Coping in Sport: Strategies for Youth Athletes
Posted by: Allie Perugini | University of Denver Sport Psychology
Obstacles don’t have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it. – Michael Jordan
Take a moment to reflect on a time when you, or a person you know, faced a scenario considered “stressful.” What was difficult about the situation? How did you/the individual deal with the resulting unpleasant thoughts or emotions?
Stress is a normal part of life that everyone experiences. It can be caused by both positive and negative situations and there are tons of ways to manage it. In this blog we will begin to take a closer look at the ins and outs of coping, what coping strategies look like, and how to lean on others to increase the effectiveness of coping efforts. It is important to note, when discussing this topic, that everyone experiences unique stressors and different coping strategies work for each individual. Below are some common stressors athletes may face that could be accompanied by a variety of coping behaviors:
- Transitions (joining a new team/competition level, adjusting to high school athletics, etc…)
- Experiencing injury or burnout
- Teammate relationship issues
- Performance issues
- Perceived pressure; expectations communicated by others
- Life stressors outside of sport and performance (schoolwork, family/social life, etc…)
What is Coping?
As human beings, it is expected (and natural) to experience stress and engage in mental or behavioral coping efforts. One instance where we engage in coping is when we attempt to manage the demands of a situation that we believe are too challenging or “too much” based on our existing resources and abilities. Another instance where we engage in coping is to reduce negative emotions and conflict caused by stress. For example, in sport, athletes oftentimes cope to ease unwanted nerves or performance anxieties.
What causes stress is going to vary from athlete to athlete, as this is determined by one’s perception of the demands of a situation, and how well they can handle accompanying difficulties and challenges. Unpleasant feelings may arise when an athlete believes they do not have enough of the “necessary” tools to effectively deal with a situation. This is when coping skills kick in and can be incredibly helpful in managing stress.
It is crucial to understand that not every athlete will perceive the same situation as stressful. Two people can experience similar events and have very different stress reactions. This is because what matters most are the athlete’s beliefs about existing resources/abilities and how threatening they perceive the situation to be. This will inevitably differ for every person.
What is Coping Strategy?
Everyone engages in coping behavior, but some may not realize exactly when or how they are doing so. This is because coping behaviors, unlike coping strategies, are often automatic; the individual is not necessarily making a deliberate choice in how they approach problems. More so, they are likely exhibiting unconscious and instinctive behaviors in order to quickly escape stress or alleviate unpleasant emotions. As a result, these behaviors can be either positive or negative. While positive coping behaviors are considered healthy and adaptive, negative coping behaviors are often maladaptive and may consist of avoidance, risk-taking, and aggressive or harmful acts.
So then, what exactly is a coping strategy? The main distinction here is that a coping strategy usually involves a conscious and more direct approach to problems. It could be a single action, a series of actions, or even a thought process that an individual uses when facing a situation perceived as stressful or unpleasant, or when attempting to modify their reaction to such a situation.
Two common strategies for managing stress are emotion-focused coping and problem-focused coping. These two methods will be further explored and expanded on in next month’s blog, including techniques and tools specific to each approach. In short, emotion-focused coping is when an individual focuses solely on changing their negative emotional reaction to a stressor. Some examples of healthy coping skills associated with an emotion-focused approach include:
- Relaxation techniques
- Positive reframing
- Writing in a journal, drawing, or listening to music
On the other hand, problem-focused coping is when an individual focuses their efforts on directly confronting the stressor to decrease or completely eliminate it. This may be particularly helpful if an individual has a sense of control over the situation. A few examples of healthy coping skills that accompany a problem-focused approach include:
- Coming up with possible solutions to a problem
- Engaging in planning and preparation
- Creating a to-do list
*Source: APA Dictionary of Psychology
The great thing about coping skills is that they are extremely transferable; they can be used in a variety of scenarios throughout all areas of life. A strategy that is effective in sport can also be used off the field when facing similar situations, such as in an academic or social setting. For example, an athlete who experiences unpleasant emotions (say, anxiety) before competitions might cope by attempting to attend every practice and putting in extra physical and technical training on their own time. These same strategies could easily carry over to the classroom. If anxiety arises about an upcoming exam, coping efforts may consist of attending every class and studying more to ensure feeling as prepared as possible come time for the exam.
I encourage you to practice and test out different strategies in all realms of life to discover what works best for you and to further hone your coping skills!
You Don’t Have to Go at it Alone!
It can be a bit scary and overwhelming trying to tackle unpleasant thoughts and emotions by our lonesome or feeling like we have to find ways to handle these things all on our own. However, uniting with others (whether it is with a small group or a whole team) who are experiencing similar circumstances, or have the same reactions to certain stressors, and finding ways to cope together has proven to be incredibly effective. Some shared sources of stress that may exist within teams include:
- Social pressures (referee mistakes, expectations of outcomes communicated by others)
- Teammate relationship issues (negative behaviors/ verbal and non-verbal interactions)
- Performance issues (low controllability of a situation, decreased perceived team-efficacy)
But do not fret! Communal coping research has shown how teammates can work as a unit to collectively deal with shared stressors by focusing efforts on…
- A Specific Problem: This might consist of analyzing a situation and organizing an action plan, keeping the team’s attention on cues that are task-relevant when facing a problem, and going back to basics or fundamentals when necessary.
- Managing and Sustaining Relationships: Team members can provide motivational support and encouragement through behaviors or verbal actions, or engage in social joining, where the group physically joins forces (for example, a huddle) to deal with a situation.
- Managing Emotions Together: This could be working on defusing stressful situations as a team using appropriate humor or playfulness. Athletes can also offer reassurance to teammates by providing help when experiencing trouble with their skill.
*Source: Leprince, D’Arripe-Longueville, & Doron (2018)
Wrapping Things Up: Helpful Tips
For the Athlete:
- Remember that it is ok and normal to feel bad sometimes. Practice noticing uncomfortable emotions when they arise and labeling them. Being able to verbalize when you are, for example, “angry” or “anxious” and describe these feelings can make it easier to talk about and handle tough emotions.
- Ask for help. You are never alone and never expected to have every answer when encountering difficult situations. Use your resources! Whether a parent, coach, teacher, or a friend – These are all excellent sources of support that can provide comfort and guidance during uncomfortable or stressful times.
For the Parent:
- Take time to debrief. After an event, sport-related or otherwise, put some time aside to chat about coping skills your child used or tried and have them identify which ones worked best and which ones were not as effective.
- Problem-solve together! If your child feels stuck when it comes to recognizing and choosing possible actions they could take in a situation, spend time identifying and writing down a few solutions. Allow them to choose which one they want to try.
For the Coach:
- Prompt your athletes. Be mindful of players exhibiting emotions that may be unproductive or detrimental to their performance. Share your observations and ask what they can do to alleviate these uncomfortable or unpleasant feelings by posing questions such as, “What would help you calm down right now?”
- Provide praise. Praise athletes after attempts to manage negative emotions or stressful situations. Focus on their coping efforts. Even when certain strategies are not working, it is important to note they are trying. Sharpening coping skills takes practice and discovering what works best for us (as individuals) can be a tough, often lengthy process.
Remember: stress is a normal part of life and ultimately unavoidable, but you have the power to determine how it will affect you. Building a solid set of coping skills that you can rely on in times of stress is an ongoing process. With that said, be intentional, and more importantly, be patient with yourself while doing the work to discover what coping strategies are most effective for you.
We hope you enjoyed reading about the importance of having coping skills in your toolbox and what it may look like to implement some of these strategies in and outside of sport. Stay tuned for next month’s blog where we plan to take a closer look at emotion-focused and problem-focused approaches as well as discuss additional practical, everyday coping techniques. Thanks for reading!
- Emotion-focused coping. (n.d.). In APA Dictionary of Psychology online. Retrieved from https://dictionary.apa.org/emotion-focused-coping
- Problem-focused coping. (n.d.). In APA Dictionary of Psychology online. Retrieved from https://dictionary.apa.org/problem-focused-coping
- Leprince, C., D’Arripe-Longueville, F., & Doron, J. (2018). Coping in teams: Exploring athletes’ communal coping strategies to deal with shared stressors. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 1–11.