Many studies have been carried out on ‘stressors’ and cope strategies, however, little is known about how athletes learn how to cope. This article is a summary of a research by Tamminen and Holt (2010)*, on coping strategies. The authors listed strategies to help young athletes develop their coping repertoire.
In sports, stressors are: pressure to perform, conflict with coaches or opponents, fear of making game errors, etc. Athletes cope in different ways: seeking social support, focusing on technical points, increasing effort, wishful thinking, ignoring stressors or distancing.
It is also clear that the nature of coping is a process, and strategies can change over time or even during one game as the response of contextual factors. Age is an important factor. Coping strategies of 12-14 years old elite players are different than those of 15-18 years old players. Older players use more problem-emotion focused coping and less avoidance coping. Athletes increase their coping repertoire as they gain more experience. They learn how to cope by trial and error. They learn this by facing multiple stressful situations.
The social setting of players plays an important role. Athletes who perceive moderate to high levels of parental support show more active coping and are at a lower risk of developing maladaptive patterns of coping.
According to Tamminen and Holt (2010), learning to cope is facilitated when coaches and parents establish a ‘psychologically safe’ environment. Athletes must feel comfortable to discuss stressors and coping.
A supportive context can be established by parents by listening and monitoring their own reaction during interactions with their children.
In Tamminen and Holt’s (2010) article, an interviewed parent said:
” the quieter I am the more I get to hear […]; as soon as I say ” you should do this, you should do that”, they don’t say as much”.
It’s important for parents and coaches to read the athlete’s body language, mood and receptivity to feedback.
Another feature of supportive context discussed in the article, is how to foster independence in young athletes. There must be a balance between supporting athletes to become independent in coping and protecting athletes who have difficulty in coping.
The research shows that coaches who demonstrate respect for their athletes create a context of learning, and athletes trust them when talking about coping.
An important strategy is to ask athletes what works for them (“what do you think we could do differently to make it work for you?) and to remind them about available coping strategies.
Providing perspective to a situation and contextualizing this by saying something like: “even Messi misses penalties, all players make mistakes in important games, it can happen, it’s normal”. Sharing personal experiences also helps. Parents could for example share how they overcame an adversity as a teenager. Coaches can talk about their own experience as a player.
Parents reported that initiating informal conversations helps. Just asking how they are doing or how the training went, gives athletes the opportunity to talk about their stressors. Coaches can use training to expose athletes to challenges from which they can learn how to cope. Depending on the outcomes of athletes who are coping, parents and coaches can dose stressors by limiting them or by allowing athletes to experience more stressors.
As a parent or a coach, it’s crucial to listen to the individual needs of young athletes and to react accordingly. At Total Soccer we hope this article has enlightened your insight in some way. Positive outcomes of successful coping are: a consistent sport performance, a persistence in dealing with stressors, and the ability to employ coping strategies independently. Coping processes learned through sports will be used in other aspects of life.
K.A. Tamminen, N.L. Holt / Psychology of Sport and Exercise 13 (2012) 69e79.