sport with an average of 162kgs of carbon fibre, aluminum and titanium machinery to handle, but brute strength is not the half of it. The riders are talented, exacting and skilled clinicians, executing every move with great precision and dexterity.
If you’re riding successfully in the superbike class, your talent is unquestionably established. One might argue that the thing that separates the victor from the ‘also-ran’ is something else. Something less easily defined and more esoteric; motivation.
I interviewed Dave Simpson, a notable competitor in the championship and elite performer having ridden in the superbike class in Australia for three years between 1998 – 2001. We talked about his experience of pre-competition and competition stress and motivation, and some of his recollections of peak performances throughout his career. His comments are related directly to our question – is stress your friend or foe in dangerous sports?
Firstly though, let’s look at the link between stress and motivation in dangerous sports. You might say it’s all about the way the performer experiences stress. Recent applied sports psychology literature is replete with references to ‘the zone’, or the ‘zone of optimal functioning’ (eg Clarkson, 1999; Goldberry, 1998). This zone is represented as the state of ‘flow’ in which a performer reaches his or her optimal functioning. Performance is exceptional, consistent, automatic and fluid. Some athletes describe this as a state of ecstasy, a transcendent or altered state, a ‘perfect moment’ or a ‘peak’ of mindfulness and clarity. It’s what the athlete strives for physically and psychologically.
Dave Simpson describes the moments preceding his best rides as an,
"almost out of body experiences.…I could look at my hands or my arms while I was riding a warm up lap and feel as if I wasn’t really there, I was just in a sort of mesmerized state, totally on auto-pilot physically and so my mind was free. It was pretty surreal."
Sounds great, but how do athletes achieve this state? Our understanding of this phenomenon has grown significantly over time. Early research suggested that both the individual ‘traits’ and the performance environment were paramount.
In terms of individual 'traits', the inherent psychological and personality characteristics that make up the athlete are crucial. Is the performer a natural risk-taker? Does he have a prity to worry or is he generally relaxed? Is he inclined to prepare or does he prefer to respond spontaneously? Is he socially oriented? Competitive? Achievement oriented? Task-focused or outcome focused? Tough-minded and resolute or more sensitive and intuitive? Is he flexible and unexacting or perfectionistic and self-disciplined? These personality factors are deemed to impact the way that an individual will respond to stress and stressful environments – the way that they will experience stress.
With respect to the competitive environment, factors such as familiarity with a race track, the size of the crowd, the competitive field (who else is out there?), conditions on the day, amount of experience at the given level of racing (1st time versus 10th time), noise level etc are important considerations.
Research and analysis of such factors have allowed performers, coaches and sports psychologists to grasp some of the major influences on the relationship between stress and performance, and to start to articulate what will produce ‘the zone’. Some have even suggested that there are a set of circumstances that will create an optimal amount of stress for each individual to perform at their absolute best.
I asked Dave how he would describe himself at the time of competition in relation to some of these factors:
“Dave, Would you say you were very serious or more playful prior to a race?
“I was always much more serious when racing. In fact I was a totally different person. Once I got to the National level rounds, I was probably not so nice to be around at race time. I became a bit of a control freak – everything needed to be prepared perfectly and of course the bike needed to be mechanically spot-on. I was very focused on that, and on my performance. I didn’t think about anything else, not even the danger. So if friends or family were around, I could be pretty short with them.”
“So how far ahead would you prefer to plan for a race?”
“I would generally start to consciously plan about two weeks before a race. I would start imagining the race, the venue etc. Then on the first practice round, usually a Friday, I’d get more focussed. My outlook and confidence would normally be dependent on the times I was turning in during the practice sessions. My mood would depend on the couple of days qualifying, although I tried to stay optimistic even if I was struggling – anything can happen in a race. The night before I’d work on track diagrams, draw my course, strategize, rehearse, analyze it all to bits.”
‘And what about just before the race, did you continue to plan?
‘” No way. I was usually busy trying to stay calm, centered. I’d measure my nervousness against other competitors and ask myself ‘are they as nervous as you?’ There is quite a bit of subtle trash talk that goes on in the pits prior to racing . You can gauge others like that”.
“Dave, what did you feel physically just before a race?
“Sick. Butterflies I guess you’d call it. I would settle myself by stretching and doing a standard routine. I’d tell myself to rely on what I knew and what I was capable of. I’d say to myself ‘come on mate, let’s get into it, wake-up!’ As soon as you start the warm up lap, the anxiety goes pretty quickly and you focus on nothing physical at all, just the racing”.
“How would you describe your perfect pre-race state?”
“I guess fairly calm. But excited too. It’s great when you can feel proud of yourself – these are your heroes and you’re out there competing with them. That really helps your confidence and lets you think about the overall race, outwitting the other competitors, and not just each task you have to do. That motivates me.”
“What about during the race, what do you experience then?”
“Superbike racing is a physical activity, it takes so much concentration and you focus entirely on the task at hand. Your mind doesn’t drift, you don’t have room for that. Sometimes on a straight you may have one or two seconds to think about your next move, or maybe even a rattle in the bike or something. But pretty much you’re in the moment. Even if it’s not going so well and you feel a bit frustrated, you just sort of change the way you’re riding and stay focussed.”
“Dave what about the external environment, did this affect you? For instance, your first performance at a new track?”
“New or unfamiliar situations just heightened the experience. I remember as a ‘Wild card’ entry in the World Superbike Class, and my first time at the Australian Titles. I felt such a strong willpower, or even desperation to do well. It was like a hunger. I was much more excited than usual.”
These responses validate the suggestion that individual characteristics and external environment do indeed count for a great deal in terms of the relationship between stress and motivation in performance. Dave identifies himself as a controlled, planned, task-focussed performer who takes the competition very seriously. He also describes the impact of external circumstances on his arousal levels. However, it’s perhaps not enough to think of this as a set of fixed, stable factors.
Michael Apter (1982) further expanded our understanding. He developed a theory of motivation called ‘reversal theory’. The concept is that the state of a performer is not fixed but fluid and can change rapidly. The most serious, planning –oriented individual with a definite preference for low arousal can actually switch (or reverse) to a more spontaneous or playful state sometimes, and experience higher levels of arousal and perform well. In short, there is no one consistent state that will produce peak performance, because human behaviour is inconsistent.
In reversal theory, motivational states are thought to exist together in opposite pairs. A common example to look at is the pair known as the telic-paratelic. The paratelic state is represented by behavior which tends to be spontaneous, risk-taking, playful. Conversely, the telic state is represented by behaviour that is serious, analytical, planned. The theory asserts that either of these states can produce enough stability for a peak performance. But anything in-between is unstable, unsafe. Like a light switch can only be on or off, a performer can be in one state or the other, but not in between for effective performance.
Many athletes are considered to be para-telic or telic dominant – i.e they are likely to spend more time in one state than another (see Murgatroyd, 1985). However even though a performer, like Dave Simpson, may ascend to the telic state more often, we cannot presume this to be a stable or consistent, and he will switch to the opposite state under some conditions.
I wanted to see if Dave had ever had a memorable performance in just such a different ‘state’.
“Dave, are there any instances where you can recall your ‘state’ or mood changing prior to or during a performance?’
“As I mentioned, I was much more ‘psyched-up’ than normal for the World Superbike round. I calmed myself down a bit on the line, but I had a bad start, I almost stalled. I was just so determined though. I got it together and started to overtake some guys. I was still assessing the situation and strategizing – thinking ‘this is going ok, these conditions suit me, and they don’t suit him.’ I guess my confidence was up because I started to think, ‘I can do better than that, I can take a corner faster than that’ and then I just remember feeling frustrated, thinking, ‘stuff this, I’m going for it’ and taking much more risks than normal, really pushing it, perhaps more than required in some instances . It was the ride of my life”.
Apter (1982) and subsequently Kerr (1990) thought that reversals in motivational state are involuntary, may take place frequently over short periods of time, and may be sudden or unexpected. The theory posits three different sets of circumstances which can induce a reversal:
Contingent events, where something in the environment changes
Under conditions of frustration, where the needs of the individual are not being satisfied in one ‘state’
Satiation, where the individual has spent a long period of time in one state.
It seems from Dave Simpson’s example, that his frustration may have caused a reversal and changed his motivational state towards optimal performance – the ride of his life.
So imagine the superbike racer, machine growling in absolute readiness for the switch of the light at the start line. His state is telic – he is calm, serious, highly focused on his goal. This is the ‘zone’ he has entered, where he wants to be. The racer next to him on the track, totally primed for performance, may be experiencing a paratelic state, feel worked-up, eager, highly stimulated and ready to uncoil - still in a zone of optimal performance if he is experiencing this as excitement and not anxiety. The key seems to lie in the experience of the emotion, not the emotion itself. Who will reach his optimal performance in the race? On a level playing field in terms of talent and preparation, the answer may lie in who will enjoy the state or sensation the most, and who will control that experience the best.
In response to the question, ‘on the edge of danger, is stress a friend or foe?’ the answer is ‘both’. The critical issue is interpretation. Stress management in sport is not only about lessening anxiety, it’s about understanding the nature of the motivational state and recognizing that for some athletes, lowering the levels of stress is like removing their dangerous edge. And that’s what makes them champions. A performer like Dave Simpson would prefer to maintain control and keep his arousal low in most circumstances. But in the race of his life, even he found himself using the exhilaration and tension he felt to ‘go for it’, feel different and experience the moment. He found his ‘zone’ where he would least expect it.
For a broader discussion on the “Zone of Optimal Functioning” see Ravizza (1977, 1984); Loehr (1986); Garfield & Bennett (1984); Jackson (1992, 1993, 1995, 1996) and Young (1999a, 1999b, 1999c, 1999d)
For further discussion on Reversal Theory see Apter (1981, 1982); Apter & Smith (1985); Apter & Svebak (1990); Kerr (1985a, 1985b, 1987a, 1987b, 1987c, 1988, 1989; Kerr & Cox (1988, 1990); Jones & Hardy (1990)