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The Sport Digest - ISSN: 1558-6448

Stressing: Understanding and Coping with Acute Stress in Adolescents Athletes Competing in Team Sports


Stress has no boundaries. It affects children, teenagers, and adults. It crosses gender and ethnic divides and makes no distinction between social class, religious preference, marital status, or educational levels. Stress takes many different forms and affects everyone in different ways, and, left unchecked, negative stressors can lead to serious health problems. Some people may stress over burdensome financial obligations while others may stress over which item to purchase while shopping. Employees stress over job security, promotions, and workloads. Students in all grade levels, from kindergarten to graduate school, stress over assignments and exams. Stress is everywhere and is felt by everyone. This concept is no different in competitive team sports.
Athletes at all levels feel a certain amount of stress while participating in sports. When thinking of stressful athletic situations, we tend to think of classic examples such as the long field goal attempt by the placekicker as time expires; the free throws to tie the game with no time left on the clock; two outs in the bottom of the ninth with the winning run on second; and the double-overtime penalty kick to win the match.

Although these situations can produce a great deal of acute stress, especially among younger athletes, they do not represent the most common type of stress that may be encountered in athletic competition. Even though acute stressors can be found at every level of competition, they may be more visible at the youth sports level. These younger athletes have yet to learn, due to their age and lack of life experience, proper coping strategies. A sport administrator can help young athletes involved in team sports understand and cope with their acute stressors by answering the following questions:

1.What is acute stress?
2.What are the sources of acute stress in athletic competition?
3.What affects does acute stress have on performance?
4.What strategies help cope with acute stress?

Review of Literature

What is acute stress?

Efforts to define stress must be approached with the understanding that there is “certain vagueness implicit in this term” (Rosenzweig, Breedlove & Watson, 2005, p. 480). However, the most accepted summary of stress, as defined by Hans Selye, is “the nonspecific response of the body to any demands made upon it” (Kreitner & Kinicki, 1992, as cited by Crampton, Hodge, Mishra & Price, 1995, p. 10). Short-term or traumatic demands on the body are known as acute stress (Cole, 2004; Brooks et al., 2008).

All stress, including acute stress, occur in four stages (Blankenship, 2007). First, a perceived external threat, challenge, or trauma is placed upon an individual (Blankenship, 2007; Hagland, Nestadt, Cooper, Southwick & Charney, 2007) Secondly, a cognitive appraisal of the demand is processed (Anshel & Wells, 2000; Blankenship, 2007; Crampton et al, 1995; Devonport & Lane, 2006; Gan & Anshel, 2006; Hanton, Fletcher & Coughlan, 2005). Thirdly, physiological, psychological, and/or emotional responses to the perceived stress are activated (Anshel & Kaissidis, 1997; Benham, 2007; Blankenship, 2007; Cole 2004; Hagland et al., 2007). Finally, behavioral adjustments are made in order to cope with the stressor (Blankenship, 2007; Crampton et al, 1995; Hanton et al., 2005). The failure to cope with an acute or traumatic stressor can lead to serious psychological problems such as chronic stress (Cole, 2004), Acute Stress Disorder (Brooks et al., 2008), and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (Hamner, 2008).

Acute stress can be found in sporting contexts. Research has identified “physical and mental errors” (Anshel, 1996, p. 331; Anshel & Kaissidis, 1997, p. 263), “penalties” (Anshel, 1996, p. 331; Anshel & Kaissidis, 1997, p. 263), “experiencing pain or injury” (Anshel, 2001, p. 224) and/or a “coach reprimand” (Anshel & Kaissidis, 1997, p. 263) as the most common examples of acute stress in sports. Although these findings may seem trivial when compared to more extreme sources of stress, such as being mugged, the stress-induced responses are often similar (Anshel & Delaney, 2001).

Adolescent perception of acute stress in sporting contexts has not been widely researched (Anshel & Delaney, 2001). This is a particular problem as Frydenberg & Lewis (1993; as cited by Anshel & Delaney, 2001) pointed out, “in addition to a relative lack of sport skills in this age group and a plethora of performance errors, children have not learned adaptive coping skills that exacerbate the effects of an already inherently stressful environment” (p. 330). This environment, in addition to already dealing with the many changes associated with the transition from childhood to adulthood (Griffith, Dubow & Ippolito, 2000), can lead to unhealthy and unhappy experiences (Anshel & Delaney, 2001).

What Are the Sources of Acute Stress in Athletic Competition?

Many researchers agree that acute stress is naturally associated with sports (Anshel, 2001; Anshel & Delaney, 2001; Anshel & Wells, 2000; Gilbert, Gilbert & Morawski, 2007). In addition, other research has suggested that life stress from family issues, school assignments, peer relationships (Felstein & Wilcox, 1992), and organizational stressors (Hanton et al., 2005) can also lead to poor sports performance (Felstein & Wilcox, 1992). As sound as these theories may or may not be, sport administrators should instead look at what adolescents have identified as the more important sources of competitive negative stressors.


Performance has been cited as the leading cause of negative stress as identified by adolescent athletes (Anshel & Delaney, 2001; Gilbert et al, 2007; Nicholls & Polman, 2007). Nicholls & Polman (2007) findings concur that “making a physical error” (p. 213) was cited by adolescent athletes as their number one stressor. Identically, Anshel & Delaney (2001) also found that performance errors are “a frequently cited and intense source of stress” (p. 347). These stressful errors are often magnified by coach and parental reactions and criticisms which can lead to stressful self-imposed performance expectations (Gilbert et al., 2007). Other studies have shown that various game situations, such as pregame and clock stoppages (Dunn & Nielsen, 1996), the fear of choking in late game situations (Wang, Marchant, & Morris, 2004), and playing in unfamiliar settings (Forrest, 2008) are also performance-related stressors. Forrest (2008) elaborates on the later, “they must travel by air, rail, or bus for longer than they are used to, experience unfamiliar cultures, eat food with which they are unaccustomed, and deal with shifts in time zones, altitude, and climate” (p. 246-247).


Another important stressor for sport administrators to understand is the fear of injury. Obviously, young athletes competing in football or hockey are more concerned about sudden injury than those competing in baseball or basketball (Nicholls & Polman, 2007; Dunn & Nielsen, 1996). In addition, injured athletes can feel a tremendous amount of stress due to the feelings of seclusion and not be able to contribute to the on-field success of the team (Gilbert et al., 2007). Furthermore, athletes that decide to play while injured may add to their already stressful state if they do not perform up to expectations (Gilbert et al., 2007).

Opponents and Officials

Opponent performance and poor calls from officials also lead to acute stress in adolescent sports. Anshel & Delaney (2001) identify that sudden success of an opponent can lead to significant stress. Likewise, Nicholls & Polman (2007) found that “observing an opponent play well” (p. 213) is perceived to be a negative stressor. Dunn & Nielsen (1996) noted in their study that “23% of youth athletes perceived stress when playing against a stronger opponent or worrying about being unable to cope with playing against a stronger opponent” (p. 120).

Bad officiating is also a source of acute stress. In Anshel & Delaney’s (2001) study of adolescents team sports, they found that “‘receiving a bad call from the umpire’ was the most frequently cited source of acute stress…representing 61% and 44% of males and females, respectively” (p. 348). Similarly, adolescents in Dunn & Nielsen’s (1996) study perceived “poor officiating decisions” (p. 125) as negative stressors.


Another major contributor to acute stress found in youth sports are the largely impracticable and unobtainable (Anshel & Delaney, 2001) performance expectations placed on children by their parents. Gilbert et al. (2007) also mentions that parental criticisms often lead to acute stress resulting in decreased performance as their children “are less likely to successfully attend to competitive stimuli” (p. 14). Nicholls & Polman’s (2007) study found that adolescents perceive “criticism from coach/parent” (p. 213) as the second leading cause of acute stress.


Coaching criticisms also evoke negative stressors (Nicholls & Polman, 2007). Dunn & Nielsen (1996) concur, “It is clear that the behaviors of the coach play an important part in producing athlete anxiety” (p. 124). Criticism is not the only source of acute stress that emanates from the coach (Dunn & Nielsen, 1996; Gilbert et al, 2007). Athletes have identified playing time (Gilbert et al., 2007) and personnel and tactical decision-making (Dunn & Nielsen, 1996) as taxing situations. The failure to get into a game may also cause distress for adolescents (Gilbert et al., 2007). In addition, Dunn & Nielsen (1996) add that coach decisions requiring athletes to perform specific, unpracticed plays or asking athletes to play a position that is unfamiliar can lead to acute stress.

What Affects Does Acute Stress Have on Performance?

Regardless of the nature of the acute stressor, it affects us all in physiological, emotional, and/or psychological ways (Anshel & Kaissidis, 1997; Benham, 2007; Blankenship, 2007; Cole, 2004; Hagland et al., 2007). Long-term exposure to acute stress can lead to chronic stress, Acute Stress Disorder, and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (Brooks et al., 2008; Cole, 2004; Hamner, 2008). The same holds true for sport participants. Athletes who are affected by acute stress also have physical, emotional, and psychological responses (Anshel, Porter & Quek, 1998) and each response has the potential of affecting performance.


A number of studies have indicated that acute stress in competitive team sports can arouse physiological responses in adolescent athletes (Anshel, 2001; Anshel et al., 1998; Anshel & Kaissidis, 1997; Cole, 2004; Nicholls & Polman, 2007). These somatic responses are naturally occurring when the host perceives danger (Cole, 2004). Physiological responses can affect psycho-motor skills (Anshel, 2001; Anshel et al., 1998; Anshel & Kaissidis, 1997; Dunn & Nielsen, 1996) resulting in reduced performance (Anshel, 2001). Diminished motor skills and increased muscular tension also carries the potential threat of injury (Nicholls & Polman, 2007).


Emotional responses take the form of agony or turmoil (Anshel, 1996; Anshel et al., 1998), diminished behavioral self-regulation (Anshel & Si, 2008) and/or decreased satisfaction (Anshel & Delaney, 2001; Anshel & Wells, 2000; Nicholls & Polman, 2007). Adolescent athletes, even those athletes that are considered elite, participate in sports to have fun (Anshel & Delaney, 2001; Pugh, Wolff, DeFrancesco, Gilley & Heitman, 2000); however, parents and coaches tend to overemphasize competition and winning. This emotional roller coaster brought on by acute stress (Anshel & Delaney, 2001) can lead to decreased satisfaction, and eventually, dropout.


The affects of acute stress on an athlete’s psyche can include the following: decreased motivation (Anshel, 1996); over arousal and heightened anxiety (Anshel et al., 1998; Anshel & Si, 2008); inability to focus attention on situation and unwillingness to take risks (Anshel & Kaissidis, 1997; Anshel & Si, 2008); inferior decision-making (Anshel & Si, 2008); and burnout (Anshel, 1996; Anshel et al., 1998). All of these factors may lead to an interesting psychological response – the phenomenon known as choking (Wang et al., 2004).

Choking is defined as “performance decrements under pressure circumstances” (Baumeister, 1984, as cited by Wang et al., 2004, p. 76). Baumeister (1984) indentifies pressure as “any factor or combination of factors that increases the importance of performing well on a particular occasion” (Wang et al., 2004, p. 76). Simply put, an athlete chokes when performance expectations succumb to psychological stress or late game pressure situations (Wang et al., 2004). Research indicates that choking is the result of not properly coping with game-related acute stressors (Wang et al., 2004).
What Strategies Help Cope With Acute Stress?

Research indicates that it is important for adolescent athletes to find ways to cope with their acute stressors (Anshel, 1996; Anshel et al., 1998; Anshel & Delaney, 2001; Anshel, Jamieson & Raviv, 2001; Ashel & Wells, 2000; Gan & Anshel, 2006; Gilbert et al., 2007). Cognitive appraisal is indicated by research as the most important step in the coping process (Anshel & Delaney, 2001; Anshel et al., 1998; Anshel et al., 2001; Anshel & Wells, 2000; Gan & Anshel, 2006). Cognitive appraisal will determine if the external or internal stimuli is immaterial, moderate, or acute (Anshel & Wells, 2000). The athlete also makes a determination as to the intensity of the stressor before establishing a strategy to cope with the acute stress (Gan & Anshel, 2006). Once the athlete has identified an acute stressor, a coping strategy can then be chosen (Anshel & Delaney, 2001; Anshel et al., 1998; Anshel et al., 2001; Anshel & Wells, 2000; Gan & Anshel, 2006).

Coping is best defined by Lazarus & Folkman (1984) as “constantly changing cognitive and behavior efforts to manage specific external and/or internal demands that are appraised as taxing or exceeding the resources of the person (Anshel, 1996, p. 311; Nicholls & Polman, 2007, p. 200). Although there are various coping strategies, the two that stand out most in research are the approach and avoidance strategies (Anshel, 1996; Anshel et al., 1998; Anshel et al., 2001; Anshel & Delaney, 2001; Anshel & Si, 2008; Anshel & Wells, 2000; Griffith et al., 1999; Wang et al., 2004).


The approach coping technique can be identified as steps taken to directly deal with the source of stress (Anshel, 1996; Anshel et al., 1998; Anshel et al., 2001; Anshel & Delaney, 2001; Anshel & Si, 2008; Anshel & Wells, 2000). This technique has also been referred to as “sensitization, engagement, vigilance, attention, and monitoring” (Anshel & Si, 2008, p. 4), and can take place at the “behavioral, cognitive, and emotional” (Anshel & Wells, 2000, p. 435) level. Once an athlete perceives and appraises a threat or challenge, Anshel (2001) indicates that they can then use the approach technique to directly confront the source of stress, broaden their performance efforts, or acquire information about the source of stress in order to prevent future incidences. Studies have shown that vigilance techniques are extremely helpful when the athlete knows the source of acute stress, i.e. performance, bad call, coach reprimand (Anshel & Si, 2008). Approach coping is not without its limits though. Researchers have identified that sensitization techniques have shown to actually increase levels of acute stress in late-game situations (Wang et al., 2004). In addition, using this particular technique is only helpful in situations in which the athlete can control the stressor (Anshel & Wells, 2000) and may not be a suitable strategy to cope with the acute stressor of pain (Anshel et al., 2001).


The technique of avoidance coping can best be described as “the physical or psychological withdrawal from the source of threat” (Anshel & Si, 2008, p. 4) and has also been described as “desensitization, disengagement, repression, or blunting” (Anshel & Si, 2008, p. 4). The athlete attempts to block out or remove themselves from the threat (Anshel et al., 1998). Research has shown that this technique may be the optimal choice when dealing with spectator behavior, unknown sources of stress, situations which are not controllable, and when the stress is short-term in nature (Anshel & Si, 2008). Wang et al. (2004) also indicates that a repression strategy is more suitable for late-game, pressure-packed situations. However, the desensitizing is not without its drawbacks. Even though disengagement from the source of stress can be a great short-term solution (Wang et al., 2004), research indicates that avoidance should not be a long-term solution as it can eventually lead to serious health-related problems (Brooks et al., 2008; Cole, 2004; Hamner, 2008), decreased satisfaction (Anshel & Delaney, 2001; Anshel & Wells, 2000; Nicholls & Polman, 2007) and, eventually, burnout (Anshel, 1996; Anshel et al., 1998)

Summary and Conclusions

In conclusion, sport administrators should seek to understand acute stress and its affects on adolescents competing in team sports. This by no means suggests that administrators should know a solution to every major stressor. This is virtually impossible. Administrators should however understand specific stress related to competitive sports. Stress in sports is naturally inherent, more so as adolescents progress in their sport careers.

This presents a particular problem as children and teenagers have yet to learn appropriate coping techniques. At the youngest levels of sports, administrators and coaches can do much to decrease or eliminate the amount of stress by deemphasizing winning and focusing on fun and learning. Older adolescents will inevitably experience stress as the primary focus shifts from fun to outcome. Administrators and coaches at this level should assist athletes in choosing the correct coping strategies. Failure to do so can adversely affect the player and the team.

It should be noted that the particular coping strategies mentioned in this paper do not always work. These strategies are backed by research, but may not be successful in application with every athlete. We all perceive and respond to stress in different ways, it would only make sense that the success of coping strategies is also based on an individual’s perception and personality. In fact, multiple strategies may be needed in some instances. Nonetheless, attempts at coping with acute stress should always be made. The failure do so may cause satisfaction levels to plummet and may eventually lead to burnout. Burnouts in adolescent sports are unacceptable. As sport administrators, we should all stress over the prospect of having an adolescent athlete drop out of team sports.


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