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Examining anxiety and self-confidence for the Special Olympics athlete.

Eunice Shriver developed the first Special Olympics games in the United States in the mid-1960's for individuals with an intellectual disability. Since that time, enrollment and participation in Special Olympics has grown tremendously (Special Olympics, 2013). Athletes spend time prior to events practicing with volunteer coaches who instruct the athletes in skill enhancement and sporting technique. Volunteer coaches undergo specialized training to understand how to work with athletes with an intellectual disability. This training assists coaches with understanding some of the cognitive and physical limitations of the athlete, but does not necessarily address the mental health of the person with an intellectual disability. This study aims to examine the mental health component through use of competitive anxiety and self-confidence measures.

Competitive anxiety and self-confidence states are considered temporary alterations in an athlete's mental and physical being that can either enhance or inhibit athletic performance (Martens et al., 1990). Research on competitive anxiety has existed for decades, yet no research exists examining this construct for the Special Olympics athlete.

Our research is the first of its kind to examine the international sporting event experiences of athletes with an intellectual disability. It involves examining the cognitive anxiety, somatic anxiety, and self-confidence states of athletes with an intellectual disability, as measured by the Competitive State Anxiety Inventory (CSAI-2, Martens et al., 1990) and comparing the scores with established norms for the elite-level Olympic athlete.

The authors of the present study formed a relationship with the Special Olympics organization in order to examine the international competitive experiences of athletes with an intellectual disability and used the Special Olympics eligibility criteria when referring to participants within the study. This definition is as follows: someone who must be "identified as having an intellectual disability or a closely related developmental disability, at least eight years of age or older, registered with the state office." Further criteria include completing mandatory training and filling out application paperwork prior to the established deadlines (Special Olympics South Dakota, 2015).

There are several studies of Special Olympians. One such study was done by Farrell, Crocker, McDonough, and Sedgwick (2004), who interviewed various Special Olympics athletes and found that most athletes participated for reasons that enhanced autonomy, competence, and social interaction. Shapiro (2003) examined athletes' motivation to participate in Special Olympics and found some of the primary reasons were to win medals, socialize, exercise, and have fun. Researchers have also found that participants in Special Olympics programs demonstrate a higher self-concept than their non-athletic peers with a disability and that self-concept is also strongly influenced by the amount of time one has been an athlete with the Special Olympics (Weiss, Diamond, Demark & Lovald, 2003). Gregg, Hrycaiko, Mactavish, and Martin (2004) tested a Mental Skills Training program with Special Olympics athletes and concluded that this program was useful for track athletes.

Martens outlined a model that examines competition as a process. Martens' model emphasized cognitions as a mediator between stimulus (sport) and participation in sport (Martens, 1977). This theoretical model is used in the current study as it provides the baseline assumptions set forth for competitive state anxiety as they are understood in sports psychology today (Jones & Swain, 1992). However, it is quite possible that Special Olympics athletes experience anxiety and self-confidence differently, and it is because this population was neglected in the initial theoretical framework that we examine how applicable Martens' model is to the international Special Olympics athlete. We sought to determine if there is a difference in cognitive anxiety, somatic anxiety, and self-confidence state subscale scores on the CSAI-2 for published norms for elite-level Olympic athletes as compared to international Special Olympics athletes.


Participant Athletes

Athletes who were registered for the Special Olympics World Winter Games in South Korea were considered eligible for the research. Volunteer coaches were debriefed every morning about the schedule of events for the day and during this debriefing they were also reminded of the research possibilities for their athletes. Our research assistants were instructed to respectfully approach athletes and ask to find a time to meet and spend about 20 to 30 minutes filling out a survey. If an athlete expressed confusion on one or more of the items on the survey, research assistants were taught to give their best explanation of the item to the athlete. If the item was explained, research assistants were instructed to mark the item so that it could be later analyzed to examine frequency patterns to see if a certain item created difficulty for athletes and if it was a comprehension concern.

A total of 29 English-speaking athletes from five countries agreed to participate in the research project, representing an overall research participation rate of 4.54% for countries represented in the research. These percentages are based on the estimated total number of athletes registered for the World Winter Games. However, not every athlete registered for the World Winter Games was aware of this specific research project. The research assistants approached as many athletes as they could. We estimate that approximately 50% of all athletes who were approached by the principal investigator or her team members agreed to participate, with about 50% of those agreeing to participate following through with designated meeting times and locations.

World Winter Games athletes were participating in one or more of the following events while in South Korea. A percentage of the total athlete research participants is given in parentheses for each sport: Alpine Skiing (20.69%), Cross Country Skiing (24.14%), Snowboarding (17.24%), Snow Shoeing (17.24%), Short Track Speed Skating (0%), Figure Skating (0%), and Floor Hockey (10.34%). Three participants did not respond to this question on the survey. Gender representation in the study was 65.5% males (n=19), 34.5% female (n=10). Gender statistics are not available for the total percentage of males and females participating in the World Winter Games events, thus the results must be considered as specific to the test population and not necessarily representative of the overall demographic at the World Winter Games. Athlete participants ranged in age from 15 to 53 with a mean age of 28.5 years (SD =8.25). Data were missing for five participants and thus this figure is only representative of 24 of the 29 participants.


Demographic form. The demographic form asked for some basic information about participants: age, gender, country represented, race/ethnicity, sport played at the World Winter Games, whether the sport is considered an individual or team event, years in Special Olympics, five words to describe themselves as they think about their competition, and what they liked most about the Special Olympics. This form was filled out by the individual athlete or a trained research assistant upon the request of the Special Olympics athlete.

Competitive State Anxiety Inventory. The Competitive State Anxiety Inventory (CSAI-2) is a 27-item survey that consists of three subscales of nine items each. The CSAI-2 measures levels of somatic state anxiety, cognitive state anxiety, and state self-confidence prior to a competitive event. Each item is measured on a 4-point Likert-type scale ranging from 1 (not at all) to 4 (very much so). Sample items include "I have self-doubts", "I am concerned about losing" (cognitive), "I feel tense in my stomach", "My body feels tense" (somatic), "I feel comfortable", and "I feel mentally relaxed" (self-confidence). The three subscale scores range from 9 to 36. High scores on the cognitive and somatic subscales indicate high cognitive state anxiety and high somatic state anxiety, respectively. High scores on the self-confidence subscale indicate high state self-confidence. The CSAI-2 has a high level of internal consistency for the subscales as Cronbach's alpha ranges from .79 to .90 (Martens et al., 1990). Cronbach's alphas for the cognitive, somatic, and self-confidence subscale scores for the study population were .76, .82, and .78, respectively. Scores on the three subscales of the CSAI-2 were not significantly related to social desirability (Krane, 1994).


Preliminary Analyses

Before examining the main hypotheses, initial analyses were conducted to determine whether gender or age needed to be considered in the main analyses. Three ANOVAs were conducted and gender differences were not found for the CSAI-2 somatic, F(1, 27) = 1.17, p = .29, cognitive, F(1, 27) = .04, p = .84, or self-confidence, F(1, 27) = 1.62, p = .21 subscales.

Linear regression determined that age was not a significant predictor of either the cognitive, B = -.04, [beta] = -.06, t(23) = -.27, p = .79, somatic, B = -.23, [beta] = -.26, t(23) = -1.25, p = .23, or self-confidence, B = .15, [beta] = .20, t(23) =.97, p = .34 subscales of the CSAI-2. Based on the results from these preliminary analyses, age and gender were not included in the testing of the research question. Country of origin and age of participants are summarized in Table 1.

Was there a difference between elite data published by the authors of the CSAI-2 and our sample of athletes with an intellectual disability participating at an International Games Event? Three one-sample t tests were conducted on the World Winter Games athlete participants' CSAI-2 cognitive, self-confidence, and somatic scores to evaluate whether their means were significantly different from the norms published by Martens, Vealy, and Burton (1990) for elite-level athletes. Normative data are published for elite athletes based on information obtained from the sports psychology data bank of the U.S. Olympic Training Center. No information about the type of sport the normative population participated in is available. We elected to compare the published norms for Olympic (elite) athletes as the Special Olympics World Winter Games is considered the competitive event equivalent for athletes with intellectual disabilities. Elite-level data for each subscale are published for both female and male athletes and the researchers elected to use the average number between the two groups for the cognitive (19.7), somatic (17.14), and self-confidence (25.39) subscales. The values in parenthesis were the comparison numbers used for the t tests.

Our athlete sample mean of 15.62 (SD = 5.40) on the CSAI-2 cognitive subscale was significantly lower than 19.7, t(28) = -4.01, p < .01, as compared to elite Olympic athletes. Our athlete sample mean of 29.76 (SD = 5.77) on the CSAI-2 self-confidence subscale was significantly higher than 25.39, t(28) = 4.08, p < .01 as compared to elite Olympic athletes. Our athlete sample mean of 18.48 (SD = 6.95) on the CSAI-2 somatic subscale was not significantly different from 17.14, t(28) = 1.04, p = .31, as compared to elite Olympic athletes.


Our results show that English-speaking Special Olympics athletes experience similar levels of somatic competitive state anxiety when compared to elite-level Olympic athletes, as measured by the CSAI-2. This suggests that Special Olympics athletes are just as likely to recognize and report somatic symptoms as their elite-level counterparts when asked about these symptoms on a standardized measure.

A substantial research finding was that the International Special Olympics athletes in our sample experienced significantly higher levels of state self-confidence when compared to their elite-level counterparts. With these results in mind, additional research is needed to determine if our results can be replicated. If they can, then there is a need to determine the cause of this difference. One possibility is that Special Olympics athletes are given strong amounts of encouragement and praise for success as well as failed attempts, perhaps more so than the Olympic athlete. Another is that awareness of pressure impacting self-confidence levels might be substantially lower for the Special Olympics athlete when compared to the Olympic athlete.

Participant athletes in our study reported cognitive anxiety states significantly lower than elite athletes. The idea that Special Olympics athletes score lower on cognitive competitive anxiety scores cannot be dismissed as simply due to cognitive impairment and is worth exploring. Is it possible that Special Olympics athletes feel less pressure to win, and therefore they don't feel as anxious about competing? Future research should explore this hypothesis and other plausible explanations for our finding.

There are several limitations to this study including data collection environment and survey delivery method. Each athlete who agreed to participate in the research was given a survey to complete and return to the trained research assistant. Oftentimes, the athletes were in the dining halls when the survey was administered and several athletes at one time were filling out the surveys. Since athletes sat together as a team, it is possible that sitting near the coach and other teammates influenced athlete responses to the surveys. In fact, some athletes were observed to look to fellow teammates for guidance on how to respond to a certain item on the survey.

Furthermore, each research assistant brought individual characteristics to the interview situation that may have influenced the way an athlete responded. Research assistants were overheard during meal times using encouraging and motivational statements with regards to the competitive events (ie; "good job today!" or "way to go!"). Athlete responses on surveys may have been due to the idea that he or she did not want to disappoint the research assistant, as the relationship between research assistant and athlete research participant sometimes meant that the research assistant was cheering for the Special Olympics athlete. Finally, a small sample size and high refusal rate limited the generalizability of this research. A high refusal rate for this study is understandable given that the athlete could be feeling like he or she did not have extra time to participate, would need to focus on the competitive event, or was feeling overwhelmed due to foreign travel or other schedule disruptions.

As the principal investigator of this study did not have access to the raw data for the comparison population (elite-level Olympic athletes), it is unknown how large the sample size was for these published means. The fact that the comparison data dates back 25 years may also be a considerable limitation. While the CSAI-2 was updated (Cox, Martens, & Russell, 2003), normative data for the revised format are published for collegiate-level athletes. No updated normative data have been published for elite-level Olympic athletes since the initial publication of the CSAI2. It is uncertain whether new advances in sport and exercise psychology interventions would substantially impact the normative data from 25 years ago, but it is worth noting this possibility.

Implications for future research, theory, and practice

Future studies with access to information about intellectual ability could examine if level of intellectual impairment (i.e., mild, moderate, severe, profound) influences scores on the three measures we used. Another study could examine if the type of sport played (individual vs. team sport, for example) impacts scores on the CSAI-2.

Since the current study found that athletes with an intellectual disability experience similar levels of somatic anxiety states when compared to elite-level Olympic athletes, it makes sense to study the effectiveness of treatment regimens like Progressive Muscle Relaxation, Diaphragmatic Breathing, and Biofeedback that have already been successfully used to treat somatic anxiety in other performance domains (Haney, 2004). These anxiety reduction techniques used to address the somatic symptoms of competitive anxiety could be made available and tested for effectiveness on the Special Olympics athlete, and modifications to the treatment regimen could be made, if necessary, to accommodate the Special Olympics athlete.

Emilia S. Flint and Ashlyn Pearson

Black Hills State University


Cox, R.H., Martens, M.P., & Russell, W.D. (2003). Measuring anxiety in athletics: The revised competitive state anxiety inventory-2, Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 25.4, 519-533.

Farrell, R.J., Crocker, P.R., McDonough, M.H., & Sedgwick, W.A. (2004). The driving force: Motivation in special olympians, Adapted Physical Activity Quarterly, 21, 153-166.

Gregg, M.J., Hrycaiko, D., Mactavish, J.B., & Martin, G.L. (2004). A mental skills package for special olympic athletes: A preliminary study, Adapted Physical Activity Quarterly, 21, 4-18.

Haney, C.J., (2004). Stress-Management interventions for female athletes: Relaxation and cognitive restructuring, International Journal of Sport Psychology, 35.2, 109-118.

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Special Olympics (2015). Retrieved 5/15/15 from

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Special Olympics South Dakota (2015). Retrieved 6/16/15 from http://www.sosd. org/index.php/athletes/C4/?phpMyAdmin=fb57bb750f3df7f48c0ec10bf5ab5c 27&phpMyAdmin=d53257eb2cca81821db3053052f817dd.

Weiss, J.A., Diamond, T., Demark, J., & Lovald, B. (2003). Involvement in special olympics and its relations to self-concept and actual competency in participants with developmental disabilities, Research in Developmental Disabilities, 24, 281-305. doi: 10.1016/S0891-4222(03)00043-X

Note: This research was conducted at the 2013 Special Olympics World Winter Games held in PyeongChang, South Korea. The primary author and her research team of ten undergraduate students were given access to athletes via a credentialing process from the Special Olympics International Headquarters in Washington, DC. The primary author and her students were credentialed as Special Olympics International Consultants. As such, the Special Olympics International Organization agreed to provide access to the research population of interest, but did not supply financial support for the research project in terms of grants or personal donation. The primary author would like to thank Ms. Janelle Nanavati, Director of Research and Evaluation at Special Olympics for permission for access to the athlete population while abroad in South Korea. Further, the primary author would like to thank her team of ten undergraduate researchers who made the trip a successful learning experience.

Author Note: Emilia S. Flint, Department of Psychology, School of Behavioral Sciences, Black Hills State University; Ashlyn Pearson, Department of Psychology, School of Behavioral Sciences, Black Hills State University.

Author info: Correspondence should be sent to: Dr. Emilia Flint, Department of Psychology, Black Hills State University, Spearfish, SD 57799. E-Mail:
TABLE 1 Country of Origin & Age of Athlete Participants

Country of Origin    N     (%)         Age        N     (%)

Canada              12    41.38    Under 17 *     2     6.90
Gibraltar            1     3.45       18-20       2     6.90
Ireland              4    13.79       21-29      14    48.28
Papua New Guinea     1     3.45       30-39       9    31.03
United States       11    37.93       40-49       1     3.45
                                     Over 50      1     3.45

* Permission obtained from legal guardian and assent given by
athlete participant
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Author:Flint, Emilia S.; Pearson, Ashlyn
Publication:North American Journal of Psychology
Article Type:Survey
Geographic Code:9SOUT
Date:Mar 1, 2016
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