Coping Strategies in Competitive Sports

Sports is as much about the mental game as the physical game. Competitive athletes have to perform well under pressure, keep their cool during shifts in momentum, and stay focused while they push their bodies to the limit.

Athletes have several different kinds of coping strategies they use to deal with the nerve-wracking situations that arise in all kinds of sports. To learn more about how these coping strategies work, researchers from Spain recently decided to study whether some of these coping strategies turn out to be more effective than others.

The researchers looked at 235 Spanish athletes, about four-fifths of whom were involved in team sports. The other one-fifth practiced individual sports.

In the study, the researchers broke coping strategies down into three categories that psychologists have previously used to study coping skills in other aspects of life:

  • Task-oriented coping strategies that involve actually trying to change the situation that is causing stress so that it evokes less stresses
  • Emotion-oriented coping strategies that are about changing one’s emotional response to the stressful situation.
  • Disengagement- and distraction-oriented coping strategies that are about avoiding thoughts related to the stressful situation.

When the researchers surveyed the athletes in the study, they found that which coping strategies athletes were most likely to use depended on resilience. In particular, the most resilient athletes were more likely to use task-oriented coping strategies and less likely to use disengagement- and distraction-oriented strategies.

The study also found that which coping strategies athletes used depended on context. During competitions, all athletes were more likely to use emotion-oriented and distraction-oriented strategies.

Generally, the results suggest that competitive athletes who tackle stressful situations by focusing on what they actually have to do to make those situations less stressful are more resilient than athletes who try to avoid engaging and thinking about those situations.

For those of us who aren’t competitive athletes, that might still be a lesson to take away from this research: although avoiding stressful situations is easier in the short-run, grappling with them head-on and figuring out what concrete actions we can take to make them less stressful can make us better at dealing with setbacks.

Which kinds of coping strategies do you use? Please share in the comments!