Stress and Coping in Sport and Life - by Dr. Mark Anshel  
Not only are stressful events ever-present in our life, but the truth is that most of us cope with them poorly and ineffectively. For example, instead of ignoring the impact of certain remarks or actions by others, we too often respond with anger, hostility, verbal (and in some cases physical) aggression. The result of poor coping is chronic stress, mental fatigue, unhappiness, and poor work performance. The long-term consequences can include chronic illness, disease, poor relations and low life-satisfaction. Often, experiences occurring off the court or playing field carry over into the world of competitive sport.

Sport is filled with stressful events. Examples include making a mental or physical error, receive a “bad” call from the referee/umpire, an opponent’s performance, unpleasant remarks from the crowd, a coach’s reprimand, or pain or injury. While most of these stressors are beyond an athlete’s control, the ways in which athletes cope with them, and the effectiveness of these coping skills, CAN be controlled.

Failure to effectively cope with stress in sport may results in impaired information processing (i.e. inefficient attentional focusing, lowered concentration and impaired anticipation skills), poor performance, and reduced satisfaction.

So what can be done about it? How can we cope more effectively with the array of stressors that come into our lives, both on and off the field or court? Here are some guidelines for effective coping with stressful events.

1. Stress is make-believe. Don’t laugh. Pain is stressful and it’s real. But psycho-social stress reflects a person’s interpretation of an event or stimulus. It all depends on your perception. An adolescent may love heavy metal or rap music, but a 40-year-old might find it more painful than root-canal surgery. This is called cognitive appraisal. Stress is a matter of how we interpret the world around us. If you conclude that a given event is harmless, then you experience no stress, and coping is not necessary. Stress is only real when we make certain conscious decisions regarding the event which occurs.

2. Stress can be appraised in different ways. When we categorize an event or stimulus as stressful, we can experience it as a challenge (positive stress) or a threat (negative appraisal). Once we acknowledge the occurrence of stress, we can label the nature of the stressor. A hockey player who gets checked into the boards, a batter who has to back away from an inside fastball, or a football player who is aggressively tackled, might appraise these events as challenges, no threats. Sometimes, though, feeling threatened helps us prepare to meet new challenges and performance demands. After we appraise the situation, we are ready to execute a coping strategy.
   3. Finding an effective coping strategy: Some individuals do not cope successfully, and consequently remain stressed. More often, however, we make us of a thought or action in our attempts to deal with a stressful situation.

But not all coping strategies are effective. Some strategies may be counterproductive, leader to poorer performance. Examples include paying attention to, rather than ignoring, another person, dwelling on a previous mistake rather than staying focused on the present, or ignoring the performance of an opponent which you should be attending to.

In my work with athletes I find it helpful to classify coping strategies as either approach- or avoidance-focused. In both cases, strategies can involved either cognitive (thought) or behavioral (action) elements.

Examples of a cognitive-approach strategy might be planning, analyzing or mentally rehearsing a response to a stressor. A behavioral-approach strategy could involve seeking more information or physical or verbal confrontation.

Examples of a cognitive-avoidance strategy would be filtering out the stressor (i.e. not thinking about it), being distracted by attending to another task, or discounting the stressor (explaining it away or reducing its importance). A behavioral-avoidance strategy could be physically distancing oneself from the stressor, or resuming play.

These strategies can become dispositions that form a part of our character or personality. We might have a tendency to be “approachers” or “avoiders.” If we find that our tendencies are not effective, we might do better in adopting a different coping style.

The trick in effective coping is to know when to approach and when to avoid, and to learn to filter out some of the “chazerai” (garbage) in our daily life that does not merit our attention. Remember, if we don’t view or label a situation or stimulus as stressful, no coping is required on our part.

Dr. Mark Anshel is a professor in the Department of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance at Middle Tennessee State University, and author of Sport Psychology: From Theory to Practice and Aerobics for Fitness. He is also the author of over 80 articles in scientific journals, may on coping with stress, and has over 20 years’ sport psychology experience consulting with athletes.