Coping Strategies

Coping  refers  to  conscious  and  effortful  cognitions  and  behaviors  used  by  the  athlete  to  manage the perceived demands of a situation. Coping is  of  interest  to  sport  and  exercise  psychologists because  athletes  are  constantly  under  pressure to  perform.  Athletes’  and  coaches’  expectations, injury,  performance  plateaus,  poor  performances, equipment  failure,  superior  opponents,  skill  difficulty,  and  audiences  can  all  trigger  a  process  of stress  and  emotion.  Athletes  need  to  manage  or cope  with  these  demands  and  their  own  physiological,  emotional,  and  psychological  reactions. The  most  widely  used  approach  to  studying  coping in sport is Richard Lazarus’s process-oriented perspective  called  the  cognitive–motivational– relational  theory  of  emotion  (CMRT).  Lazarus’s CMRT  is  a  process-oriented  perspective  about the relationship between a person and one’s environment  that  combines  stressors,  emotions,  and coping as interrelated parts. In the following section  of  this  entry,  how  athletes  appraise  stressors in their sporting environments is discussed. Next, how athletes cope with stressors is identified and trait versus state coping, coping effectiveness, and gender differences in coping are discussed. Finally, the  development  of  coping  skills  and  the  way  in which athletes learn to use coping skills in sport is examined.

Stressor Appraisals

Stressors   are   subjective   appraisals   of   internal  demands,  such  as  personal  expectations  or internalized  performance  standards,  or  external demands  like  opponent’s  skill  or  external  time standards that are taxing or exceeding the athlete’s personal and social resources, such as their coping skills  or  social  support  available  to  deal  with  the stressor.  These  appraisals  can  be  very  rapid  and automatic  or  more  conscious  and  reflective  and involve  higher  cognitive  functioning.  Thus,  social learning,  values,  and  beliefs,  along  with  hardwired emotional responses linked to basic survival can all impact the appraisal process.

There  are  many  types  of  appraisals  that  influence  the  stress  and  emotion  process.  Lazarus argued that individuals make primary and secondary  appraisals  about  events  or  demands.  Primary appraisals  involve  what  is  at  stake  to  an  athlete, especially  if  the  demand  is  relevant  to  the  athlete’s  personally  meaningful  goals,  values,  beliefs, personal resources, social environments, or intentions. An assessment of these factors can produce appraisals  of  harm  or  loss  (social  or  personal damage  has  already  occurred),  threat  (there  is a  possibility  of  damage  in  the  future),  challenge (difficulties to be overcome), or benefit (there is a possibility for gain). Take an example of a female basketball  player  who  is  injured  in  a  game.  The athlete  appraises  that  the  injury  will  prevent  her from  continuing  to  play,  perform,  and  receive social  recognition,  resulting  in  an  assessment of  harm  or  loss.  Threat  appraisal  also  becomes activated  when  she  realizes  that  the  injury  might prevent her from playing in future games, endangering  her  sport  scholarship,  other  sport-related goals, and her athlete identity.

Secondary  appraisals  involve  evaluating  coping options or coping potential (Do I think I can cope  with  this  event?),  the  controllability  of  the stressor,  and  perceived  outcomes  of  the  event (What will happen?). In the example above of the basketball player, the athlete’s secondary appraisal may  involve  her  evaluation  that  she  can  manage some of the initial distress and pain, she has access to  excellent  medical  and  rehabilitation  services, she  can  work  hard  to  recover  during  rehabilitation, and she has some control over rehabilitation process. She is, however, uncertain about the long-term  outcome.  Primary  and  secondary  appraisals made  by  an  athlete  will  have  a  major  impact  on how the athlete will cope.

Appraisals  result  in  decisions  that  produce a  relational  meaning,  which  is  the  athlete’s  subjective  evaluation  of  the  relationship  between oneself  and  the  environment.  Emotions  arise  or change  based  on  these  relational  meanings  (subjective  evaluations)  that  an  athlete  constructs about one’s person–environment relationship. For example,  during  tryouts,  an  athlete  may  appraise the  relationship  between  self  and  the  competitive environment  as  threatening  since  one  may  be  cut from  the  team,  resulting  in  the  emotion  of  fear. If  the  athlete  makes  the  team,  the  relationship between  self  and  the  environment  has  changed and  the  threatening  situation  has  been  resolved, resulting  in  the  emotion  of  relief.  Thus,  athletes may  need  to  manage  a  variety  of  negative  and positive  emotions,  involving  anger,  anxiety,  sadness, shame, guilt, envy, jealousy, hope, relief, fear, happiness, joy, and pride.

Stressor appraisals can vary from person to person  because  appraisals  are  influenced  by  the  athlete’s personal goals, values, and past experiences. Therefore,  athletes  may  interpret  stressors  differently,  and  not  all  athletes  will  appraise  the  same situation  or  event  as  a  stressor.  However,  some situational variables seem to consistently influence stressor  appraisals  such  as  the  magnitude  of  the stressor  or  whether  the  stressor  was  anticipated or  unanticipated.  The  magnitude  of  the  stressor (e.g.,  major  or  minor)  is  related  to  the  extent  to which the event interferes with or is related to the athlete’s  goals  and  values.  Minor  stressors  such as  spilling  water  on  one’s  uniform  before  a  competition  are  likely  to  be  less  stressful  than  major stressors such as trying out for a team and being cut. Stressors that are anticipated or expected are considered less threatening than stressors that are unanticipated  or  unexpected.  For  example,  consider  a  situation  in  which  an  athlete  is  facing  an opponent  who  is  stronger  in  ability.  The  athlete may  expect  to  lose  the  match  and,  therefore,  the stressor appraisal may be less threatening to goals and  values.  However,  if  the  opponent  is  weaker in  ability  and  our  athlete  does  not  expect  to  lose the  competition,  then  a  loss  would  be  appraised as more harmful to goals and values since the loss was unexpected.

Coping Strategies

Coping refers to conscious and effortful cognitive and  behavioral  efforts  to  deal  with  the  perceived demands of a situation. Some responses to stressful situations like defense mechanisms, crying, or yelling  are  considered  unconscious,  noneffortful,  or involuntary responses, which fall outside the commonly  accepted  definition  of  coping.  Researchers in  sport  have  identified  over  100  coping  strategies, although many of these can be classified into more  general  categories.  Common  coping  strategies  in  sport  include  arousal  control,  relaxation, concentrating  on  goals,  time  management,  isolation, deflection, seeking social support, increasing effort, wishful thinking, venting, refocusing, information  seeking,  learning  about  opponents,  practicing, increasing training, visualizing and imagery use, humor, prayer, substance use, denial, self-talk, maintaining  positive  focus,  positive  self-talk,  and positive  reappraisal.  Coping  strategies  can  affect various aspects of the stress and emotion process in athletes. These strategies can help athletes change the perceptions of demands (appraisal), recognize and  communicate  emotions,  regulate  arousal  and impulses associated with emotional feelings, regulate  competing  demands,  develop  effective  plans and actions, seek available resources, and develop better technical and physical skills.

There  are  different  definitions  and  ways  of conceptualizing  coping.  A  popular  macro-level approach,  based  on  the  work  of  psychologists Richard Lazarus and Susan Folkman, is to categorize  various  coping  strategies  under  two  general coping  functions:  problem-focused  coping  and emotion-focused  coping.  Problem-focused  coping refers  to  cognitive  or  behavioral  actions  to  deal with  the  demands  of  the  situation  like  planning, increasing  effort,  or  seeking  informational  support,  whereas  emotion-focused  coping  refers  to cognitive  or  behavioral  actions  to  deal  with  the emotions arising from the situation, such as acceptance,  positive  reappraisal  or  reinterpretation  of the event, and seeking emotional support. Recent conceptualizations of coping in sport by psychologist  Patrick  Gaudreau  and  Jean-Pierre  Blondin (2002) propose a distinction between engagement coping  (e.g.,  increased  effort,  relaxation,  thought control),  disengagement  coping  (e.g.,  venting, physical or mental disengagement) and distraction coping (e.g., mental distraction, focusing attention on other tasks). Other approaches involve a microanalytic approach where researchers examine specific coping strategies used to deal with particular stressors.

Trait Coping Versus State Coping

There is some debate about whether athletes may have  a  preferred  coping  style  or  if  coping  fluctuates  and  changes  across  situations  and  contexts. It  appears  some  athletes  do  cope  in  a  consistent manner  with  similar  stressors.  For  example,  an athlete may cope with training stressors in a consistent  manner,  particularly  if  the  features  of  the training  session  are  similar:  same  coach,  same teammates, or same drills. However, there is strong evidence  that  athletes  do  not  cope  consistently across all situations and contexts; as an example, athletes do not cope with competition stressors in the  same  way  they  cope  with  training  stressors. There are several reasons for a lack of stability in coping.  First,  the  stressors  might  be  quite  different  across  situations.  Second,  even  for  the  same type of stressor, the individual might appraise the stressor differently at different times. Stressors are appraised  in  terms  of  their  relevance  to  the  athlete’s  goals,  values,  and  the  relational  meaning the  individual  constructs  about  the  relationship between  oneself  and  the  environment.  If  the  features of a competition are deemed to be different from training sessions (e.g., a competition is considered “more important” than a training session), then  the  appraisal  of  competition  demands  will result in a different relational meaning for the athlete.  This  appraisal  is  likely  to  trigger  a  different emotion requiring a different combination of coping strategies. Therefore, athletes’ inconsistency in coping across situations and contexts may be due to differences in the actual stressor faced as well as appraisal of the stressor.

Researchers  of  competitive  anxiety  have  also suggested that the degree to which athletes perceive they  have  control  over  a  stressor  is  a  key  factor influencing  stressor  appraisals,  emotions,  and  the use of coping strategies. That is, athletes who perceive a stressor is controllable will likely interpret their emotions as facilitative for performance and are more likely to be able to cope with the stressor. Conversely, athletes who do not perceive they can control  the  stressor  will  interpret  their  emotions as debilitative for performance and are less likely to be able to cope with the stressor. Perceptions of control are also important for predicting athletes’ use of coping strategies; athletes who perceive they are  in  control  of  the  appraised  stressor  are  more likely to use problem-focused or engagement-type coping  strategies.  Athletes  who  perceive  they  are not in control of the appraised stressors are more likely to use emotion-focused, disengagement-, or distraction-type  coping  strategies.  Athletes’  perceptions of control may change over time as they become more accustomed to coping with particular stressors. As athletes face similar stressors, they may develop enhanced perceptions of control and enhanced  beliefs  about  their  ability  to  cope  with the stressor effectively.

Stressor appraisals and coping do not occur in isolation  and  are  related  to  athletes’  social  environments. Athletes may appraise stressors related to   a   coach,   teammate,   opponent,   referee,   or parent—pressure   to   perform;   criticism   from coaches,  teammates,  or  parents;  receiving  a  bad call from a referee or official; or interpersonal conflicts. Athletes also frequently report social dimensions related to coping with stressors. In terms of coping,  common  strategies  include  seeking  emotional support (e.g., turning to others for comfort) and informational support (e.g., seeking advice or guidance about a problem). Social support is helpful for athletes in that it can sometimes protect or buffer athletes from appraising stressors in sport, it can decrease the severity of athletes’ appraisals, or it can enhance athletes’ perceptions of their ability to deal with potential stressors.

Coping Effectiveness

A number of coping strategies can be used to deal with stressors; however, not all coping actions are effective in all situations. Some measures of effective  coping  are  achieving  performance  outcomes, reducing  anxiety  or  negative  emotions,  alleviating the stressor (e.g., resolving the problem), and improving  overall  well-being.  There  is,  however, no  clear  answer  as  to  what  constitutes  effective coping. A specific strategy may have a short-term effectiveness  but  produce  problems  in  the  long term.  For  example,  ignoring  the  coach  may  help reduce the athlete’s initial distress but cause long-term  problems  in  the  athlete–coach  relationship. Some  researchers  have  suggested  that  problem focused  or  engagement  coping  is  associated  with achievement of performance goals and is an effective approach to coping with stressors, particularly controllable stressors. Some strategies like seeking support can serve as both a problem-focused and an emotion-focused coping strategy. For instance, an  athlete  may  seek  support  from  a  teammate  in order to learn a new drill or skill (seeking informational support as a problem-focused coping strategy), while at the same time using the opportunity to  talk  to  the  teammate  about  frustrations  (venting and seeking emotional support as an emotion focused coping strategy).

Researchers  such  as  Susan  Folkman,  Judith Moskowitz,  and  Hugh  Richards  have  advocated that  coping  effectiveness  must  account  for  the individual’s personal goals, the situational context, and  the  individual’s  appraisal  of  the  situation. For  example,  avoidance  may  be  considered  an ineffective  coping  strategy  in  some  cases,  yet  in other circumstances it may be necessary and desirable  to  remove  oneself  from  a  stressful  situation. Avoidance  may  be  an  effective  coping  strategy in  the  short  term  while  the  athlete  determines  an appropriate way to deal with the situation. By taking into account the athlete’s goals, the situational context, and the athlete’s appraisal of the situation, different  coping  strategies  will  be  effective  at  different times and across different contexts. Effective coping should entail flexible coping, wherein athletes  are  able  to  use  different  coping  strategies  as situations change and unfold.

Gender Differences in Coping

Gender  differences  in  sport  coping  are  unclear. Some studies report no gender differences in athletes’ coping, whereas others do report differences. Studies that find gender differences report different findings such as suggesting that female athletes use more support-seeking or help-seeking to deal with stressors and focus their efforts on managing their emotions, whereas male athletes are more likely to use problem-focused coping strategies, confrontational strategies, avoidance, and venting.

The  issue  of  gender  differences  in  coping  is complex  and  there  are  several  possible  reasons for the equivocal findings to date. One suggestion is  that  males  and  females  are  socialized  to  cope with stressors in different ways that are considered acceptable:  Females  are  encouraged  or  socialized to express emotions, whereas males are socialized to conceal emotions or engage in assertive coping behaviors.  However,  sport  also  may  be  considered a context that supports traditional masculine values such as competitiveness, assertiveness, and achievement.  Consequently,  female  athletes  may be  less  likely  to  cope  in  a  traditionally  feminine manner and may adopt more masculine-gendered coping behaviors.

Recent  advancements  in  the  examination  of gender  roles  suggest  two  hypotheses  to  explain differences  in  male  and  female  athletes’  coping: the  dispositional  hypothesis  and  the  situational hypothesis. According to the dispositional hypothesis, if male and female athletes appraise the same stressor in the same manner (e.g., equally relevant to  their  goals,  values),  gender  differences  in  coping will emerge. For example, if a male and female athlete both appraised coach criticism as a stressor in  a  similar  manner  (e.g.,  equally  threatening  to each athlete’s personal goals and values), the male athlete might cope by venting emotions, while the female  athlete  might  cope  by  seeking  emotional support from teammates. The situational hypothesis, on the other hand, suggests that the reason for gender  differences  in  coping  is  because  of  differences in the way male and female athletes appraise stressors. According to the situational hypothesis, coach  criticism  might  be  appraised  in  a  distinctly different manner by the male and female athletes. The male athlete might appraise the coach’s criticism  as  unwarranted  and  he  might  feel  that  the coach  was  unfair,  resulting  in  the  athlete  venting his emotions. Conversely, the female athlete might appraise the coach’s criticism as accurate and feel embarrassed about her performance, and she may seek  support  from  a  teammate  to  avoid  drawing any  further  attention  to  herself.  Additionally,  the athlete’s  appraisal  of  the  intensity  of  the  stressor is  important  in  determining  gender  differences  in coping: The male athlete may appraise the coach’s criticism  as  less  severe  or  intense  than  the  female athlete does, which could also explain gender differences  in  coping.  Therefore,  it  is  important  to understand the way in which male and female athletes appraise stressors before being able to determine gender differences in coping.

Development of Coping

Coping  changes  as  athletes  age  and  mature,  and also  as  they  gain  more  competitive  experience  in sport.  Coping  is  also  influenced  by  developmental changes in cognition and through socialization practices (e.g., the way athletes are encouraged to cope  with  stressors  in  sport  by  parents,  coaches, or peers and teammates). Early adolescent athletes appear  to  appraise  fewer  stressors  and  appraise qualitatively  different  stressors  than  middle  adolescent  athletes.  For  example,  early  adolescent athletes report stressors related to making errors, opponents,  team  performance,  and  family  concerns,  while  middle  adolescents  reported  stressors  related  to  making  errors,  team  performance, coaches,  social  evaluation,  contractual  stressors, and  playing  at  higher  competitive  levels.  These differences  in  stressor  appraisals  likely  reflect contextual differences in the athletes’ competitive environments,  where  older  athletes  may  be  more concerned about their future careers as competitive athletes.  Therefore,  athletes’  stressor  appraisals change in response to changes in their competitive context.

With  regard  to  coping,  older  adolescent  and young adult athletes appear to use a more diverse range of coping strategies than do younger adolescent  athletes.  Younger  adolescent  athletes  appear to  use  more  behavioral  coping  strategies  like increasing  effort,  seeking  support,  or  behavioral disengagement,  while  older  adolescent  athletes appear to use more cognitive forms of coping like reflection, cognitive reappraisal, positive self-talk, or mental disengagement. There are several explanations  for  the  emergence  of  a  greater  variety  of coping strategies among older adolescent athletes. As athletes age, they develop a greater capacity for abstract  thinking  and  the  ability  to  use  cognitive coping  strategies,  in  addition  to  primarily  behavioral  coping  strategies.  Second,  younger  athletes may  have  difficulty  reflecting  on  their  coping  or discussing and reporting their coping attempts on measures  such  as  surveys,  questionnaires,  or  in interview settings. Increased self-awareness as athletes age and develop may contribute to older adolescents’ reporting of greater coping repertoires. As athletes  mature  and  develop,  their  coping  repertoire becomes more diverse and the use of coping strategies  is  more  differentiated;  they  use  coping strategies specific to the perceived demands of the situation.  Coping  becomes  more  organized  and flexible  compared  to  younger  athletes,  and  older athletes appear to be able to reflect upon their coping and evaluate the effectiveness of their coping, potentially  learning  from  past  coping  experiences to deal with future stressors.

Learning Coping Skills

Athletes  can  learn  the  necessary  cognitive  and behavioral  skills  to  effectively  manage  stress  and emotion.  Learning  can  occur  through  experience and training. Research has shown that adolescent athlete  coping  changes  across  different  stages  of development  and  at  different  levels  of  competition, and older athletes seem to have a wider repertoire of coping strategies than younger athletes. Increased exposure to stressors (e.g., playing more difficult opponents, higher training loads, learning more  complex  strategies)  may  enable  some  athletes  to  learn  coping  skills,  although  the  support of  coaches  and  parents  seems  necessary  to  allow athletes to develop their coping skills in a safe and supportive environment. Learning to cope may be associated with athletes’ ability to anticipate stressors and plan ahead, for example by thinking about upcoming competitions and anticipating increased training  demands.  Learning  to  cope  also  may  be associated  with  self-awareness  and  the  ability  to reflect upon past coping episodes in order to learn from prior experience. As athletes gain experience coping  with  stressors  in  sport,  they  may  learn  to apply  particular  coping  strategies  in  response  to the particular demands of the situation. Although some coping strategies may be more adaptive than others (e.g., substance abuse would be considered a maladaptive coping strategy), it is important to note that no single coping strategy will be universally effective in coping with all stressors. Instead, athletes should learn to apply strategies selectively based on the demands of the situation.

There   are   also   a   number   of   psychological   skills   or   coping   skills   training   programs that  can  facilitate  the  learning  of  coping  skills. Coping  training  programs  developed  or  modified  for  sport  include  stress  inoculation  training (athletes  are  given  opportunities  to  practice  a range  of  coping  skills),  COPE  training  (control,  organize,  plan,  and  execute  coping  skills), cognitive-affective   stress   management   training  (athletes  develop  a  coping  response  involving  relaxation  and  self-statements  to  manage stressful    sport    situations),    self-compassion training  (athletes  learn  to  more  accurately  perceive and rectify maladaptive patterns of thought) and  coping  effectiveness  training  (athletes  learn appraisal  skills  and  a  range  of  coping  skills  [see also  the  entry  “Stress  Management”]).  Most  of these  programs  involve  an  educational  phase,  a coping skill development phase, and a coping skill application  phase.  Enhancement  of  coping  skills is also possible through many other psychological skills training and emotional regulation programs.


Coping  represents  a  complex  topic  that  is  related to  athletes’  stressor  appraisals,  goals  and  values, emotions, beliefs, identity, and their resources and abilities to deal with the demands associated with sport.  Because  of  the  intricacy  of  the  coping  process, it is important to consider multiple antecedents and outcomes. There are situational, as well as individual (e.g., gender, developmental) differences in  coping  that  require  attention  by  researchers  in order  to  evaluate  what  constitutes  effective  and adaptive coping in sport. Athletes’ coping changes with  development  and  can  be  improved  through interventions  and  training,  which  represents  an important  area  for  improving  athletes’  performance and overall experience in sport.


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