“All of us get knocked down, but it is resiliency that really matters. All of us do well when things are going well, but the thing that distinguishes athletes is the ability to do well in times of great stress, urgency and pressure.” — Roger Staubach
We’ve all been there – the referee makes an unfavorable call; your opponent is faster than you; your pitching is off; the ground is wet, but what separates elite athletes from mediocre athletes is the ability to perform at a higher level despite the obstacles and adversity they may face. There are a million excuses for not performing your best during a competition, but professional athletes make no excuses. Simply put, if you want to become a professional, you’ll need to learn how to deal with stress and pressure effectively.
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So what exactly is competitive stress? Generally, sport psychologists define it as “an athlete’s perception of the imbalance between the environmental demands placed on him or her and the athlete’s response capacity and resources for meeting those demands” (Gould and Rolo 2004). For example, a hockey player may face a situation where he or she needs to score a crucial penalty shot to win a tournament for their team. If the player perceives the demands as exceeding his or her capabilities, the result is increased competitive stress. This increase in stress can lead to apprehension, loss of confidence, tension and inability to concentrate. Luckily, because competitive stress is one of the most studied areas among sport psychologists, there are many strategies and techniques athletes can learn to cope with their anxiety during competition.
A study of the Women’s National Soccer team (Holt and Hogg 2002) revealed that players typically use four coping strategies during competition. Other sport psychologists (Van Yperen 2009, Scanlan and Passer 1979, Kristiansen and Roberts 2010, and Anshel et al 2000) have noted these strategies in their research and agree that they can be employed by any athlete in any sport to help manage stress.
Problem-focused coping: involves strategies to manage or alter the problem that is causing stress through behaviors such as information gathering, goal setting, time management skills, and problem-solving. Problem-focused coping can also include what you do before the game to manage stress. Many athletes report that having a good warm-up/start and communication between their teammates helps them manage stress.
Emotion-focused coping: includes the strategies of regulating emotional responses resulting from a stressor through actions like meditation, relaxation, and cognitive efforts to change the meaning the individual attached to the situation. The use of social support like encouragement from teammates or family may also help the athlete de-stress.
Avoidance coping: involves physically or mentally disengaging from the stressful situation. This is typically done by ignoring or blocking irrelevant distractions like parents, coaches, and fans.
Appraisal coping: involves efforts to modify the way you think. People may alter the way they think about a problem by altering their goals and values. Athletes may use positive self-talk, or mental images of past successes to cope with their anxiety.
It is important to note that dealing with competitive stress is a complex process for elite athletes that does not simply involve one coping style employed for all situations. Athletes will often use a combination of the above four strategies, which is why it is important to experiment with different methods of coping. Identifying the strategies that work the best for you will help you improve your performance and mental toughness.
EXACT Sports knows that a player’s success not only depends on their physical and technical prowess, but also their mental aptitude and behavioral characteristics, which is why we work hard to teach and develop these effective ways to cope with competitive stress along with the other mental characteristics needed to excel in your sport.
Anshel, M. et al (2000). Coping style following acute stress in competitive sport. Journal of Social Psychology, 140 (6), 751-773
Gould, D., & Rolo, C. (2004) In C. D. Spielberger (ed.) Encyclopedia of Applied Psychology. (441-447), Academic Press.
Holt, N. L., & Hogg, J. M. (2002) Perceptions of stress and coping during preparations for the 1999 women’s soccer World Cup finals. The Sport Psychologist, 16, 251-271
Kristiansen, E., & Roberts, G. C. (2010). Young athletes and social support: Coping with competitive stress and organizational stress in “Olympic” competition. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 20 (4), 686-696
Scanlan, T. K., & Passer, M. W. (1979) Sources of competitive stress in young female athletes. Journal of Sport Psychology, 1, 151-159
Van Yperen, N. W. (2009). Why some make it and others do not: Identifying psychological factors that predict career success in professional adult soccer. The Sport Psychologist, 23, 317-329