Coping in Sport: Strategies for Youth Athletes Part 2
Posted by: Mehvish Safdar | University of Denver Sport Psychology
It’s the closing minutes of the championship game in your team’s biggest tournament. The game is tied. Unexpectedly, one of your team members has been sent off the field after receiving a red card. Now a man down, your team has seconds to react to the impactful decision made by the referee. Everyone’s blood is pumping and minds are racing. How do you and your team handle this stressful scenario?
In a situation like the one described above, it is often the ability to cope as an individual and a group that separates championship teams from runner-ups.
In that moment, you, your coach, and teammates decide to take a more defensive approach and play a counter-attacking game to adjust for having one less player. Additionally, everyone on your team takes a deep breath, centers themselves, and looks at the situation as an opportunity to prove that they are the better team, even when faced with a disadvantage.
Your team has just engaged in problem-focused and emotion-focused coping strategies in hopes of performing at a high level in a stressful situation.
A Review of Coping Strategies
In last month’s blog we spoke about how it is expected and natural to experience stress. Stressful situations might include moving to a new school, taking a test, or playing in a game. Everyone perceives different situations to be stressful. Nevertheless, stress is a normal part of everyday life. Stress is nothing to fear if you know how to appropriately cope with it.
Considering unpleasant feelings can arise from stress, it is important to be able to manage your stress with coping strategies. Two common coping strategies previously discussed are emotion-focused and problem-focused coping, which is what will be the subject of this blog post. Emotion-focused coping is when an individual or team focuses solely on changing their negative emotional reactions to a stressor. Problem-focused coping is when an individual focuses their efforts on directly confronting the stressor to decrease or completely eliminate it. Coping strategies can be positive (adaptive) or negative (maladaptive). Positive coping successfully decreases the amount of stress perceived or experienced, while negative coping diminishes symptoms of stress temporarily without addressing the real source of the problem.
Take a moment to reflect back on the championship game scenario. Given your knowledge about coping strategies, try to identify where the team used a problem-focused coping strategy and where the team used an emotion-focused coping strategy.
The team engaged in problem-focused coping when they decided to take a defensive approach and play a counter-attack game. This was an attempt at trying to minimize the problem, which was the impact of being down one player. In addition to engaging in problem-focused coping, the team also engaged in emotion-focused coping strategies when they took a deep breath, centered themselves, and positively reframed the situation into an exciting opportunity to prove they were the better team.
There are many potentially stressful situations teams face in competition settings where coping skills would be helpful – this was just one of many possible scenarios. The best part is, coping skills are transferable to all areas of life including athletics, academics, and social situations.
Identifying Coping Strategies
Let’s take some time to identify and differentiate emotion-focused vs. problem-focused strategies. As you read through the scenarios, reflect on which coping strategies you have previously engaged in or would most likely engage in. Additionally, take the time to reflect on whether it has been effective or ineffective for you and whether you think an alternative coping strategy would be more beneficial.
- Scenario: You have a lot of homework to complete this week and you are partaking in several after-school activities. You are not sure how you are going to be able to juggle it all.
- You think of it as an opportunity to practice your time management skills.
- You create a to-do list for completing assignments, outlining what assignments you are doing and when.
- You procrastinate completing your homework.
- Scenario: You and your teammate got in an argument at practice and you cannot stop thinking about it.
- You journal about your feelings.
- You address your teammate later on that week to try and resolve the miscommunication.
- You avoid your teammate for the rest of the season.
- Scenario: You have to give a presentation in front of your entire class and you get really nervous when speaking in public.
- You tell yourself that everyone gets nervous and it is okay to mess up. You practice relaxation exercises whenever you start to feel yourself panicking.
- You practice giving your speech in front of friends and family members beforehand.
- You procrastinate preparing for the presentation and do not practice in front of others to avoid humiliation.
- Scenario: You get nervous taking penalty kicks in competition.
- You take a deep breath before your penalty kick shot to remain calm and composed.
- You spend extra time practicing your penalty kick shots.
- You avoid practicing penalty kick shots because you think you are bad at them.
* “1” = adaptive emotion focused coping; “2” = adaptive problem-focused coping; “3” = maladaptive coping
As you read through these scenarios, did you find a certain coping strategy to be more beneficial than others? Did you think different types of coping strategies were more beneficial depending on the situation? Did you think both coping strategies were beneficial to deal with one scenario?
What Coping Strategy Works Best for You?
There is no “better coping strategy.” It is important to recognize which coping strategy works best for you. The coping strategies that work for someone else may not work for you.
The first step in finding the best coping strategy for you is identifying what coping strategies you have previously engaged in and what has been effective or ineffective. If you have never engaged in coping strategies, now is the time to start! You can always add to and sharpen your coping skills toolkit, so try different coping strategies and see what helps you manage your stress most effectively.
Not only are coping strategies person-dependent but they are situation-dependent. Problem-focused coping is typically more effective for stressors that we can control, whereas emotion-focused coping is more effective for uncontrollable stressors. When you’re feeling stressed, ask yourself, “Do I need to try and change my situation, or do I need to try and change my response to the situation?” This will help you reflect on whether you should engage in a problem-focused or emotion-focused coping strategy.
Often times both strategies work together to best manage stress!
Applying Coping Strategies
Now that you are well-informed about the types of coping strategies, we will discuss how to apply some of them! Some coping strategies can be used prior to, during, or after a stressful situation, while some may be best utilized and most appropriate during a certain time frame. Again, it is dependent on the person and the context of the situation. The more you practice coping skills, the more you will learn about which techniques work best for you and when.
Here are just a few common emotion-focused and problem-focused coping techniques:
- Positive reframing: Positive reframing makes stressful situations seem a lot less stressful. As a part of reframing, you look at the same situation in a new way that highlights opportunities to grow. When you view a potentially stressful situation as a challenge as opposed to a threat, you are able to see things from a less stressful and threatening perspective. Try to challenge yourself to engage in positive and productive thinking!
- Breathing: Not only has breathing been researched to be one of the most effective techniques in reducing stress, you can do it anywhere and anytime. But not just any type of breathing, it is important to engage in diaphragmatic breathing! When you breathe in, your belly should expand and when you breathe out, your belly should fall. Using your chest and shoulders to breathe can cause short and shallow breathing, increasing stress levels. To practice diaphragmatic breathing, simply place one hand on your stomach and one hand on your chest; your belly should rise and fall with each inhale and exhale.
- Practice: If you are nervous about performing, prepare and practice! Practicing will allow you to feel more confident going into the potentially stressful situation. It is often most effective to practice by simulating the “game time” situation as much as possible.
- Create a to-do list: Staying organized is helpful in managing stress! By creating a to-do list, you are creating a plan for completion and success. It is also helpful to break things up into more manageable tasks.
There are also several other coping strategies that might work for you. Here is a list of some strategies that you can further explore and experiment with:
- Listening to Music
- Using a relaxation app
- Going for a walk
- Working on time management skills
- Establishing healthy boundaries with friends and family
We hope that after reading this blog, you are better able to identify the different types of coping strategies and which coping strategies might work best for you! Don’t be afraid to experiment with different coping strategies to figure out what helps you manage stressful situations most effectively. Just as it is important to practice your physical skills to improve performance, it is important to practice your coping skills to improve performance!
We hope you enjoyed learning more about how to implement a variety of coping strategies both on and off the field. Stay tuned for next month’s blog where we kick off our series on what many consider the most crucial ingredient for performance excellence: attention. Thanks for reading!
- Carroll, L. (2013). Problem-Focused Coping. Encyclopedia of Behavioral Medicine, 1540–1541. doi: 10.1007/978-1-4419-1005-9_1171
- Goldberg, J. (2018, March 11). Common Causes of Stress & Their Effect on Your Health. Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/balance/guide/causes-of-stress#1.
- Morin, A. (2020, January 4). Coping Skills That Will Help You Fight Stress. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/forty-healthy-coping-skills-4586742.