A child walks up to the field with her ball at her feet, water bottle in her hand, cleats on and her shin guards strapped to the outside of her socks. The team begins warming up and she is the last one in line, struggling to keep up. As the team is shooting at the goal, she struggles to strike it more than 5 yards with her toe. Never scored a goal in warm ups or training, let alone a game. The referee blows the whistle, players jog in to get some water and listen to their coach tell them the starting line up. The girl is disappointed to hear that her name was not in it, but she quietly sits on the bench and supports her team. A half goes by, she still hasn’t seen any game action. She gently asked the coach if she could get a chance to play in this game and the reply she got was “You’re not good enough”. What are the psychological factors going through this child’s head at this moment?
A talented and confident young boy is on the highest level competitive club team the state offers. He is consistently a starter and his parents and coaches keep telling him how much potential he has and that he is the next professional soccer player. His teammates look up to him and expect no mistakes. If the team gets into trouble, they look at him to carry the team and get them back into the game. The team is in the state cup final match. Sure enough, in the middle of the game, the team goes down two to one with 10 minutes left. The boy looks at the sideline during a game and hears his dad screaming at him to pass left, pass right, shoot, hustle and defend and other intimidating orders. He looks to the other sideline to see his coach waving his arms frantically and hear him yelling some kind of direction, but the boy cannot understand what he is saying over all the noise. Whistle blows for full time, the team lost. All the players seem to be staring at the boy wondering why he didn’t get them back in the game. The coach looks disappointed and only tells the boys what they need to do better. On the ride home, his parents are asking him twenty million questions about why he didn’t do certain things in the game and told him that his team should have won that game. How does this player feel right now and how will he handle the stress?
Stressful situations occur in sports often and cause many athletes to have decreased performances in games. How players handle these situations have a direct impact on how they perform in a game. There are many psychological factors that influence performance. How coaches teach their players to cope with these situations can help them to decrease their anxiety in stressful situations and perform better. The situations the players are in also relate to the kinds of stress the players have. Is the player male or female? Is the player youth or adult? What level does the player compete at, competitive, professional or recreational? What position do they play? These factors all impact the psychological factors that players need to have to be successful and also how they are going to cope with their stressors in the most effective and healthy way. Having too much built up stress is unhealthy for anyone and can lead to depression disorders. (Fullerton, 2010). Exactly which negative psychological factors are players the most anxious about in regards to sports and which coping strategies tend to help them the most to deal with these factors?
There are two types of anxiety, state anxiety and trait anxiety. State anxiety is “the anxiety intensity at a given time.” (Fullerton, 2010). Trait anxiety is when someone becomes more anxious when exposed to stressors. Trait anxiety is common in the sport of soccer as there are many stressors that players must cope with in order to be successful. While players still may have state anxiety about an upcoming match or important training session, trait anxiety may occur when players join a new team, come to the first training session, first match, playing time, what position they are going to play, what their role is on the team, playing at a higher level and any other aspect of the game that challenges the player in some way. While it is good to challenge players, it also needs to be understood by the players why they are being challenged and teach them how to handle the situations properly and in a healthy way. Many athletes have many different stressors and some will have different stressors than others depending on age, level of play, skill level, maturity level and gender.
PSYCHOLOGICAL FACTORS OF MALES VS FEMALES
The psychological factors that cause female athletes stress varies from those that cause male athletes stress. In a study regarding the stressors of both male and female athletes, male athletes were found to have had most of their stress about getting injured and making mistakes. Females were shown to have had most of their stress over communication concerns and teammates. Both male and female athletes were concerned about selection, their teammates making mistakes as well as letting down their teammates. However, the higher level players were not concerned about letting their teammates down as much as training or coach issues. (Nicholls, Polman, Levy, Taylor & Cobley, 2007).
This data makes sense with the knowledge of the tendencies of males and females in sports. When on teams, males tend to want to be the best and prove everyone wrong, but fear making mistakes because they will get made fun of by their peers. Females want to be socially accepted by their peers and teammates and tend to stress communication on the field as a large area to focus on. According to Nicholls, Polman, Levy, Taylor & Cobley, the stressors that male and female athletes have are generally influenced by not only gender, but also the type of sport they play; team sports or individual sports, as well as the skill level of each athlete.
The coping strategies that males and females used in team sport situations also varies. Males tend to use more blocking and avoidance type coping strategies, while females tend to use more problem-focused coping strategies in order to fix the issues, such as communication. (Nicholls, Polman, Levy, Taylor & Cobley, 2007). Some studies suggest that males use more problem-focused coping strategies and females use more emotion-focused coping strategies, but in today’s generation it is more common for males to simply avoid the problem as much as possible. Females today also are taught to take emotions out of it as much as possible and try to find solutions whether than dwell on situations as well.
COMMON PSYCHOLOGICAL STRESSORS FOR ALL AGES
Stressors that athletes at all ages showed were making errors, team performance, coaches, selection, opposition, and individual performance, according to Reeves, McKenna & Nicholls. Making errors and team performance can cause anxiety because players want to win and don’t want to be the one to mess up or let their team down. They want to impress their teammates and their coaches. When coaches give little feedback, athletes reported that they feel more anxious because they don’t know what they can do to play better to impress the coach. Selection includes being a starter, being substituted from a game, playing new positions or being cut from a team. This is a major stressor for both age groups, especially ages fifteen and older. Many athletes especially those fourteen and younger, feel stress when their opposition are bigger than them.
As the arousal level of athletes increases, so does the performance of the athlete, but only to a certain point. If the arousal gets too high, it interferes with the player’s behavior on the field and lowers the level of performance they are able to give. Players who have a lot of stress and cannot control their emotions will have higher levels of arousal and ultimately lowered performance during competition. Often times this leads to high anxiety. This is why younger athletes cannot find a way to succeed and control their emotions, so they tend to burn out or quit at a young age, even before reaching their full potential. (USA Swimming & US Ski and Snowboard Association, 2006).
PSYCHOLOGICAL STRESSORS FOR AGES 14 AND UNDER
“Approximately 25% of adolescents will experience at least one significant stressor, including the death of a loved one or witnessing a traumatic event.” (Zimmer-Gembeck & Skinner, 2008). Athletes under the age of 14 exhibit different psychological factors than their older counterparts. The most common stressors for athletes age fourteen and younger are making errors, team performance, opposition, family, individual performance, coaches and selection. (Reeves, McKenna & Nicholls, 2009). The stressor that is different at this age than older ages is family. Family stressors include parental criticism, parental pressures, and parent/coach conflicts. Athletes of this age specifically indicated that it is very stressful when their parents yell at them from the sidelines during games. This aspect became increasingly stressful when the coach and the parents were giving conflicting demands.
Any situation that children think is threatening will commonly be coped with by using avoidance strategies and emotional strategies. Avoidance strategies may include escaping the situation temporarily or withdraw from the situation. Emotional strategies at this age are commonly seen as finding support from close family and friends. Any situations that children believe are challenging will generally be coped with by problem focused strategies. Many children at this young age may seek more interest in the problem to solve the problem. (Zimmer-Gembeck & Skinner, 2008). However, some may still avoid the situation depending on their individual maturity level. If children think that their particular stressor is able to be controlled easily, they may try to use problem focused strategies, otherwise they will most likely use avoidance or emotional focused strategies.
COMMON PSYCHOLOGICAL STRESSORS FOR AGES 15 AND OVER
As athletes mature and get older, the psychological factors that cause them stress in athletics changes. Common stressors at the age of fifteen and older include making errors, team performance, coaches, selection, opposition, individual performance, physical demands, contractual issues and playing at a higher level. (Reeves, McKenna & Nicholls, 2009). Physical demands, contractual issues and playing at a higher level became new stressors for athletes as they got older. Physical demands simply included the game being played quicker and athletes having to think quicker and physically move quicker with sharper technical ability to keep up with the speed of play. Contractual issues include athletes giving up other aspects of their lives to earn college or professional scholarships, while their friends are enjoying being young. Playing at a higher level or playing with an older age group becomes another stressor as athletes get older and want to try to continue to play after high school.
Being that children ages twelve to eighteen are in the “identity vs role confusion years” (Erikson, 2014), these stressors make sense for children at this age. Children at this age are trying to find their own identity, while also trying to fit in with their peers and discover what is right and wrong. Sometimes this age choose to neglect these responsibilities until later in life, which tends to result in role confusion. At this age, players should begin to have a strong sense of loyalty towards friends and what they want to do. Therefore, it makes sense that how their team does in games, how they do individually in games and what others think of them are psychological factors that cause them stress.
Most teenagers become stressed out when a situation becomes dangerous, difficult or painful to them. Since they are still not adults, they often think they do not have the resources to help. Many teenagers become stressed from having too high of demands, their bodies are changing or start to have negative thoughts about themselves. When teenagers do not have the correct resources to cope with stress, it can sometimes lead to poor coping strategies such as drug and alcohol use. (Stress Management and Teens, 2013).
Some of the ways coaches can assist young players in dealing with stressful situations in athletics, specifically soccer, are to create an atmosphere where each player is supportive of one another to release the expectation that players need to perform well every time they are on the field. Specifically with this age, coaches need to be careful when addressing the team and individuals about corrections. They should be sure to include positive aspects of the game as well so that players do not lose more confidence. Goal setting is also a great coping strategy for teenagers to use in stressful scenarios. Having one thing to work on in a set amount of time can keep the expectation reasonable for the players so that they don’t have added stress about expectations being too high. (Gilbert, Gilbert & Morawski, 2007). Sometimes avoidance strategies can be useful to allow athletes to get away from the pressures of being an athlete and having to obtain results all the time. After a tough loss, players should be sure to highlight parts of their game that they did really well. Coaches can help in this process by having conversations with their players about items other than sports. This way the players understand that they are not only judged by other people on how good of an athlete they are, but rather what kind of person they are. This can help take away some of the stress from the pressure of being an athlete. If players know what their role on the team is and can contribute on the field in some way by getting adequate playing time, they will enjoy the game more and therefore be less stressed about it.
PROFESSIONAL AND COLLEGE LEVEL ATHLETES
The number one stressor of professional soccer players is travel. This includes being gone for extended amounts of time, being far away from family and friends, flight arrangements, hotel arrangements and physical preparation for matches. The second most common stressor is drafting and contracts, which includes trying out, preseason, being part of the roster, the draft itself in professional soccer and which college team to play for and whether to go to a big school or a small school. The third most common stressor is team issues such as playing at a higher level, getting a spot on the team, fighting for a starting position on the team and dealing with teammates from international teams and their egos. The last two common stressors of professional players fall into the categories of salaries and coach or team issues. Players commonly become anxious because of too little or too much communication from the coach, understanding team tactics or struggling with confidence. Confidence issues are very common in female athletes. The fact that females also earn less money at the professional level than their male counterparts also is a stressor for the females. (Kristiansen, Murphy & Roberts, 2012).
Professional athletes control their stress by controlling their arousal levels, setting realistic goals, visualization techniques, game and training routines and self talk. Controlling their arousal levels relates to pre game rituals such as listening to music in order to get pumped up but not too pumped up. Setting goals is important and it is also important that the goals are realistic and attainable. They also need to be able to be measured. Visualizing techniques helps athletes to be able to picture themselves doing their job or role in the game correctly so that they are confident going into the competition. Finally, self talk is also known as positive thinking. Athletes should tell themselves that they are capable of doing what they need to do and let themselves know that they are going to go and do it to the best of their ability.
DIFFERENT POSITIONS AND STRESS IN SOCCER
Soccer players who play different positions have different psychological demands within the game. Therefore, each position comes with it’s own common stressors. According to a study completed by Najah and Rejeb, players who played the forward position showed higher levels of confidence and motivation. Defenders were shown to be the most relaxed in pressure situations. Players with higher levels of relaxation and lower levels of muscular tension are more likely to have more confidence while playing and have less stress.
Forwards are very competitive and understand that they are the leaders on the field to achieve goals to help their team win. However, they can be stressed about their persistence to goals. (Broadley). When forwards do not score in games for extended amounts of time it can cause them stress because they know that they need to lead their team to success. If they are not doing that, they begin to get anxious.
Midfielders, according to Broadley, have the weakness of competitiveness and self confidence. Therefore, if they do not receive reassurance that they are doing things correctly and well in training and matches, it causes them stress. Midfielders often have the role of doing the “dirty work” for their teammates, playing both sides of the ball and not necessarily scoring the goals, but setting them up. If they never get any credit for what they are doing, they will think they are not an important part of their team.
As mentioned above, defenders, including goalkeepers, are the most relaxed in pressure situations. However, they can be stressed about getting beaten or getting scored on, but their coping skills and mental capabilities to handle this are generally much stronger than players in other positions. Goalkeepers are the ones that everyone looks at first when a goal is scored. How can they handle the stress of these situations? Goalkeepers must be mentally tough and have the ability to use emotion focused coping strategies to cope with the stress of getting scored on and having everyone looking at you first. Using humor, meditation before games and positive thinking can be beneficial for goalkeepers dealing with this stressor. Avoidance strategies are also effective for defenders and goalkeepers to allow them to simply forget about the mistake they made and move on.
INJURIES AND STRESS IN ATHLETES
Injuries can also stress out athletes and get them out of the correct state of mind for competition. Although physical factors continue to be and are obviously the largest cause of injuries in athletes, research is being done to indicate that psychological factors such as poor thoughts or perceptions also lead to bigger chances of injuries. (Crust). According to Crust, athletes who are stressed have low attentional focus and high muscular tension. With low attentional focus, athletes may be paying attention to the ball, but are not cued into what is happening around them. If they are not paying attention to the players on their team or the other team or even the field conditions, they have a greater risk of getting hurt. Players with low attentional focus are also more likely to go into a challenge that they have a low chance of winning, which may result in injuries. Soccer players with high amounts of muscular tension generally struggle with coordination which also results in injuries, such as rolled ankles or knee injuries.
When coaches ask players to give 110%, it is sometimes dangerous to the players and may result in unexpected injuries. A study was done asking track athletes to run 400 meters at 110% effort and then four days later run it again at 95% effort. The results showed that most runners got a better time at 95% effort because their muscular tension was not as high when asked to run relaxed. (Crust).
Crust also states that “the most consistent psychological factor related to injury seems to be stress. …the ability to cope with stress can act as an essential buffer to reduce the likelihood of injury”. (Crust). Players who are injured because of their sport have been known to get ulcers from the stress related to the injury. (US Swimming & USA Ski and Snowboard Association, 2006). This shows how much more the human body is susceptible to diseases and how easily diseases can occur, especially to bodies that are not physically and mentally healthy. Too much stress overwhelms the body and causes it to be unhealthy. Players who are mentally unhealthy and stressed out are likely to take longer to recover from injuries as well. They may use an injury to take a break from the stressors of their sport. (US Swimming & USA Ski and Snowboard Association, 2006).
According to Tedesqui and Orlick, “positive thinking was strongly related to optimal focus and subsequent successful performance.” (Tedesqui & Orlick, 2015). When players think about good things that could happen in games, good things will happen, and when they think about bad things in a game, bad things will happen. Players attentional focus changes depending on the skill they are asked to accomplish. There are two types of skills; open-skills and closed-skills. Open skills require that players make decisions under the pressure of time constraints and in an environment that is constantly changing. Closed skills are skills that the athletes have time to prepare for. Most of the time in soccer, open skills are common as soccer is a constantly moving game with no time outs.
Open skills and closed skills and the athlete’s ability to have attentional focus also varies by position. Goalkeepers generally need to focus on the ball, but also need to focus on what the player with the ball is going to do, whether it be shoot, pass or dribble. This is an example of an open skill because, even though the goalkeeper can train scenarios in training, they do not know what the attacker is going to actually do in a game situation. For midfielders, attentional focus not only needs to be on the ball, but also on teammates, opponents and space on the field.
These player’s attentional focus can also be different depending on the result and individual performance during the game. In a game in which the team lost or the player did not feel to have had the best performance, attentional focus involves thinking about mistakes, thinking about the pressure of the fans or reacting to opponents. (Tedesqui & Orlick, 2015). In situation where the player felt they had a successful performance or the team got the result they were hoping for, attentional focus looks more positive. In this case, attentional focus involves positive thinking, executing tasks well and using peripheral cues to perform tasks well. (Tedesqui & Orlick, 2015). Therefore, there is a direct correlation between the thoughts and mindset of the player and their performance in athletics.
DISABLED ATHLETES AND THEIR STRESSORS
Disabled athletes are very similar to the normal bodied athletes in the world. They compete the same way, train the same way, and also undergo stress in much of the same ways. However, their stressors are much harder to overcome than the normal bodied athletes. Some of the stressors that disabled athletes worry about are aspects as big as the diseases they have, such as heart disease or cancer. Also, “stress can be the response or result of physical, psychological, and environmental factors that occur with illness, injury or disability, noise, crowding, temperature extremes, or inadequate finances or living situations”. (Moses & Falola, 2011). When the athlete finds something demanding or threatening or they do not think that they have enough resources to cope with the stressful situation, it causes them more stress. Parasoccer athletes become especially stressed out because of their sport and receiving the benefits and awards related to it. Relationships, financial situations, physical and mental health and body satisfaction are the major stressors of parasoccer athletes. (Moses & Falola, 2011). Most of these are not common stressors of the normal bodied athletes, at least to the same extent. For example, all athletes care about their bodies and being in top physical shape to compete in their sport, but disabled athletes not only need to be in top physical shape, and also remain in a state that is not going to be harmful to their life. Another example might be the fact that everyone cares about their financial situation, but when a disabled athlete needs to care for themself, their family, pay their medical bills and pay for the expenses their sport involves, it can become a major stressor.
Positive statements and relaxation training was found to be the best coping strategy for disabled parasoccer athletes dealing with stressors. They often feel panicked and helpless because they are thinking negative thoughts, so using positive self talk can reduce some of this stress. (Moses & Falola, 2011). When athletes are stressed or anxious, there tends to be greater muscle tension, which makes it more difficult to compete in athletics. As with any athlete, relaxation techniques pre-game help to prepare athletes physically and mentally for competition. Relaxation training is important to implement into these athletes training routines to keep them in prime mental state for competition and keep them healthy.
There are three main types of coping strategies that are used by all athletes to cope with the tremendous amounts of stress that athletics place on people. These are problem-focused coping strategies, emotion-focused coping strategies and avoidance coping strategies.
Problem-focused coping strategies “aim to remove or reduce the cause of the stressor”. (McLeod, 2015). Problem solving, time management and getting social support are huge factors in problem-focused coping strategies. Most people believe that this is the best way to cope with anxiety as it relates to sports because it completely takes away the stressor. While problem-focused coping allows athletes to take control of the situation, it does not always work. For example, if an athlete has a death of a family member or close friend that is causing them stress, it may not be beneficial to think about it and try to solve the problem, as that is not possible with a sudden death. This strategy will only work if the individual is able to control the source of stress and where it is coming from. Males more commonly use problem-focused coping strategies, while females tend to more commonly use emotion-focused coping strategies.
Emotion-focused coping strategies simply try to reduce any negative emotional responses players may have from embarrassment, fear, anxiety, depression, excitement and frustration. (McLeod, 2015). Emotion-focused coping strategies are often used when the source of stress is not controllable by the individual. Examples of emotion-focused coping strategies include positive thinking, seeking social support, humor and meditation. “Emotionally focused coping is useful if it creates a pause, a break, which the individual takes for himself or herself, that enables him or her to have the time to gather strengths and look at the problem from different perspectives.” (Galor, 2012). Emotion focused coping strategies should be used when the situation is not going to change and the person needs to learn to adapt to it in some way.
Avoidance coping strategies, also known as escape coping, are when people avoid doing something thinking that the stress of it will go away. The truth is people who use avoidance strategies to cope with stressful situations are more likely to have depression, anxiety or eating disorders. (Boyes, 2013). Avoidance coping can be seen in different ways. People can either do more of something to make it go away, or not do something in any way to avoid it. This type of coping strategy usually causes more anxiety because the person usually ends up being around the situation or object that they are trying to avoid even more.
COPING SKILLS EFFECTIVENESS TRAINING
Coping skills effectiveness training, also know as mental toughness training, is an important aspect for any athlete who is looking to become the best, most well rounded athlete they can be. Interpersonal confidence and emotional control were found to be the most important aspects of athletes who possess higher coping skills effectiveness training. (Ragab, 2015). “Individuals who score high on interpersonal confidence tend to be more assertive, are less likely to be intimidated in social settings and are also better able to cope with difficult or awkward people.” (Ragab, 2015). Athletes who also have better emotional control do a better job at controlling their emotions and are less likely to show their emotions to other people, such as their teammates. (Ragab, 2015).
Too much stress can lead to many negative effects on athletes such as poor performance, lower enjoyment, potential burnout, higher risk of injury and increased risk of illness. (US Swimming & USA Ski and Snowboard Association, 2006). The initial purpose of sport is to get players to enjoy it and stay physically fit and active. The stress of competitiveness and the pressures to improve are unnecessary. Players will improve and succeed if they are enjoying themselves.
The negative psychological factors the make players the most anxious in regards to sports vary depending on the age of the athlete and the coping skills the athlete uses must be taught at the youth ages to be highly effective. Common effective coping strategies for any age are problem-focused to solve the issue or emotion-focused such as positive thinking or social support if the stress cannot be controlled by the individual. Some of the common factors that athletes are stressed out about at all ages are making mistakes, injuries, playing time and performances of themselves and their team.
As coaches, we wonder what can be done to help our athletes learn better coping strategies so that they do not have these negative psychological effects. Problem solving is the best way to, not only encourage players to think, but also to take the emotion of being scared to be wrong and teach them how to think when they are frustrated. Put the players in situations that they have the potential to be in during games and throughout life so that when they experience it, they know how to handle it. Make them think for themselves instead of giving them the answers on the spot. Don’t let them avoid the situation in training, make them think through it. Teach them how to deal with the emotions they feel in order to get through a certain struggle they may have. For example, maybe the player needs to take a break from the situation and get water, then come back to it after they are re-focused. These are coping skills that players can learn to not only problem-solve on the field, but also as they grow and encounter many scenarios throughout their lives.
Now let’s go back to the scenario discussed at the beginning of this paper about the young girl who was very excited to play soccer, but her coach told her she wasn’t good enough to play. Based on this research, what psychological factors are going through her head in that moment? Since this girl is under the age of fourteen, she is especially sensitive to making mistakes, how her team plays against the opposition, how she plays, her coach and family. Even though family is the number one common stressor of this age group, she is probably feeling anxious about her coach, her performance and making mistakes. She does not want to make mistakes on the field because she fears that her coach will yell at her for it. If she is ever given an opportunity to go on the field, after hearing that “she is not good enough”, that fear of making mistakes will become even greater. When an athlete fears making mistakes, more mistakes are likely to happen.
How can she cope with these pressures? Since this stressor is something that the girl cannot control, she should try to cope using emotional coping strategies. She cannot control how her coach treats her and what he says to her, however, she can control her emotions. She can use positive thinking and find social support to help her through this. Positive thoughts about her play when she is on the field or with the team like “I can strike the ball far with my laces” and “I don’t care what coach says about how I play, I am just going to try my best!”. Seeking social support is often going to come from her family members or trusted adults in her life. Her parents can support her in the car ride home by telling her she played great, did her best and that they love her regardless. Since her coach is not teaching her how to cope with this stress, that education will need to come from her parents or possibly a trusted adult figure such as her teacher at school.
In the second scenario, the young boy is the all star on his club team and is attempting to handle the stress of “letting his team and coach down” in the final of a state cup match. This boy is older than the girl mentioned in the previous scenario, however since he is still fourteen, as mentioned above, his largest stressor is family and how his team and himself perform. His coach never told him any positives after the game, which leads him to think that the team didn’t play well. His teammates, coach and even parents were giving him disgusting looks and comments after the game and saying it was his fault that they didn’t win. His dad was yelling at him from the sidelines during the game and giving conflicting messages, which is a major stressor at this age as well. Finally, after the game, his dad was talking about his performance in the car in a negative way, instead of telling him he played hard and tried his best and that he is proud of him. So, these multiple stressors all come together in this boy’s mind and cause added stress.