Your focus and concentration suddenly disappears as you attempt to shoot the game winning ball. The overwhelming pressure of receiving the baton correctly to avoid disqualification within a relay race brings butterflies to the stomach. The cold sweat on your brow and on your palms become increasingly uncontrollable as you anticipate the start gun. Do any of these psychological and physiological responses sound all too familiar? For many athletes anxiety is something they have to deal with and cope with; from attempting a first training session after returning from injury, to competing in a highly pressured final. Big or small, responses to anxiety and stress will be inevitable during sporting endeavours. But how can we control them as sports performers?
Athletes’ response to stress is evidently popular within the realm of sport and exercise psychology. Current research defines stress as transactional, suggesting that there is a relationship between the performer and his environment. Transactional stress theory is a dynamic process; it focuses on the cognitive and psychological mechanisms of appraisals and subsequent coping responses. Cognitive appraisal is a central and pivotal concept in the transactional perspective of stress. It is how the individual evaluates internal and external stimuli as well as evaluating the significance of them. This involves the appraisal of relevant stressors. If the conflict is considered meaningful, the performer then evaluates whether he or she has the sufficient personal resources available to cope with the stressor. An event can only be deemed stressful if it encompasses person and situation factors – referred to as situational dependant. This dynamic process takes into account the individual differences of the performer and can be applied across a range of sporting situations.
Stressors are categorised as either competitive, organisational or personal as highlighted in transactional stress theory. Competitive stress is defined as an ongoing transaction between an individual, and the environmental demands associated primarily and directly with competitive performance. For example, a rugby player may perceive jeering crowds or abusive opponents as a competitive stressor, as it is within the sporting environment they are competing in. Additionally, an individual’s inadequate preparation can be a source of stress at competitions. Organisational stressors are related to the individuals operating procedures in the lead up too, or post sporting event. For instance it could be factors around the athlete’s career or role conflict within the organisation he is operating in. Lastly, personal stressors encapsulate every day stressors that affect the individual, perhaps major life events, for example, marriage or the loss of a loved one.
Research has highlighted the difference between primary appraisals and secondary appraisals. Primary appraisals refer to evaluations one makes regarding what is at stake, relative values, goal commitments, situational intentions, and beliefs about oneself and the world, which attribute meaning and significance to a situation. It has been proposed that there are three types of primary appraisals; irrelevant appraisals, which are harmless to the individual, benign-positive appraisals, which is the evaluation of potential stressors emerging in the environment, and stressful appraisals, which indicate substantial threat to the individual’s well-being. The secondary appraisal in this process would be the assessment of the athlete’s coping resources. Secondary appraisals address the situation and how the athlete/performer feels about it.
Coping is a major component in the transaction stress process, defined as an individual’s ability to cope with his/her environmental stimuli and personal responses. The ability to cope with stress-related reactions depends on the individual; research has proposed that negative outcomes occur through the inadequate or inappropriate use of coping strategies. There are two fundamental coping approaches highlighted in literature. The first, problem-focused coping, is a strategy in which the individual attempts to deal with the environmental demands he or she encounters. This type of coping is associated with seeking support or guidance and reducing negative affect through rational thinking. The latter is emotion-focused coping, in which an individual attempts to deal with his or her emotional responses to stressors. This may include how the athlete justifies a performance, be that blaming others, avoidance or wishful thinking.
Examples of coping strategies employed by athletes include mental imagery and ‘pattern breaking.’ Mental imagery otherwise referred to as visualisation or mental rehearsal is a strategy commonly employed. Athletes use this technique to familiarise themselves with their competition environment, a difficult pattern of play, or even to repeatedly visualise the course route. Specifically, mental imagery can be used to reduce negative thoughts, subsequently tunnelling and focusing on positive outcomes only. Some athletes become so focused on being anxious or nervous, perhaps focusing solely on a mistake they could make, or thinking of the worst outcome that could become of their performance. This is often something that cannot be changed, e.g. the strength of their opponent, or the tracks condition. Instead, athletes should attempt to concentrate on how to improve and/or sustain their already good ability to perform, consequently, changing their negative attitude to a more positive facilitative attitude.
‘Pattern breaking’ routines are used when an athlete falls into a negative mental state due to uncontrolled mental imagery. A ‘pattern breaker’ is a word or phrase that an athlete can say mentally in their mind, or alternatively, their coach or a significant other can say out loud to them. Whatever works for you is best for you! There is no ‘right’ word, but this example is a favourite of mine and one that will drag your attention away from negative thoughts. Think of your role model within your sport, and consider what they would do in your position. Do not think of their, perhaps, ‘superior’ capabilities but instead how they would react if they were in your situation.
Consider stress as a challenge, not a threat