Stress in Sport

Human brain in x-ray view

Stress has been identified as crucial in sport, influencing performance as well as social functioning (Jones & Hardy, 1990). Increased anxiety and burn-out are symptoms which have been associated inability to manage stress in sport, as well as decreased self-esteem and performance difficulties. As the study of stress in sport has continued to develop, research has primarily focused on the athlete experience. While a focus on the athlete may be appropriate, it could be argued that there are other individuals who have to perform, such as the coach. In more recent times, It has been highlighted there are multiple roles that coaches must assume and there is no doubt that these higher number of demands will be associated with stress for the coach. Because of this, several researchers have devoted study into the stressful nature of sports coaching (Gould, Guinan, Greenleaf, & Chung, 2002). As Thelwell et al (2008) argued, given the technical, physical, organizational, and psychological challenges involved, coaches should be regarded as performers in their own right. Coaches’ performances are often judged by the success of their athletes (Gould et al., 2002) so it is therefore not surprising that coaches experience stress as a result of these growing demands. Take Manchester City FC manager Roberto Mancini for example. Surely the ever-going off the pitch antics and attitude of former City striker Mario Ballotelli would have put numerous stressors on poor ol’ Roberto, such as selection issues and overall attitude on and off the pitch to get the best out of Mario’s potential.  There is existing research into this area which has resolved previous issues which previously existed within the psychological literature regarding stress and sports coaches and the potential for stress into sports coaching research to grow is increasing with new limitations that require addressing.

What do we know about stress in elite coaching already?

So how much light has been currently shed on the area of sporting coach stress? In a study by Frey (2007), National Collegiate Athletes Association (NCAA) Division 1 coaches were interviewed regarding their experiences with stress and their perceived effects of stress. When discussing the specific stressors, coaches frequently cited stressor themes along the lines of interpersonal factors, influences of other people, and factors that would lead to them quitting. The study also explored the coaches’ effects of stressors and came to a conclusion that while some stressors had facilitative roles (for example, enhancing focus and motivation) and most were debilitative in that they led to a number of sources of strain. Also, coach stress was reported to affect others, such as their athletes, to the extent that it affected both their mind-sets and their performances. Despite this study initially advancing our knowledge towards some of the stressors experienced by coaches, it had limitations including the standard of participants. Even though the participants were all NCAA coaches, which is quite a high standard, it is reasonable to suggest that they do not fully represent ‘‘elite’’ athlete coaches due to their experience or the level of performers with whom they have worked with (Fletcher & Scott, 2010). Therefore, examining coaches of a higher level was imperative to provide a more comprehensive understanding of the stressors experienced by coaches working with elite athletes. This was achieved by Thelwell et al (2008), who examined the varying stressors experienced by coaches who operate with elite athletes. The results indicated that a variety of stressors from both performance and organizational contexts affect elite coaches, similar to the athletes (Hanton et al., 2005), therefore a coach should be known as an athlete in their own right.

This leads me on to an effective advantage an athlete can give themselves above others using marginal gains (extra components or assets which can enhance an athlete’s or a team’s chances of success by breaking elements down in an attempt to improve them). Beckam’s achievement during the off season has allowed him to benefit from marginal gains; something Jenson Button believes is a reason for success. In F1, new components can assist in helping the driver obtain a 0.1 – 0.2 second advantage (Button, 2013). However, marginal gains could also include the fitness, nutritional and psychological edge an athlete can achieve over their counterparts. These are vital components required to stay at the top; moreover the support an athlete receives for these components can be even more influential. For example, with the additional demands of winning to stay at the top, psychological support can assist the athlete in comprising a plan which encompasses a manageable schedule, still providing time for quality training, rest and personal life alongside sponsor demands and other engagements. Needless to say this would be hard work; however staying at the top is arguably harder than getting there. This requires the athlete to push their limits. This shouldn’t faze the athlete by any means, after all they have had to be dedicated, committed and focused alongside overcoming adversity and challenge previously. Overcoming adversity many times before could better prepare them for the challenges which they face at this stage in career. For any elite athlete and player, marginal gains could be perceived as the edge which separates the good from the great.

“The greatest pressure comes only from myself” (Button, 2012). This statement could apply to every professional athlete. However the athletes who learn to control this pressure and channel it into their performance are the ones who prevail into the elite. This provokes an implication which is necessary for successful performance, focus only on what the athlete can control. “Don’t over-analyse; it’s important to recognise your own strengths and to maintain your own belief” (Button, 2012). By doing this they begin to reinforce their strengths and improve on their weaknesses through training which in turn assists with building mental superiority, gaining control of performance and building on previous successes.

It would appear incredibly simple for an athlete to continue with the processes they have been implementing on course to the top, however this is always easier said than done, hence a support network is essential. It is crucial that the athletes, in conjunction with their support network, reviews the successful components which helped them achieve elitism and try to implement these within the post winning programme in order to continue their success. From a psychological perspective, these include finding the self-belief they had prior to winning, relaxation and “Autopilot Connection” (Kreiner-Phillips & Orlick,), also referred to as either “The Zone” or “Flow”. Following on from this, research suggests athletes set subsequent goals post winning period and approaching the next competition as they did the last was deemed a successful attribute for continued success (Kreiner-Phillips & Orlick, ). An implication of this for psychologists is to ensure that they assist the athlete in approaching the next competition with the same focus and belief as the last, and in this process, ignoring distractions, purely focusing on process and performance rather than outcome.

Even though pressure could be perceived as an illusion, there is no doubt that athletes will always encounter pressure in their sporting career. As much as they could convince themselves it is not there, at some point, the pressure could mount. Hence it is paramount to assist the athlete in developing effective coping mechanisms. If the athlete can utilise these mechanisms, the world is their oyster. Have a game plan, focus on that, keep thoughts positive and in perspective, and finally challenge yourself!

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