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Stress in Sport: Helping you cope

Everyone gets stressed at some point in their lives, athletes included! Although we like to paint our favourite sports stars as super heroes, there have been many examples of where athletes have reported these all too familiar feelings of stress. Take Jessica Ennis-Hill for example, poster girl for the London 2012 Olympics. Watching her win Gold, you would have never thought that she would have been suffering from stress prior to the games. Yet a string of injuries resulted in a tough few months: “It was definitely worrying and very stressful. I’ve been panicking the past few weeks because if you don’t run for a week it feels like a long time but then if it goes on for weeks and weeks, it’s really difficult.”

Sport stressors are categorised via the transactional stress theory (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984) as either competitive, organisational or personal. A competitive stress (such as an injury) is defined as an ongoing transaction between an individual and the demands of the sport. Organisational stress could refer to the procedures leading up to, or after a sporting event, such as conflict within the media. Finally, personal stressors consist of the everyday stressors that affect an individual such as moving to a new house or the death of a loved one.

So how do athletes like Ennis-Hill cope with this stress under immense pressure? Within sport psychology, a large body of research has been done into the different coping strategies that athletes can employ to deal with the stress that occurs within sport. There are two main approaches when focusing on coping: problem-focused coping and emotion-focused coping (Nicholls & Polman, 2007). Problem-focused coping is where the athlete attempts to deal with the environmental demands that they encounter. Emotion-focused coping is where the individual attempts to cope with their emotional response to the stressors. A few specific examples of coping strategies are followed

Mental imagery is a popular coping technique that is commonly employed by athletes in a wide variety of sports (e.g. rugby union, football, swimming and cricket). The technique is used to allow athletes to familiarise themselves with their competition environment, a pattern of play or a course route. It can also be used to reduce negative thoughts and help athletes to focus on positive outcomes and thoughts.

A second coping technique is pattern breaking routines, such as a cue word, phrase or trigger action. These phrases and actions are used to refocus the athlete on the task in hand when they find themselves focusing in a downward spiral of negative thoughts.

To gain understanding of your own stressors in sport, or to learn some more about how you can cope with these stressors please don’t hesitate to contact us!


Woking, Surrey

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