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.
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 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.
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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