Stressors, Sports Performance and the Perception of the AthleteNo Opinions
Sports competition has the ability to continually draw large amounts of spectators. A reason because of this is due to the multiple situations in which no one foresees occurring. The unpredictability of sports can leave fans nervously biting their figure nails, as nothing is certain. Take for example just in the year 2019. In the 3rd round of the F.A Cup, Leicester FC (Premier League) lost to Newport FC (League two); a team 74 places below them. Or in the sport of basketball, where the Milwaukee Bucks (1st) lost to the Phoenix Suns (30th). Or in the sport of tennis, where Serena Williams lost to Karolina Pliskova. These, at first glance, looked like an easy victory for Leicester FC, Milwaukee Bucks and Serena Williams. However, these athletes and teams were unable to produce the performance necessary for victory. Unforeseen situations not only impact the final results of competition but also the individual performance during competition (Doron & Bourbousson, 2017). The unique thing about these situations, however, is that its performance impact is heavily dependent on the perception the athlete has of the situation. Within this article, an exploration of this perception and these situations will be investigated. Practical suggestions will also be made of the psychological skills and techniques which could positively impact this perception and subsequently performance.
Each sport, team and individual athlete has a unique set of demands. These demands are environmental (weather, crowd noise), opposition (skill level, team strategy) and self-demands (self-expectations) (Fletcher, Hanton, Mellalieu, & Neil, 2012). How these demands impact the performance of the athlete is dependent on their perception. When the athlete perceives a situation to be harmful to their performance, exceeding their physical and psychological capabilities, this is referred to as a stressor (Nicholls, Levy, Grice, & Polman, 2009). An athlete, for example, could perceive defending against a faster opponent as a stressor, as they believe the opposition demands exceed their performance capabilities. Stressors can also be experienced team wise (team stressor). For example, a player receiving a red card could be a stressor, as the team may collectively perceive this hole in their formation to exceed their performance capabilities.
A negative perception of a stressor can negatively impact the mental and physical skills the athlete is able to use during this situation; subsequently effecting their overall performance negatively (Neil, Hanton, Mellalieu, & Fletcher, 2011, Nicholls et al., 2009). This is because by negatively perceiving a stressor, an athletes’ focus is narrowed to only that stressor experienced, instead of focusing on the performance necessary for victory (Anshel et al., 2001; Campbell & Jones, 2002). For example, only focusing on the faster players’ speed when they have the ball or only focusing on the hole in the team’s formation. This perception about unforeseen situations could not only negatively affect performance, but could also lead to results experienced by Leicester FC, Milwaukee Bucks and Serena Williams. If however, these stressors are perceived differently, more positively, what impact could this have on the athlete’s performance?
A positive perception of a stressor means that the individual views the situation as a challenge rather than harmful to their performance. This does not eliminate or enable the athlete to avoid stressors as these situations and demands are inherited within their sport. This mental switch however, opens the possibility of finding solutions to the stressor experienced (Folkman, 2013; Lazarus & Folkman, 1987). This is evident, for example in the sport of basketball, wherein the 2016 NBA finals the Golden State Warriors faced off against the Cleveland Cavaliers. It was expected that the Golden State Warriors would win after having just set NBA history with the most regular-season victories. This looked to be the case as they were winning the series 3-1. The Cavaliers however, performed in a way that suggests they viewed the situation as a challenge. They made multiple adjustments to their team offensively and defensively and were able to win 3 games in a row and be crowned 2016 NBA Champions.
It is clear that a negative perception of a stressor could have a negative impact on performance and the opposite effect could occur with a positive perception. Because of this, implementing psychological skills would be useful to enable athletes to have a positive perception of stressors which occur. This is enabled due to these skills and techniques drawing the athletes focus to a problem solving (rather than problem focused) mind state; increasing the options available for the athlete to successfully cope with the stressor and perform at an optimal level (Kaiseler, Polman, & Nicholls, 2009). These sport psychological skills and techniques can be used when experiencing both individual and team stressors.
Psychological Skills and Techniques
For individual stressors, the technique self-talk could be used to promote a positive perception of stressors. Self-talk is the external and internal dialog a person has with themselves. The underlining principle is that what a person says to themselves impacts how they behave (Hardy, 2006). This suggests then that by initiating the desired thought, the desired action is taken (Hardy, Hall, & Alexander, 2001). There are multiple types of self-talk, however the one which could be beneficial when experiencing stressors would be goal-directed self-talk. Goal-directed self-talk is used to make progress on a task or solve a problem (Latinjak, Font-Lladó, Zourbanos, & Hatzigeorgiadis, 2016). This could be used by creating a cue word which is unique to the individual and their sport. It would also allow them to focus on what is required to perform to the level they can (Hardy, Gammage, & Hall, 2001). For example, if a tennis players’ stressor is their opponent’s defence, the potential goal-directed self-talk cue word could be “target”. This cue word places the focus on the position in which the athlete wants to put the ball and ways to execute this; scoring the point. This cue word therefore, switches the athlete’s perception to viewing the situation as a challenge and attempt to find solutions to cope with the current stressor.
For team stressors, the psychological skill team cohesion could be used for the team to promote a positive perception of a stressor. Team cohesion is the process of keeping a group together and in pursuit of a common objective (Carron, Bray, & Eys, 2002; Kleinert et al., 2012). Similar to self-talk, by the team drawing their focus to the task at hand (referred to as task cohesion), the desired action is more likely to occur. This could be conducted through effective team communication, team leadership and understanding your role within the team. With these techniques integrated within the team, when stressors arise, a structure would be in place to enable everyone to understand what they individual need to do within the team, enabling the collective group to focus on finding solutions to stressors experienced.
In conclusion, unforeseen situations always occur within sports. This is one of the many reasons why sports fans enjoy sports as nothing is certain. These unforeseen situations are referred to as stressors and every athlete experiences this. As stressors cannot be entirely removed, the focus within sport psychology has been placed on the perception the athlete has of these stressors. A negative perception of these stressors can have a negative impact on the athlete’s performance. However, psychological skills and techniques can be implemented to enable athletes to have a positive perception of stressors. With this perception, athletes can focus on solving the issue at hand, putting them in the best position to perform at their optimal level.
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About Philip Solomon-Turay
I am a trainee Sport Psychologist with an enthusiasm for multiple sports and investigating the psychological skills necessary to perform at an elite level. I currently hold a MSc in Sport Psychology from St Mary's University, UK, and I have had opportunities to gain experience within the field through working with athletes and teams across the UK. I aim to become a fully qualified Sport Psychologist and provide psychological skills training for multiple athletes and teams across a wide variety sports