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.
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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.
There 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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