3 Universal Ways That Elite Athletes Cope With Stress
Elite athletes rely on more than just mental toughness to cope with stress.
Posted Jun 14, 2020
During the two decades (1990s/2000s) that I spent competing as an athlete on the world stage, I figured out lots of different ways to cope with game-day stress and performance anxiety on the fly, through trial and error. When it came to mastering my mental game and breaking a Guinness World Record, there wasn't a "method to my madness." I didn't have a sports psychologist with a Ph.D. on hand to give me the inside scoop on tried-and-true ways to optimize one's mental game.
At the zenith of my sports career, which predated the launch of Google Scholar in November 2004, I wasn't aware of any specific evidence-based research on stress-coping processes used by other professional athletes in my field.
That said, there were two bestselling books from the 1970s (which are timeless classics) that my dad, who was also my tennis coach, made me read. Both of these books facilitated an "East-meets-West" mind/body approach to cultivating a "Zen" mindset and calming the nervous system. First, there was The Inner Game of Tennis (1972) by W. Timothy Gallwey. The other stress-busting wisdom that helped me cope better on and off the court came from The Relaxation Response (1975), which was written by my dad's Harvard Medical School colleague, Herbert Benson.
In addition to this short reading list of New York Times bestsellers, my neuroscientist father also wrote a book, The Fabric of Mind (1986). Although his book was not widely read, it profoundly influenced my mental approach to sports. Dad's tennis coaching always incorporated some sports-related neuroscience. For example, he taught me how to hack my vagus nerve by taking a deep breath followed by a long, slow exhalation to release a tranquilizer-like substance he called "vagusstoff" (i.e., vagus stuff) before every serve.
Even though I was surrounded by academia while growing up, I was a straight C- student in high school and didn't over-intellectualize my approach to sports. I was inspired more by listening to music than reading. Throughout my athletic career, I lived by Van Morrison's transcendental meditation (TM) inspired mantra: "No guru, no method, no teacher."
Nonetheless, over the years, I've become more cerebral and strive to balance Eastern mind/body wisdom and the spiritual side of sports with empirical evidence. As a retired athlete turned science reporter, it's eye-opening to read state-of-the-art research that identifies and gives clinical names to specific strategies used by today's elite-level performers to cope with stress.
Along this line, a recent study (Poulus et al., 2020) investigates the influence of mental toughness (MT) on "stress and coping" among world-class esport athletes (who play video games competitively in multiplayer online battle arenas) compared to traditional athletes who interact face-to-face in the flesh. These findings were published on April 28 in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.
For this esports study, first author Dylan Poulus and colleagues at the Queensland University of Technology School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences in Australia looked at the interplay between MT and three well-established (Nicholls & Polman, 2007) "coping in sport" strategies. These three strategies EFC, PFC, and AC (described below), have been identified as common stress-coping processes used by Olympic-level athletes who play traditional sports.
Three universal ways that elite athletes in traditional sports and esports athletes cope with stress:
- Emotion-Focused Coping (EFC): Using emotion regulation and other mindfulness techniques to calm "fight or flight" stress responses.
- Problem-Focused Coping (PFC): Actively troubleshooting and problem-solving to counteract stressful stimuli in a specific context.
- Avoidance Coping (AC): Using avoidant strategies to disengage physically or psychologically block out a source of stress.
Notably, Poulus et al. found that elite-level gamers who play Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Dota 2, League of Legends, Overwatch, or Rainbow Six Siege at international competitions tend to use similar techniques for coping with stress as traditional elite athletes. Esport athletes also rate high on psychometric questionnaires (e.g., MTQ-48) that measure mental toughness. (See "Mental Toughness Just Got Easier to Assess")
As Peter Clough and colleagues identified decades ago (Clough et al., 2002), the context and measurement of mental toughness can be boiled down to 4C's: Commitment, confidence, control, and challenge-based (not threat-based) appraisals when facing an uphill battle or overcoming setbacks during a competition.
Based on their recent (2020) discovery of parallels between coping strategies used by elite athletes in esports and traditional sports, Poulus and co-authors write:
"Literature on mental toughness has described more mentally tough people as having an unshakable faith in their abilities to control their own destiny and an increased ability to remain in control under pressure (Clough et al., 2002; Nicholls et al., 2008). The result here appears to match this description of mentally tough people and suggests that more mentally tough esports athletes have increased levels of perceived control over a stressor."
"Similar to traditional sports athletes, esports athletes with higher mental toughness employed more problem-focused coping strategies which aided in their success," Poulus said in a June 11, 2020 news release. "Everything we see in sports psychology interventions that work with traditional sports is likely going to work with esports athletes."
Interestingly, most of the 316 elite esports athletes surveyed by Poulus et al. tended to rely on a mix of mental toughness and other stress-coping processes such as acceptance (EFC strategy) for maintaining grace under pressure. "Accepting the elements of their game that are beyond their control could lead to better performance," Poulus said.
In general, elite gamers used more emotion-focused coping and less avoidance coping. Using more EFC and less AC may partially explain their esports success: Earlier this year, another pioneering study (Quah et al., 2020) on the most effective ways of coping with stress found that using an avoidant coping style in the face of an imminent threat is linked to higher anxiety-like behavior.
Hopefully, having a checklist of three different coping strategies that help elite athletes cope with stress will be of use to people from all walks of life.
In closing, there is one caveat: Although avoidance coping gets a bad rap, anecdotally, I've found that listening to turbocharged, empowering songs on my headphones as part of a pre-race routine before "facing the dragon head-on" is an effective way to block out stressful stimuli and get oneself psyched up—and avoid getting psyched out—before any sports competition.
Dylan Poulus, Tristan J. Coulter, Michael G. Trotter, and Remco Polman. "Stress and Coping in Esports and the Influence of Mental Toughness." Frontiers in Psychology (First published: April 23, 2020) DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00628
Shaun K. L. Quah, Gemma J. Cockcroft, Lauren McIver, Andrea M. Santangelo, and Angela C. Roberts. "Avoidant Coping Style to High Imminence Threat Is Linked to Higher Anxiety-Like Behavior." Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience (First published: March 10, 2020) DOI: 10.3389/fnbeh.2020.00034
Neil Dagnall, Andrew Denovan, Kostas A. Papageorgiou, Peter Joseph Clough, Andrew Parker and Kenneth Graham Drinkwater. "Psychometric Assessment of Shortened Mental Toughness Questionnaires (MTQ): Factor Structure of the MTQ-18 and the MTQ-10." Frontiers in Psychology (First published: August 21, 2019) DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01933
Adrian Harvey, Avery B Nathens, Glen Bandiera, Vicki R Leblanc. "Threat and Challenge: Cognitive Appraisal and Stress Responses in Simulated Trauma Resuscitations." Medical Education (First published: May 10, 2010) DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2923.2010.03634.x
Adam R. Nicholls, Remco C.J. Polman, Andrew R. Levy, Susan H. Backhouse. "Mental Toughness, Optimism, Pessimism, and Coping Among Athletes." Personality and Individual Differences (Published: April 2008) DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2007.11.011
Adam R. Nicholls and Remco C. J. Polman. "Coping in Sport: A Systematic Review" Journal of Sports Sciences (First published online: February 18, 2007) DOI: 10.1080/02640410600630654
Peter J. Clough, Keith Earle, David Sewell. "Mental Toughness: The Concept and its Measurement." Solutions in Sport Psychology (2002)