Simply ‘Google’ coping in sport and thousands of research papers appear. Even on this website 10 articles are listed under the topic. As sport psychologists, being able to assist athletes with the pressures of competition, performance slumps, and a range of other worries is recognised as an important area not only for improving performance but for adhering to and enjoying sport as well.

Many sport studies list age as a variable which could alter the relationship between a stressor and its’ outcome. Certainly, in child and health psychology the changes in coping resources and responses across the lifespan receive a lot of attention. But research into coping as a function of age is relatively under-developed in the sporting literature (Compas et al., 2001). So here’s a bit more on why coping should be related to age.…

Most coping research supports a process approach (Nicholls & Polman, 2007). Such an approach depicts coping as a dynamic process between internal appraisals of the individual and the external pressures that they are evaluating. Age is a factor which can affect both aspects of this process.

Appraisals

Due to cognitive development the coping processes differ between age groups; children simply do not have the resources to employ certain cognitive strategies. Consequently these strategies are not used until middle adolescence, for example pre-match routines including positive thinking and visualisation require a level of reasoning which does not develop until middle adolescence (Reeves, Nicholls & McKenna, 2009).

Having greater past experience also influences how stressors are appraised. Adults have a larger coping repertoire and knowledge of which coping responses previously employed were beneficial in similar situations. If an athlete perceives that they have the resources and know how to cope with a stressor then the outcome is more likely to be positive. Metacognition, often reached by early adulthood refers to a self-awareness of coping strategies and the ability to deploy the most suitable (Seiffge-Krenke, 1995).  Prior knowledge and the cognitive developmental stages therefore offer reasons why stressors are perceived differently across ages.

Stressors

Some stressors are common between age groups; making errors, team performance. However others are more prominent for certain ages. For example social evaluation (what teammates or coaches think) is only a worry among middle adolescent football players (15 – 18 years), not in early adolescents (12 – 14 years). Selection and contractual stressors are also more pressing as academies only support the footballers until 19 years of age so demands to secure a professional contract increase (Reeves et al., 2009). Even in non-elite settings the decisions regarding work or university will affect adolescents at this age, as planning for careers requires more of their time and thinking capacity. Adolescents therefore begin to use emotions in coping and seek support from parents to deal with these life decisions more so than in childhood. As a result the stressors at different ages suit some coping strategies better than others.

Recognising how the appraisals and stressors faced by athletes change across the lifespan has implications for sport psychologists and how best to develop successful coping. For example:

  • As coping is a process do not promote a single type of coping. Rather a range of support options should be provided so that athletes can select the most appropriate in response to different situations.
  • Mental skills should be taught in early adolescence to cope with stressors – these skills will then be stronger later in life, and a potential protective factor.
  • In middle adolescence when social evaluation is a concern, work with coaches and parents to develop a culture where any negative effects of being seen in relation to others are reduced.
  • A holistic approach may be more appropriate in later adolescence, whereby sports performers are given skills to cope with non-performance related life stressors alongside the performance related issues.
  • Help individuals to get the right support from various support networks as social support seeking increases with age. Coaches can provide informational support whereas families and significant others can provide emotional support.