What is it?
There are many reasons people give to being stressed. Trying to balance work and a social life, meeting deadlines, preparing for a big event. These are examples of chronic or long-term stress, the kind you feel for an extended period of time. But what about those sudden, unexpected moments that cause stress? The ones that take you by surprise. Before you were feeling calm, confident and collected, now you’re engulfed by a sudden sense of dread. This is known as short-term stress or acute stress. Acute stress induces physical and emotional responses that help to ready the body and the mind to deal with a threat (Cole, 2007). We experience acute stress when we feel threatened or someone we care about is under threat. Think of the last time you watched a scary film, you knew something scary would happen you but didn’t know when. Your heart was pumping, your muscles were tensed and your body was ready to run or ready for combat. You were ready to fight or to flight. However, once the film was over there was no more threat and so the stress reactions went away (Cole, 2007). This is what makes acute stress different from chronic, once the threat is no longer there the stress responses fades.
When does it occur?
Every athlete from the elite to the casual, from international competition to the 5 aside friendlies will know the feeling of pressure to perform and the stress that can accompany it. No one who has ever played sport can say they haven’t faced stress and very few can say they’ve never fallen to it. When we’re performing it can feel like we’re the only one who suffers from stress but when researchers have looked into the area they’ve found similar causes of stress appearing that can be generalized to a whole range of sports. Researchers Nicholls and Polman (2007), asked players from the England Under-18s Rugby Union team what stressors they faced. The most commonly report sources of stress were 1) physical error 2) criticism from coach or parent 3) mental error 4) sustaining an injury and 5) observing an opponent perform well. Not one of the top 5 causes of stress was related directly to rugby. These could all be applied to other sports and have just as much relevance. In any sport one can feel stressed when they’ve been criticised by the coach or the dread of making a mistake and feeling it’s impacted the whole game. Even Ander Herrera, in an interview with FourFourTwo, commented how the pressure was stepped up when he moved to Man United “You have more pressure on you. I told you before everyone is going to talk about you. Everyone is going to watch your games.”
Why do we succumb to stress?
Why is it that only some situations cause stress? Or the same situation can be stressful for one person but not another? Imagine this: You have gone out for a walk in the park. The weather is warm and you’re enjoying the fresh air. Suddenly a woman comes towards you with her dog. You love dogs and instantly feel happy and relaxed. You even go over to say hello.
Now rewind the situation: You have gone out for a walk in the park. The weather is warm and you’re enjoying the fresh air. Suddenly a woman comes towards you with her dog. You are terrified of dogs. You begin to panic. Your heart is beating faster and your muscles have become tense ready to sprint in case the dog decides to run at you.
The difference between the two situations was that in the second your fear made you view the situation as dangerous. While stressors themselves are bad they aren’t damaging until we judge them as having the potential to be damaging to us. When a person is met with a specific event they decide if this event is threatening to them or if it is relevant to their well-being (Folkman, Lazarus, Dunekl-Shetter, DeLongis & Gruen, 1986). This is cognitive appraisal. If we don’t view the situation as threatening we don’t become stressed. Looking back at the cause of stressors discussed above (Nicholls & Polman, 2007) one can see how an opponent playing well could threaten how we view ourselves as the better player, or on a more practical level a good opponent can mean we risk losing. Once we’ve viewed a situation as threatening, unless we know how to handle that stress, the outcome can be detrimental to our performance.
Failing to cope
Failure to cope effectively with stress in a sporting environment can cause people to engage in behaviours that negatively affect performance such as poor decision making, misguided attentional focus and self-defeating thoughts and emotions (Anshel, 1990). Misguided attentional focus can lead to self-focus which occurs when a player pays too much attention to the explicit parts of a skill to make sure it’s done correctly (Hill & Hemmings, 2015). Have you ever paid too much attention to how you walk and suddenly walking became difficult? Overthinking the things we can do automatically, along with self-defeating thoughts and poor decision making can lead to a sudden decline in our performance, also known as choking.
“Choking in ‘sport is an acute and considerable decline in skill execution and performance, when self-expected standards are normally achievable, and which is the result of increased anxiety under perceived pressure” (Mesagno & Hill, 2013). In the 2011 Masters Rory McIlroy experienced the full effects of stress on performance. After a week of playing well and gaining a comfortable lead, his performance on the final day spiralled and he finished with a score card of 80 tied for 15th place. Rory McIlroy’s drop in performance exemplifies how stress doesn’t have to be a constant factor and doesn’t have to build over time. It can come on us suddenly and while we may have been playing well before, once stress hits it needs to be managed before it can take control.
Dealing with stress
While the common suggestions for handling stress may be to take long bath or relax with a film these won’t do when you’re mid match. Instead people use a coping strategy, a technique that will allow them to quickly deal with and relieve the stress so they can perform at their best. Researchers have looked into the area of coping and found two coping styles, avoidance coping and approach coping (Anshel, Jamieson & Raviv, 2001; Anshel & Anderson, 2002; Wang, Marchant & Morris, 2004; Nicholls & Polman, 2007; Anshel & Si, 2008; Hill & Hemmings 2015). When using approach coping you pay attention to whatever it is that is causing you stress and you actively take steps to deal with the issue to decrease the intensity of the stressor (Anshel, Jamieson & Raviv, 2001). In sport approach coping can be used to address problems like executing a specific skill. Imagine you’re a rugby player. You’re having a great game except you are having trouble catching the ball properly. You’re quickly becoming stressed as you know this is a skill they can do well in training. You could ignore the problem but instead you wait until half time and go speak to your coach. They remind you to keep your hands up ready to catch. Armed with this knowledge you catch the ball without issue and the stress melts away. Other forms of approach coping techniques noted in the research are questioning, arguing, imagining the stressful event or reflecting on a previous error to come up with a solution to decrease the possibility of it happening again (Anshel & Anderson, 2002).
Avoidance coping is as it sounds. Avoid the stressor to stop it impacting your game. Avoidance is when a person tries to ignore the stressor or psychologically distance themselves by seeking out other people to act as distractions or moving on to the next task at hand (Anshel et al., 2001). Imagine your team is playing well in your football match and you’re one ahead of the opposition when the ref decides to give them a penalty. You disagree with the call and know it may mean the score is tied if they make the shot. However there is nothing you can do about the call or the outcome of the penalty so instead you focus on your next job in the game. Other methods of avoidance coping strategies include ignoring the stressor, discounting it as unimportant or engaging in another, unrelated task (Krohne, 1996).
How to cope when it counts
Both coping styles can have advantages and disadvantages. Knowing when to use approach or avoidance coping is rarely black or white, more often it depends on the stressor itself and the situation one is coping with. A general finding across research is approach coping is more effective in times when we have high controllability over the situation and there is a source of information we can draw from to fix the problem (Anshel, 1996). Thinking back to the example above when you were having problems catching the ball. Fixing the skill was in your control. By going to the coach at half time there is time and a good source of knowledge you could use to improve. Where approach coping wouldn’t work is in instances of high pressure with little controllability. If someone were to choose to focus on specific elements of a skill, like catching a ball, at a time of high pressure, in the middle of a ruck, this distracts them from more relevant elements of the game (Beilock & Gray, 2007) like where the ball is going next.
In these times of high stress, avoidance coping can be more appropriate. Avoidance coping is far more advantageous in situations where we have low control over the cause of the stress (Anshel et al., 2001). Looking back to the previous example when the ref made a call you disagreed with although the call caused stress you had no control over the situation. Therefore ignoring that stressor and moving on to your next job in the match is a more appropriate way to cope.
Knowing which method of coping to use and when may sound clear cut and obvious, but that isn’t the case. Often, athletes will report using a combination of both to deal with stress. For instance, Hill and Hemmings (2015) interviewed golfers to see what forms of coping they had employed in situations when they choked and when they played well. In terms of choking the most common coping strategies were avoidance coping, hoping, venting and self-focus which is a form of approach coping. In terms of playing well, the coping strategies most commonly mentioned by players were approach coping strategies of a pre- and post-shot routine, cognitive restructuring, and simulated practice as well as using the avoidance strategies of acceptance and withdrawal, walking away from uncontrollable stressors, to help their performance. Good performance wasn’t dictated by one form of coping, it took elements of both, just as choking was the result of using inappropriate avoidance and approach strategies. Mesagno and Marchant (2013) reported netball players who were more susceptible to choking in high pressure situations used approach coping, whereas players who were more resistant to choking used avoidance coping to handle the stress. However when they interviewed the netball players they described using elements of both coping styles, similar to the golfers.
The key is to know what coping strategies to use and when. Golf is a slow and technical game, by trying to avoid the stressor by mentally distancing themselves the player rushed the shot. It was the wrong avoidance strategy to use. As we saw a more appropriate response to stress would be to use a pre-shot routine to keep them calm and focused. An appropriate avoidance mechanism was withdrawl as it allowed them to walk away from sources of stress like a verbally abusive opponent. Netball is a faster game than golf and there is less time to use techniques like routines or look for information to fix a problem. Therefore using avoidance strategies to prevent over thinking on uncontrollable stressors aided performance. Nevertheless players did also report successfully using some approach coping techniques like cognitive restructuring, which is replacing negative thoughts and statements with positive ones (Silva, 1982). Neither the golf nor the netball players used all one and none of the other method to cope. In times of good performance appropriate elements of both styles of coping were used.
Stress doesn’t have to be long-term and building to cause problems in our performance. Often it can be that sudden feeling of threat that can impact how well we play. Once we feel threatened if we fail to cope or don’t cope well there is the risk we choke. Approach and avoidance are two methods of coping often employed in the world of sport. Approach coping helps us to tackle stressors by giving them attention and dealing with them head on. These are most applicable when sources of stress are controllable and we have time to fix them. Otherwise avoidance coping can suit us best. When we have little control over the cause of the stress it can make more sense to walk away or ignore it. Usually to perform at our best we employ strategies from both types of coping. This requires a balance of using the right strategy at the right time, like using a pre-game routine to focus our thoughts and withdrawal to ignore a stressor that is outside our control.
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About Roisin Kelly
Roisin is a Masters student of Sport and Exercise Psychology in Loughborough University, England. She previously completed her Psychology Undergraduate Degree in Dublin City University. Roisin has played sport since she was a child and currently enjoys playing rugby. She hopes to one day work as a Sport Psychologist.