Adaptation in Sport

The term adaptation has been integrated within the sport psychology literature, from as early as 1986. Initially mentioned in relation to elite athlete retirement,  adaptation  is  a  broad  term  associated  with monumental  change  in  the  athlete’s  life.  People experience stress in their lives, and at certain times stress  reaches  a  threshold,  after  which  one  must make decisions to alleviate that stress and reestablish psychological  balance.  When  the  performer  integrates  the  necessary  information  about  a  significant stressor or the accumulation of several smaller stressors, that person can begin to establish or reestablish control, ideally culminating in adaptation.

Adaptation  has  been  discussed  in  relation  to contributive  pathways,  comprised  of  understanding,  control,  self-enhancement,  belonging,  and trust.  Understanding  facilitates  adaptation  when one  gains  an  accurate  appreciation  of  the  stress episode,  in  advance  of  action.  Control  is  sought through  either  direct  or  indirect  means.  Self enhancement  encompasses  decisions  that  lead  to better performance via purposive effort and learning.  Trust  delineates  the  performer’s  belief  that social  support  within  the  performance  context holds  the  performer’s  best  interests  in  mind,  that supporters  are  creditable,  and  that  they  will  act when assistance is needed. Belonging, like trust, is a social pathway. However, through belonging one facilitates social affiliations that in turn make trust more likely. Any of these five adaptation pathways can segue to a larger adaptation process, and so to the outcome of adaptation.

Adaptation interventions are temporal in nature, with  at  least  a  search  for  understanding  preceding  all  other  pathways.  However,  understanding is not necessarily acquired in its totality before the performer begins an adaptation process. The rule of  thumb,  however,  is  for  the  performer  to  seek as  much  detail  about  the  stress  episode  and  how one might engage in the process when the information is most needed. For example, the elite junior athlete who is drafted to a professional ice hockey, baseball,  or  football  team  will  encounter  several stressors that catalyze an adaptation process. The performer’s understanding of the previously unfamiliar  in  such  circumstances  would  include  the coach’s  performance  expectations,  social  norms that build relations with one’s teammates, relocation  to  a  new  city  and  a  new  sport  environment, media  demands,  fan  expectations,  and  a  significant  change  in  financial  status.  Learning  of  these new  contextual  changes  and  beginning  to  engage in  effective  responses  that  lead  to  restored  ease, the  athlete  can  perform  at  the  optimum.  Hence, the process can generally be regarded as the move into,  the  move  through,  and  the  move  onward from stress, with adaptation.

adaptation-in-sports-psychologyThere  are  cases  when  performers  maladapt, meaning  they  engage  in  an  incorrect  psychological  process  that  manifests  in  rumination,  apathy, or  ego-protective  thinking.  It  is  human  tendency to  seek  understanding  throughout  the  adaptation  process.  However,  how  one  chooses  to  view the  stressor,  via  personal  reflections  and  social support  resources,  will  help  determine  whether the  stress  episode  is  resolved  and  the  performer reestablishes  psychological  balance.  There  are, indeed, cases where an athlete’s best performances are early in the career, with results waning at the juncture when the athlete should be performing at potential.  When  athletes  encounter  barriers  during  formative  points  in  their  athletic  careers  and there  is  incomplete  or  inaccurate  understanding as  a  pattern,  the  athletes  engage  in  negative  contemplation and impede their own career development. The objective is for athletes and those who work with them to identify the barriers to performance  in  advance  of  the  challenge,  take  only  as much time and effort as is necessary to resolve the stress  episode,  and  then  reengage  with  correctly chosen  personal  and  social  support  strategies. With  the  process  of  adaptation  accomplished, the  athlete  gains  (or  regains)  efficacy  in  personal abilities  to  resolve  stress  episodes  in  advance  of further—inevitable—challenges.

In a similar vein, people who engage in exercise and move toward healthier choices can also experience adaptation processes when life changes are required, be these changes foreseen or unforeseen. The process would pertain to cardiac patients and people  suffering  from  obesity  who  are  seeking  to begin a targeted exercise program. The identification  of  what  is  expected  of  oneself  in  relation  to the program, and also of one’s barriers in advance of  the  required  behavior  change,  would  increase the  likelihood  that  personal  and  social  support strategies  are  correctly  chosen  and  implemented, leading to good change.

Up   to   the   present   day,   formal   adaptation research  in  sport  and  exercise  psychology  has included  investigations  into  the  adaptation  processes  of  National  Hockey  League  athletes  during  various  stages  of  a  professional  sport  career; immigrant  athletes  performing  in  major  league baseball;  Olympians;  elite  amateur  cyclists;  and indigenous developmental, elite amateur and professional  athletes.  These  investigations  have  been for the most part qualitative, with several projects positioned  as  atheoretical,  and  others  reflecting  various  adaptation,  career,  or  life  transition frameworks.  This  author  proposes  that  adaptation  research,  reflecting  its  reality  in  application, should  include  cross-cultural  investigations,  community sport contexts, developmental sport, youth sport,  sport  for  the  elderly,  and  interventions  in exercise  and  health  settings  with  at-risk  cohorts. Indeed,  every  performer  experiences  adaptation processes, though not all adaptation attempts are successful.  Through  a  more  systematic  approach to research and practice, the sought after outcome of adaptation can become the performer’s effective resolution to stress episodes in sport and exercise contexts.


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