Stress appraisal: Challenge vs threat2 Opinions
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About Phin Naughton
A Performance Psychology Consultant helping individuals develop mental strength for the benefit of performance and well-being. Currently work with a range of high-performing athletes and business-people. Previous work includes Southampton FC and Bristol Rugby Club. I am currently working towards BASES accreditation and I am a recent graduate of the University of the West of England's Master's in Sport Psychology.
This article focuses on the process of appraising stressors and the impact this may have for sporting performance. It will provide an overview of the theoretical assumptions of stress appraisal and highlight relevant research that has applied this theoretical framework with athletes.
Within sport, athletes experience a variety of stressors that may impact their performances. According to the cognitive-behavioural model of stress (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984), distress is the result of the interaction of a stressful event (i.e. stressor), personal resources for coping, cognitive appraisal of the stressful event, and coping responses. Certain personality traits influence the type of situations that are perceived as being stressful as well as the appraisal of the stressor (Kaisler et al., 2009). For example, a neurotic athlete is more likely to experience interpersonal stressors and appraise situations with higher levels of stress reactivity and negative affect (Sue & Martin, 2005).
In a research synthesis, Arnold & Fletcher (2012) identified that organisational-related stressors encountered by sport performers are related to: leadership and personnel (e.g. performance feedback), cultural and team (e.g. communication), logistical and environmental (e.g. selection), and performance and personal (e.g. injuries). Still, according to Lazarus & Folkman’s (1984) transactional theory of stress, it is an individuals’ appraisal of situational relevance to well-being that potentially leads to a stress appraisal, rather than the situation itself. Such appraisals may be classified as either a challenge (a positive connotation) or threat (a negative connotation).
A stress relevant situation is appraised as challenging when it mobilises physical and psychological activity. Moreover, in the appraisal of a challenge, an athlete may see the opportunity to prove him or herself, anticipating gain, mastery or personal growth from the venture (Blasovich & Mendes, 2000). For example, a youth football player in a professional Academy realising he is being watched for the first time by the 1st team manager may see this a challenge, due a belief that he has sufficient resources to cope in demonstrating his skills and abilities to prove potential worth as a professional player.
On the other hand, threat occurs when an individual lacks sufficient resources to cope with a stressor and, therefore, perceives being in danger (Blasovich & Mendes, 2000). For example, an Academy footballer being watched for the first time by the 1st manager may see this as a threat due to a recent string of poor performances and, therefore, believes he will perform poorly and not meet expectations.
Therefore, stress appraisal (either challenge or threat) results from perceived situational demands in relation to perceived personal coping resources.
In a cross-sectional analysis with a range of elite athletes, Dugdale et al (2002) found that unexpected stressors were appraised as more threatening than those that were expected during competitive performances. Similarly, in a qualitative inquiry with athletes from various sports, Neil et al (2011) established that appraisals of stressor were interpreted as debilitative for performance and, consequently, affected athletes’ behaviour due to a lack of control over thoughts and emotions. Yet, in contrast, athletes’ in this study also reported occasions where stressors were appraised in relation to experience and, in turn, were able to interpret thoughts and feelings as facilitative for performance. To this end, it could be argued that the former finding in this study is related to a threat appraisal, and the latter finding is related to a challenge appraisal. Furthermore, Kaiseler et al (2009) demonstrated that athletes high in ‘mental toughness’ perceived stressful events as a challenge, something that can be influenced, acted upon and capable of overcoming.
In summary, athletes experience a variety of stressors in their sporting lives. How these are appraised range from stressor to stressor and, how a particular stressor is appraised may be different for each athlete. Ultimately, the way athletes appraise stressors (i.e. as a threat or challenge) may impact their response to that stressor, in terms of facilitating or debilitating subsequent performance.