Stress, Coping and Learned resourcefulness

How to improve self-confidence to improve your game

For the maintenance of performance under extreme pressure, athletes require the ability to cope with stress (Lazarus, 1999). Stress encompasses any negative processes, physiological or emotional, that occur as a result of circumstances disrupting an individual’s functional capacity. Stressors have been described as any environmental factors that cause individuals to adjust in response to changing demands placed on them.  Coping has been defined as ‘constantly changing cognitive and behavioural efforts to manage specific external and/or internal demands that are appraised as taxing or exceeding the resources of the person’ (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984, p. 141).

Coping is initiated by a process of appraisal; during primary appraisal stressors areinterpreted in terms of benefit, threat, harm/loss and challenge, during secondary, the adequacy of coping resources, available to combat stress, is assessed (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). Primary and secondary appraisals do not necessarily occur sequentially, it is possible for appraisals to take place simultaneously. Following appraisal, coping strategies are deployed. Coping strategies were originally dichotomised as being ‘problem focused’ or ‘emotion focused’ (Folkman & Lazarus, 1980). Problem focused coping functions by directing attention to the stressor and focusing on actively addressing the problem, i.e. increasing effort or making a plan of action. In contrast, emotion focused coping endeavours to direct focus away from the stressor by increasing attention on emotion and affect, i.e. the use of humour or denial (Folkman & Lazarus, 1980). Coping research has progressed from this simplistic view, to the commonly accepted transactional model; representing coping as a multidimensional, complex process influenced by situation, experience and individual difference and recognising the presence of avoidance coping strategies (Krohne, 1993. Lazarus, 1999, Nicholls & Polman, 2007).

As well as the nature of coping strategies, the effectiveness and perceived effectiveness of coping requires consideration. Coping effectiveness has been attributed to three different models, illustrated in a systematic review of coping in sport(Nicholls & Polman, 2007); 1) the goodness- to-fit model states that problem focused coping is effective for controllable stressors and emotion focused is more effective for dealing with uncontrollable stressors (Folkman,1992), 2) the level of automaticity with which strategies are employed mediates their effectiveness (Gould et al. 1993), 3) the repertoire of strategies and the ability to adapt strategies for specific situations determine effectiveness (Eubank & Collins, 2000).

The situation under which stress is experienced is a facet of the process that has received attention. Nicholls and colleagues (2009) presented research demonstrating the situation specific nature of coping and effectiveness in professional rugby. The study examined intensity of emotion, coping strategies employed and effectiveness of coping, during both training and competition. The results highlighted the athlete’s appraisal and response to stress differing depending on the situation. The 5 rugby players found concentration focused coping to be effective for stress experienced during training, but block-coping was used more effectively to combat competition stress. The lack of generalisability and small sample size is a noted limitation of this study. Another study by Nicholls and colleagues (2009b), investigating stress, appraisals and coping effectiveness among international level cross country runners, showed varied coping strategies across competition and training. The findings of both studies demonstrate how stress experiences and strategy effectiveness differ depending on situation for both team and individual disciplines. The cross sectional nature of these studies limits the interpretation of findings, due to the individual specific nature of stress, appraisal and coping, longitudinal study would be advantageous.

In conjunction with situation, individual differences play a significant role in the coping process. Self-efficacy has been positively correlated with a predominance of engaging in adaptive, problem focused coping strategies and high anxiety has been shown to predispose individuals to engage with more emotion focused, maladaptive coping (Nicholls & Polman, 2007). Learned resourcefulness is the repertoire of well learned behaviours and cognitive skills acquired by an individual to cope with stressful demands (Rosenbaum, 1983). The positive correlation between self-efficacy and adaptive coping and self-efficacy and learned resourcefulness (Davenport & Lane, 2006) lead to the assumption that individuals scoring high in learned resourcefulness will adopt more problem focused coping to deal with stress and perceive this coping to be more effective than emotion focused strategies. Learned resourcefulness is an acquired, malleable skill set (Rosenbaum, 1980) thus, possessing scope for improvement. There have been several investigations in to the use of coping strategies in elite sport (Nichols et al, 2009). These studies, due to their nature, have a small sample size and the generalizability of findings, to larger sporting populations, is limited.



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