The Theory of Challenge and Threat States in Athletes (TCTSA) provides a framework for understanding how athletes react psycho-physiologically within competitive situations (Jones, Meijen, McCarthy & Sheffield 2009). To expand, the TCTSA proposes that in a sporting context an athlete’ appraisals of a sporting situation or competition will likely determine their sporting performance. Appraisals comprise three inter-related constructs, namely self-efficacy, perceived control, and goal orientation, all of which determine a perceived challenge or threat state and an athlete’s consequential effort, attention, decision making and physical functioning. In essence, a perceived challenge state promotes energy efficiency through glucose delivery and culminates in successful sport performance, but a perceived threat state restricts blood flow to the muscles and brain which compromises the mobilisation of attention and decision making and results in less effective sport performance (Dienstbier 1989; Jones et al 2009).

To explain a little further about the three inter-related constructs linked to appraisals, the TCTSA proposes that self-efficacy as an important determinant for appraisal formation because an individual’s belief in their ability to succeed largely depends on their perception of ability to cope with situation demand and execute skills for success (Lazarus 1999). Applied evidence within the competitive anxiety literature supports this argument, suggesting conditions for anxiety are inherent across elite level competition, however high levels of self-efficacy are associated with positive interpretations of anxiety symptoms and appraisals conducive with a challenge state that aids performance (Hanton, Mellalieu & Hall 2004).  Thus self-efficacy might mediate performance outcome.  Secondly, control influences the formation of threat and challenge states given that athletes need to feel both able to compete in a demanding situation and believe they have necessary control to perform to the best of their ability regardless of extraneous, unpredictable variables outside of their control (ie, unexpected obstacles, weather conditions for example) .  Thirdly, goal orientation can influence appraisals of a sporting competition, in that athletes who approach an event with a goal focused approach centred on demonstrating competence will likely experience challenge state on approach to competition; an approach which allows for the retention of high self-efficacy and levels of perceived control. In contrast, approaches driven by avoiding incompetence will likely trigger threat state and hinder performance.

In sum, the TCTSA model would suggest that athlete appraisals are crucial determinants of sporting performance and, more specifically that inter-related constructs of self-efficacy, perceived control, and goal orientation, likely determine a perception of being in a challenge or threat state. This perception will influence an athlete’s consequential effort, attention, decision making and physical functioning, and ultimately their sporting performance.

How can the TCTSA be applied in practice to maximise athlete performance?

The TCTSA (Jones et al 2009) has a theoretical foundation that provides a potential framework for stress management to maximise athlete performance (Turner & Jones 2014). A practical, applied strategy would seek to promote self-efficacy, perceived control and a goal focused approach, with the overall aim being to promote a challenge state that motivates sport performance (Turner et al 2013).  A strategy that combines imagery with a “challenge strategy” (Turner & Jones 2014) can aid athlete performance. Imagery is a well-documented psychological skill that involves intentional recreation of events in the absence of physical practice and has been shown to help athletes achieve a desired psychophysiological state when preparing for performance (Durand, Hall & Haslam 1997). The benefits of imagery on challenge and threat states have also been empirically examined, with findings suggesting that imagery scripts dominated by challenge based appraisals promote perceived control and self-confidence (Williams, Cumming & Balanos 2010).

Tips for developing a TCTSA driven imagery script (adapted from Williams, Cooley, Newell & Cuming 2013)

1 Have a clear rationale

At the outset, make sure the athlete knows the purpose of the imagery script and, more importantly, ensure they are in agreement it may be useful for them.

Consider whether the athlete would prefer a script in first or third person narrative.

2 Draw on past performance successes.

Develop a script that draws on an athlete’s past performance successes and what those performances looked, felt and sounded like in-vivo (sights, sounds, physical sensations, crowd noise for example)

  1. Draw on prior imagery experiences that have helped the athlete

Understand if and/or how imagery has helped the athlete in the past. What did they like about imagery? Draw on this experience.

  1. Have a plan for systematically implementing the script

When is the script most likely to be useful? i.e.  the night before a competition, on competition day, during training.

  1. Set a review

Set a date to review the script and how well it is working for the athlete. Be prepared to refine the script over time in collaboration with the athlete and their changing needs.

Example of an imagery script for a marathon runner, underpinned by the TCTSA model.

You are stood on the starting line… have warmed up and feel ready to run.  You are huddled in, with a competitor on each side……you can hear the crowds on the kerbside ……….you can see the starting ribbon right in front of you…… you move your legs from side to side to keep warm……you can feel the sensations of your feet touching the tarmac…… shake your arms to loosen up and take a deep breath. You know you have around a minute before you start to run.

You notice how you think and feel in this moment. You feel able to perform well today… you can feel butterfly sensations and your heart is beating quickly. You know these feelings well from previous marathons……..they are a good sign…..they are telling you that you are ready to perform…… and perform well.

You are aware of your goals for today. You feel confident you can achieve them . You are in control. …

The gun goes off … RUN!.

You execute the first mile quickly and feel you are in control.  As the miles tick by you begin settle into the race and relax.  Your breathing becomes calmer…..this is a sign you have relaxed……you feel confident.

You maintain your momentum and relax into the run. Your arms swing freely and rhythmically…..your head nods gently……you are in control.

As you approach the final 5 miles your legs feel heavy…you know this feeling from previous races….and you know what to do to get you through it………remember to keep a steady pace and keep nodding your head gently and rhythmically……you know that doing this will maintain control. You have done successfully in past races and it works well for you… are confident

As you approach the final mile you can hear the crowd noise……the noise gets louder as you near the finish line… can anticipate that feeling of exhilaration as you cross the finish line… visualise yourself crossing the line strong and with confidence.

You cross the line, raise your arms and acknowledge your good performance. You reflect on the race for a few moments… take a few moments to look around…..the spectators are clapping and cheering. This accolade signals that you have achieved a good performance that deserves celebrating. You are proud of yourself.  Well done.

ReferencesShow all

Dienstbier, R. A. (1989). Arousal and physiological toughness: Implications for mental and physical health. Psychological Review, 96, 84-100.
Durand, M., Hall, C., & Haslam, I. R. (1997). The effects of combining mental practice and physical practice on motor skills acquisition: A review of the literature and some practical implications. The Hong Kong Journal of Sports Medicine and Sports Science, 4, 36-41.
Jones, M., Meijen, C., McCarthy, P.J., & Sheffield, D. (2009). Theory of Challenge and Threat States in Athletes. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 2 (2), 161-180.
Lazarus, R.S.(1999). Stress and Emotion: A new synthesis. New York: Springer.
Turner, M. J., & Jones, M. V. (2014). Stress, emotions and athletes’ positive adaptation to sport: Contributes from a transactional perspective. In R, Gomes, R, Resende, and A, Albuquerque (Eds.). Positive human functioning from a multidimensional perspective. Nova Science.
Turner, M. J., Jones, M. V., Sheffield, D., Slater, M. J., Barker, J. B., & Bell, J. (2013). Who thrives under pressure? Predicting the performance of elite academy cricketers using the cardiovascular indicators of challenge and threat states. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 35, (4), 387-397.
Williams, S. E., Cumming, J., & Balanos, G. (2010). The use of imagery to manipulate challenge and threat appraisal states in athletes. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 32, 339-358
Williams, S.E., Cooley, S.J., Newell, E.J., Weibull, F., & Cumming, J. (2014). Seeing the Difference: Developing Effective Imagery Scripts for Athletes. Journal of Sport Psychology in Action, 4, 109–121.