We’ve all been there as a sports fan. End of the game, heart beating through the chest, palms are sweaty, knees weak…okay I’ll stop there. But every fan knows that stress and anxiety can skyrocket while watching a match, especially in crunch time. As an athlete myself, anytime I am watching a stressful game on TV, I always think: “Hey, at least we’re not in the game right now.” Considering the stress I have from simply watching the game, I could not imagine the amount of stress these athletes feel actually being in the environment (especially pre-COVID with thousands of fans in attendance).
However, time and time again, these professional athletes are put into extremely stressful situations. Granted, not all of them come through in these moments. We have all seen someone choke under pressure at one point. But a majority of the time, these athletes are able to perform at the highest level, even with all the stress in the world on their shoulders…how?
When looking at this idea, it is important to first understand the process of stress and how it affects our behavior. Researchers have been able to describe the process of stress in a model that looks at the emotion from a chronological standpoint:
The start of this process is the environmental demands that individuals encounter. These stressors can be events, situations, or conditions that come up in different areas of life. For pro athletes, they have to deal with three main types of stressors: Competitive stressors, organisational stressors, and personal stressors (Sarkar & Fletcher, 2014). The competitive stressors are extremely abundant for these individuals considering it is their job to compete, thus putting a lot of pressure on their performance. Now pile on top of that the organisational stressors such as the coach’s expectations, media attention, and constant travel and accommodation, along with whatever personal issues the athlete may be dealing with. Fletcher et al. (2012) confirmed this idea that higher-skilled athletes experience more stressors than lower-skilled athletes.
Overall, it is clear that these pro athletes have to deal with way more stress than the average person, especially during a high stakes performance. The stress is so palpable that we can feel it ourselves even though we’re not even in the environment.
So how do they perform with all this stress?
Let’s look at the next step in the process: appraisal. This can be defined as the evaluation of stressors and available resources and is split into primary appraisals (How might this affect me and do I care?) and secondary appraisals (What can I do about this and will it be enough?) (Fletcher et al., 2006). The key point about appraisals is described by Lazarus (1999), emphasizing the mechanism is nothing more than an evaluation of coping options and is not actually the implementation of coping strategies. However, this evaluation is still vital in the stress process. Those who appraise their stressors in a more positive, optimistic light will react in a more beneficial manner than those who appraise those stressors more negatively.
In this context, it is also important to look at what influences these appraisals. Lazarus (1999) splits the factors that influence how people appraise stressors into 2 categories: situational variables and personal variables. Situational variables include things like team culture, opportunity, and demands, while personal variables include factors such as goals, beliefs about the self, and personal resources (Lazarus, 1999).
When looking at professional athletes, almost all of them have experienced a great deal of success throughout their athletic career. Usually this comes with a high self-esteem within their sport, and they can use that confidence to positively appraise these stressors so they don’t hinder their performance. In other words, these pro athletes are so attuned to overcoming stressful situations that they are wired to not let stressors feel like the worst thing in the world. So when you are on your couch feeling extremely stressed out about your favorite team in crunch time, just understand they are probably not letting those stressful moments feel as stressful as they seem on paper. This is the main importance of the appraisal process.
Response & Coping
When looking at the last two steps in the process, they are very intertwined as our response to stress usually is related to how we cope. These responses can be a combination of psychological, physiological, and behavioral responses. The stereotypical responses to stress we all have experienced before include doubts and panic (psychological), muscle tension and a pounding heart (physiological), and fidgeting or pacing back and forth (behavioral). However, when you’re an athlete in the middle of an important performance, none of those responses are acceptable, especially at the highest level. Those who have made it to the top of their sport have succeeded many times in stressful situations. They have learned the optimal response (or lack thereof) to these stressors and understand that the negative responses described above are simply not going to correlate to success in their sport.
This is described very well by Fletcher et al. (2006) from an organizational standpoint. If one athlete has a run-in with their coach, they might label their anger or frustration from that interaction as debilitative, and use it as an excuse to not put as much effort into their sport. On the other hand, if another athlete has the exact same conflict with their coach, they could label that anger as facilitative, and use that emotion as motivation to spur them into investing more effort into their sport (Fletcher et al., 2006). These are the two ends of the spectrum in regards to responding to stressful situations, and for the most part, those who make it to the top league in their sport are responding in a facilitative manner, using their stress and other negative emotions as motivators.
In essence, these professional athletes have not only learned to positively appraise their stressors, but they also go a step further. They use that optimistic viewpoint to motivate themselves to invest more into their sport, and respond in a way that promotes hard work and success.
Related to this response process is the coping mechanisms athletes use during stressful situations in their sport. Research has shown that negative outcomes occur through the inadequate or inappropriate use of coping strategies (Fletcher et al., 2006). Coping can be described as cognitions and behaviors used by the individual following the recognition of a stressful encounter that is designed to deal with that encounter or its consequences (Dewe et al., 1993). Thus, coping involves all parts of the stress process; it includes the occurrence, appraisal, and responses to a stressful event. However, coping is a very complex mechanism that is demonstrated through research to be very individualistic, and cannot just be approached with a “one-size-fits-all” strategy (Didymus & Fletcher, 2014).
Because of this, coping strategies are split into different categories: problem-focused (dealing with the problem that arises), emotion-focused (dealing with the emotions that arise), and appraisal-focused (dealing with your interpretation of the stressors that arise). Evidence suggests sport performers use a wide range of these strategies, and it is beneficial to combine these focuses for the most optimal coping strategy (Fletcher et al., 2006).
Overall, there is no consensus on the most advantageous way to cope with stressors. However, pro athletes have learned how to overcome these stressful situations in part due to their ability to master the optimal coping strategies that work best for them.
To summarize, stress is a major part of competitive sport. There is no avoiding it as an athlete, so as a sport psychologist it is very important to understand the process in its entirety. It is also very essential to use the best athletes as models for success and learn from them. These professional athletes are able to thrive in these stressful environments due to their ability to positively appraise, respond, and cope with their stressors. They have trained themselves to use stress as a motivator rather than a debilitator. I think it is important to learn from the best in their field. Here are a few takeaways that we should all be aware of in our everyday life:
Stress is not necessarily a bad thing. We have seen stress motivate and inspire people to go beyond their capabilities.
What really matters is how you deal with these stressors. If you think you have it bad, just know someone else out there is dealing with far more stressors than you can even imagine.
Stressors are subjective based on how we appraise them. Learning how to “see the glass half full” in stressful situations can trickle down into our responses and coping mechanisms and help us succeed.
Professional athletes are adept at dealing with these stressful environments through years of practice and training. It is a process, so patience and persistence are also very important skills to harness when overcoming stress.
For more on the optimal stress response, check out the infographic below on the professional athlete model for stress response. Thanks for reading, be sure to follow @sportpsychnow on Instagram for more mental game tips and all things sport psychology.