Le Yuiko showed Bohun-Obscurity his archery: pulled the string, put on the elbow cup with water, shot an arrow, and then, without waiting when it will reach the target, shoot the second and third. All arrows hit the target and all this time Le Yuiko stood still, like an idol.
– It is the skills of shooting within the shooting and not shooting without shooting – said Bohun-Obscurity. – And could you hit the target, if you go with me on the rock, hanging over the abyss of a thousand yards?
Here Obscurity ascended a high cliff, stood on a rock hanging over the abyss of a thousand yards, then he turned and stepped back so his feet were half over the edge of precipice. Standing in this position, he took his bow and hit the target. Then he beckoned to Le Yuiko. But archer, drenched in cold sweat, fell on the ground and covered his face with his hands.
– In the perfect man, – said the Obscurity – the spirit knows no embarrassment, even if he soars in the blue sky, descends into the abyss or fly away to the far ends of the earth. And you now want to close your eyes in fear. Your art is worth nothing!
In contemporary high-level Sports, failure or success depend on small differences between athletes’ technical, physical, and creative abilities. While most of the competitors have equal physical and technical potential, the victory greatly depends on the ability to use it in full and precisely when needed. Often such peak moments are inseparably connected with the highest psychological tension, which can greatly influence sportsmen’s ability to perform at the level where they are actually able to do. Such pressure is commonly called stress.
I think it is difficult to find more often used terms related to the psychological aspect of sports performance than stress. You can hear it from athletes, coaches, journalists, and, of course, sports scientists. However, it is probably the most difficult topic in Sports Psychology when you write about it.
Indeed, this phenomenon is very complicated. It has variable sources and is influenced by many different factors. Every aspect of stress deserves and receives a comprehensive examination from the great scientists.
So it is probably a little bit overconfidence to write on this topic; however, I am not going to claim expert’s knowledge here. Instead, it would be interesting to familiarise readers, maybe in simplified form, with the state-of-the-art on the field.
In the presented article, I will discuss possible sources of stress in contemporary sport, different mental and physical conditions that can provoke stress, and impair athletes’ abilities. Finally, I will consider different ways of coping with stress.
What is stress?
Since the word “Stress” is widely used in different areas ranges from Study of the Strength of Materials to Biology, there are many different definitions of this term. Even if we discuss only psychological stress, its exact meaning still provokes debates. Detailed description of these debates, is beyond the scope of the presented article. However, I do not underestimate the importance of understanding what we actually mean by “stress” in Sports Psychology.
Indeed, is stress in sport an exclusively environmental factor? If so, it doesn’t consider that the same external conditions may be extreme or common for different persons. Like, for example, temperature minus 20 C for the inhabitants of Central Africa and Chukotka. The same problems we meet if only organism’s internal reactions will be considered as stress. Different factors and situations can provoke the same physiological and psychological responses (e.g. high heart rate); however, these responses may be extreme for one person and usual for another.
It is important to note that although external factors provoke our reactions, their influence is strongly modulated by our perception. Not only “real” characteristics of the external agent are essential, but how we perceive it. From this point of view, probably, the definition of stress which belongs to McGrath ( I have derived it from Staal’s work (Staal, 2004)) will be most descriptive. McGrath considers stress as “…as the interaction between three elements: perceived demand, perceived ability to cope, and the perception of the importance of being able to cope with the demand”. In simple words, psychological stress in sports depends on how difficult we think a challenge is, how confident we are in our abilities to meet the challenge and how important is for us to overcome the challenge.
Sources of Stress in Sport
Today sports events attract multi-million audiences. Very often, failures or successes in the major competitions are connected with the country’s prestige. It puts immense psychological pressure on the main actors on the stage – athletes. Even though there are no direct punishment for unsuccessful performance in civilised countries, like it might be in a totalitarian, anyway, athletes still are concerned with what people think about them. Influence of the audience is enormous. Some studies have found this influence detrimental. However, such influence can be supportive as well. We can see many examples of positive support from the crowd during competitions in different sports.
Why is the influence of the audience on performance so different? One of the most cited theories on the field is the Drive Social Facilitation theory. It postulates that arousal, connected with the presence of spectators, improved executions of the simple tasks, which are already well learned, and impairs performances of the complex and/or not well-learned tasks (Zajonc, 1965).
Nevertheless, we often see the examples of “choking under pressure”, when the execution of well-learned and relatively simple tasks (e.g. penalties in football, basketball free-throws and etc.) are impaired by psychological pressure coming from the audience. Thus the Self-presentation model of the Social Facilitation suggests another explanation (Bond, 1982). When real or expected feedback from the audience is predominately negative and leads to the performer’s embarrassment, the others’ presence impairs the execution of even simple components of the task. For example, if a tennis player is losing to his opponent shamefully, he feels embarrassed, makes simple mistakes, and the presence of the audience only makes things worse. In contrast, if the feedback is predominantly positive (e.g., the player is winning confidently), then the crowd may facilitate the execution of even the very complicated shots.
Both theories don’t take into account that the audience itself might be different. It may be a supportive or hostile crowd, big or small, close or distant to the performer. All these variables influence the outcome. The athlete’s personality adds additional complexity as well. The same audience can impact entirely differently, for example, extraverted and introverted persons. Even different characteristics of the same task, such as speed and accuracy, may be differently susceptible to the crowd’s influence. It seems that predicting the exact outcome from the audience’s presence (direct observers and TV audience) on performance will not be easy. Further, in this article, I will discuss other stress theories, which probably help to throw light upon the problem.
Though contemporary sport suggests substantial financial incentives, especially on a top-level, their influence is probably just another aspect of social pressure. Indeed, social success means better financial rewards, whereas failure in the public’s eyes often decreases income. I think it is difficult to separate these two sources of stress in high-level sport. Most studies investigated influence of the financial reward on stress in “ordinary”. Quite often such influence was found negative (Roy F. Baumeister & Showers, 1986).
The threat to one’s self-estimation is probably one of the most powerful sources of stress.
Most of the people have some opinion about themselves. It gives them the necessary support in their social realisation. In Western culture to have high self-estimation is considered to be highly beneficial. Although this notion was put into question in the last decades (Roy F Baumeister, Campbell, Krueger, & Vohs, 2003) (Crocker & Park, 2004), in the short-term, high self-esteem can give the person a sense of safety, self-importance and make him/her confident that they can find a deserved place in society.
Self-estimation may be connected with other’s opinion about us but it is different from social evaluation. People need to perform successfully in the areas which they consider important even if they are doing tasks alone, without spectators or anonymously. When task’s outcome threats to one’s level of self-estimation it may put psychological pressure on the performer and impair the results (Roy F. Baumeister & Showers, 1986).
4. Physical (workload and injuries)
Fear of pain and injury is fundamental for the living creatures. Athletes can experience this fear in contact sports (e.g. boxing, rugby) , and in technically complicated sports with high injury risks (gymnastic, extreme sports) or previous injury history.
The huge physical workload may be unpleasant and painful as well Day by day, an athlete has to tolerate it. This cumulative effect may result in chronic psychological exhaustion.
Manifestations of Stress: Psychological level.
1. Changes in attention
Since our evolution, stress was connected with danger, and that can not be separated from attention. Indeed, it was really important for survival to recognise stimuli connected with the life-threatening situations as soon as possible, thus having more time to react. Perhaps would be logical to suggest that stress can improve performance through enhanced attention to the related stimuli. For instance, Attentional Control Theory (ACT) predicts that stress enhances stimulus-driven attention (Corbetta & Shulman, 2002; Eysenck, Derakshan, Santos, & Calvo, 2007).
Does that mean that a more stress-prone person may react better than somebody who is insusceptible? Well, the influence on the performance of such enhanced attention may be contradictory. Whereas the detection of a lion’s silhouette, hidden in the woods, definitely means danger and demands an immediate reaction, take for lion every bush, and react to it may be counterproductive. Important stimuli often hide among unrelated or deceptive stimuli. The successful performance is connected with the ability to have a “cold head” and separate unrelated or deceptive information from stimuli, which are important.
This ability is different between experts and novices and might be crucial (Jackson, Warren, & Abernethy, 2006). Being too sensitive to all information may negatively influence when the subject should inhibit reactions to deceptive or distractive stimuli (e.g. opponents’ feint or spectators shouting). Thus, following from ACT, it can be predicted that participants more vulnerable to stress can make more mistakes while trying to select and concentrate on needed information. It might be possible that competitive situations when mistakes in performance are penalised can lead to the loss of confidence among subjects who are not adapted to such circumstances.
Seemingly opposite phenomenon, but just another side of the same coin is “narrowed” or “tunneled” attention under stress conditions (Staal, 2004). When the subject identified dangerous stimuli (or which he/she perceived as dangerous), he/she points all attentional resources to this stimulus and may miss other important information. Looking at the snake in front of him, he doesn’t see a lion a few meters aside. Coaches in sports games are very familiar with the tactical mistakes caused by such narrow vision.
The speed and accuracy of sport’s performance often depend on the brain’s abilities to quickly analyse information and make a decision. This is the “responsibility” of the Working Memory. Working Memory can be described as the brain structures, or rather functions, which control the storage and manipulation of short-term information and execute connections between current sensory information and long-short-term memory (Baddeley, 2001; Land & Tatler, 2009). Stress may perform as an additional load, as it may make Working Memory overloaded with the information which is not relevant to the primary task (Beilock & Carr, 2001). Athletes, for example, can be very anxious about the social and personal consequences of unsuccessful performance.
Of course, the athlete can allocate additional physical and mental resources to support performance. Nevertheless, this allocation can make the ratio between efforts and results less efficient (M. Wilson, 2008). In situations that demand a huge amount of Working Memory’s capacities, spending them for stress coping may lead to a shortage in these capacities for the main task. Subjects who are not accustomed to stress tend to make intuitive decisions that demand less Working Memory. Not always, these decisions are a better choice. Lieberman, with colleagues, found that under combat stress, even experienced officers show significant impairments in decision making (Lieberman et al., 2005). Especially vulnerable to stress conditions are tasks that considerably rely on Working Memory, such as complicated and new (Beilock & Carr, 2005).
I already talked about reinvestment theory in the implicit learning article. Reinvestment happens when sportsman who needs to perform in stress situations begins to direct attention to skills and movements that should already be automatic and do not need conscious control. This internal shift of attention can cause the performer to make sudden mistakes in relatively simple technical actions performed a thousand times before (Masters, Poolton, Maxwell, & Raab, 2008).
4. Ironic errors
Relatively rarely discussed, but a very interesting and important topic is ironic errors. A lot of coaches are not aware of this issue. In short, ironic errors means that person makes the same kind of mistakes which he/she was insistently asked not to do and really don’t want to make. It happens when attempts to control a desired state of mind can lead to opposite results, and the brain becomes overburdened with negative thoughts. That might be an additional cause of failure due to stress (Wegner, 1997).
This psychological condition, associated with the stress, is chronic and sustainable, which is opposed to the conditions mentioned above. Raedeke defined burnout in sport as a “psychological syndrome of emotional and physical exhaustion, reduced sense of accomplishment, and sport devaluation” (Raedeke & Smith, 2001). Such a state may result from the accumulative effect of all sources of stress that I described before. This can be one of the main reasons why athletes do not reach the level at which they are capable and may eventually quit sports altogether.
Manifestations of Stress: Physical level.
It is worth looking at how exactly stress may influence an athlete’s movements. Readers who may be interested in a more detailed description, please read excellent Gray’s work. (Gray, 2011). Here I want to give short quintessence of his findings.
1. Movement’s execution stability.
Under stress technique may become more variable. When stable executions of movement patterns are preferable (e.g., in shooting sport or serving in tennis), these variations often make performance unstable and impair the results. This increase in variability may be due to the mentioned above reinvestment and the internal shift of attention. The athlete may start to separate already well-learned movement on its parts. Even small variations in each part of the movement may lead to a significant cumulative effect on, thus making all movement’s execution unstable.
2. Degrees of freedom in joints.
Seemingly contradicting the previous point is decreasing degrees of freedom in multi-joint movements under pressure. When people start to learn technique, huge variability in multi-joints coordination may make learning too difficult. Thus beginners tend to “freeze” some possible movements and make their joints more rigid. Expert’s movements are more fluid and increased degrees of freedom between joints help them deal with changeable sports situations. However, under pressure experts may return to the novice level, to freeze their movements, making action less fluid and efficient.
3. Movements control strategy.
Sometimes experts and novices may have a different motor-control strategy. For example, in golf, one can adjust needed putting length by changing the stroke’s amplitude or leaving the same amplitude to change the club’s acceleration. Experts tend to choose the first way (which allows a stronger strike with the same “smoothness”) while beginners second. And again, under pressure, experts may change their strategy to the novice’s one, which is probably not optimal for the performance.
4. Movements economy.
When our movements are not well-learned, their execution is not fine-tuned. Thus larger muscle’s groups are involved, and bigger than needed muscle’s tension may be present. Well-learned skills are more economical. It is one of the reasons why experts are less susceptible to fatigue than novices. Stress and excessive conscious control may eliminate this advantage.
Can we predict why and when it happens?
It would be useful to have a theory that can predict when and how a drop in performance will happen under stress. There are few candidates. One of the most popular is Hardy’s catastrophe theory (Hardy, Beattie, & Woodman, 2007).
This theory considers performance as an interaction between cognitive arousal (worry) and efforts (expected or real) required for task fulfilment. When some moderate arousal present it may be beneficially combined with optimal efforts. When arousal remains moderate, but efforts (physical or mental) continue to increase beyond the optimal level, performance starts gradually decrease. This process can be easily reversed by decreasing efforts again. However, when worry is high, and efforts are increasing (or the subject anticipates increasing efforts), then, after some point, a sudden and dramatic drop in performance (catastrophe) happens. Interestingly, in this case, just decreasing efforts cannot reverse the process and to restore performance level.
Let’s illustrate this with the hypothetic example of a biathlonist running his Olympic team’s last leg of relay. Imagine that he started his leg with a big advantage, which his team-mates created on the previous legs. In this situation he doesn’t feel pressure from other competitors (moderate cognitive arousal). He is skiing comfortably to the gold at a good pace but not at the limit his capacities (optimal efforts). His first shooting (performance) was good, and everything looks fine.
Suddenly he is falling and breaks one of his skis. He has to lose time changing it, and now his advantage disappears. He is still leading but opponents are on his back now, and he has to run to a limit of his capacities (efforts increase). He comes to the last shooting tired, breathing heavily, and overwhelmed by the thoughts that if his team and country lost, it will be entirely his fault (cognitive anxiety is high). His shooting is disastrous, and he lost not only gold but also silver and bronze—the catastrophe.
Challenge and Threat.
Another interesting theory, the Biopsychosocial Model of Challenge and Threat, was suggested by Jim Blascovich and his colleagues. This theory postulates that while evaluating our ability to fulfil tasks in important areas, we can perceive our resources as sufficient or insufficient (please refresh the definition of stress). In the first case, we consider the task as a challenge, and this facilitates execution. In the second case, we consider the mission as threat and perform worse than we can (Blascovich, Mendes, Hunter, & Salomon, 1999). Though the evaluation of available resources may be conscious on some occasions, it is generally unconscious, so the subject isn’t aware of the process and cannot report his/her state. However, objective physiological measures show that a challenge state elicits a more favourable response (e.g., higher cardiac output and lower peripheral resistance) than threat conditions (Moore, Vine, Wilson, & Freeman, 2012).
Interestingly, as consistently with Gray findings, threat condition may influence movement kinematics and makes the technique less efficient (Moore, et al., 2012). Can Challenge and Threat theory somehow help us practically? Well, probably “online” physiological measurements to predict whether sportsman is in the challenge or threat state are impractical for now (so we don’t know trust him/her with the penalty or not) , nevertheless, teaching athlete to consider high demanding task as a challenge rather than a threat would be beneficial (Moore, et al., 2012).
To conclude, it may be correct to say that effect of the stress on performance is very complicated. One universal theory, which can describe this influence, has not yet been found and, probably, cannot be found at all.
Coping with stress.
It may be useful to separate stress-coping strategies on “local”, which are applicable in particular circumstances, and “global”, whose main concern is developing all-around stress-resistant athletes from their childhood.
I think local methods are intensively studied and developed in recent years. Some kind of summary and examples of local strategies can be found in Mark Wilson’s (my university teacher) paper (M.R. & Wilson & Richards, 2011).
1. Planning and preparation.
Though it is difficult to underestimate this point, many coaches and athletes make mistakes in planning and preparation again and again. There are no small details here because stress can magnify everything. Unfamiliar menu in local restraints? Is favourite book forgotten at home? Hotel on a noisy street? All these things may eventually negatively impact performance. Everything that can be planned should be planned. When and where athletes are going to warm up, what he/she is going to do in breaks, weather, and many other things should be considered before the competition. “What if?” question is one of the main in the preparation phase. If you expect things that may happen and have worked out your possible response, the situation will not be so stressful for you.
2. Performance routines.
During or before a performance, athletes sometimes do things that look unnecessary or even strange for the lay public. That may be touching the grass before entering a football pitch, bouncing the ball the exact number of times before tennis serves, or swing a golf club a few times before making a strike, and many other things. When I trained high-class kickboxers, we used to make a short 10-20 min walk outside before fight. Maria Sharapova used to turn her back to the court between points. All these aim to help to achieve an optimal mental state. However, it is important that routine can be adjustable (make four bounces instead of three if necessary) and replaceable (walk in the hall if it is impossible to walk outside).
While it is probably better to keep “internal silence” and avoid conscious control during the performance, this perfect state of mind may not be achievable. Indeed, we so used to talk with our-self that it became our nature, and it is difficult to expect that we can switch off “internal dialogue” whenever we want. Hence, Mark Wilson advises making self-talking optimal for performance. This can help in motivation, avoiding distracting thoughts and emotions and even avoid reinvestment. In this case, sportsmen can substitute step-by-step declarative instructions, leading to reinvestment, with one holistic metaphoric word or phrase. That word should create a visual image or filling of correct technique. It doesn’t necessarily mean that self-talk should be positive. High-class athletes often use negative self-talk to keep themselves focused and motivated.
4. Gaze control.
The relationship between gaze patterns and successful performance was known from ancient times and ancient martial art practice emphasised its importance. In recent decades, due to technological advances, gaze behaviour became the subject of assiduous investigation. It was found that elite athletes in aiming sports fixed on aim rarely but with longer duration of separate gaze than their less-skilled counterparts. This strategy might be more efficient because during saccades between the glances people cannot pick up information (Mann, Williams, Ward, & Janelle, 2007).
Gaze may influence success through stress modulation. Wilson found that basketball players perform more frequent fixation under stress conditions with shorter duration compared with non-stress (M. R. Wilson, et al., 2009). As it was said previously, this strategy is less effective and maybe one of the reasons for decreasing in performance under stress. Athletes who can maintain gaze control, manage to perform better during stress (Vickers & Williams, 2007; Vine & Wilson, 2011). Optimal gaze duration might attenuate the stress influence by drawing attention away from reinvesting thoughts and distracting cues.
5. Put it together
There are other methods that can be used to control nerves before and during the performance. Those are: breath control, creating inside one’s mind a positive visual image of performance, post-performance evaluation, etc. The interested reader can find relevant information in sports literature. One important thing is to combine the necessary methods to make psychological interventions more effective. I am sure that Maria Sharapova combined her mentioned routine with internal dialog, and I combined my walk with kickboxers with a short “what if?” tactical discussion. Surely gaze may be part of the routine and can be used together with internal dialogue (M.R. & Wilson & Richards, 2011). There are plenty of opportunities for coaches and sports psychologists here.
While using local methods is an important way to deal with psychological pressure, a far more effective way is to develop stress-resistant athletes from childhood. However, this raises many methodological, moral and even philosophical problems.
1. Make learning natural for learners.
We have some “natural”, genetically inherited or acquired in early childhood skills, which won’t betray us even under pressure. How to make skills that we need for sport and which are not our inherited abilities similar to natural, thus reliable in every condition?
The possible answer is: Develop them implicitly; Harden them; Develop wide sensory-motor basis.
Develop skills implicitly
Advantages of developing skills more implicitly were already discussed earlier ( see article ). Since then, I have received few responses from coaches who argued that explicit, declarative knowledge could not be avoided while learning techniques. Their main argument is that sport itself is artificial human inventory; thus, learning cannot be entirely natural.
Indeed, coaches have to create conditions for learning and manage the process. In this sense, learning is not purely natural. However, suppose created conditions facilitate acquisition of desire technique without declarative knowledge, unconsciously, where it is possible, and/or through metaphoric visual images. In that case, possibly, these skills will be acquired more comprehensively and will be deeper integrated into one’s natural abilities. Maybe these skills will not crack under pressure.
Harden learned skills
Learned skills will be performed in competitive and stressful conditions. So these conditions are an inseparable part of the equation. Some coaches tend to wait until perfect technique will be developed before introducing their students to real situations. I don’t think it is a right way. In my opinion, learners should be exposed to conditions that mimic reality from the earliest stages of an athlete’s development. This provides necessary feedback for athletes and coaches. Of course, coach has to carefully manage psychological stress and competitive distraction because it shouldn’t be harmful and detrimental for development. However, that is better to do earlier when athlete mind is more flexible and may be naturally adapted to the stressful and competitive conditions.
Develop wide sensory-motor skills
Sport is human’s invention, and in some cases, its movement pattern are highly specific. However, in my opinion, sports techniques are based on our natural, inherited from evolutional ancestors’ sensory-motor skills; hence it is not completely artificial. In my personal practical experience, subjects with better general sensory-motor skills are better in maintaining their performance under pressure. It probably looks strange and unnecessary for a footballer to have some acrobatics skills, but it can give him/her body awareness, agility, and natural fluidity, which can help in high-pressure circumstances.
Developing sensory skills like hearing or a sense of smell, the art of dancing, and calligraphy was common practice in learning Kung-Fu (see article). I don’t think we can find direct practical application to competitive actions here. However, maybe this practice gives Kung-Fu students the ability to maintain psychological balance, silence distracting “internal dialogue”, and concentrate entirely on important cues.
2. Harmonious people.
For many generations in Western society, ideals are hard work, self-discipline and success. Possibly the roots of this notion lie in the Protestant doctrine that only the best, “elected” will go to heaven (Crocker & Park, 2004). Thus “to step out of the crowd”, to prove to yourself and to others that you “deserve your place” is the most crucial goal in one’s life. Though religious values don’t play the same role in our time, the passionate chase for acceptance, exclusivity, and high self-estimation became even stronger. However, is this passionate pursuit beneficial for a person and society? Does it help to make one’s life happier and more harmonious? And, finally, does it really help to get better results?
It is clear that achieving a high-level result demands significant time and effort. When people devote most of their time to a particular activity, consider that very important and really like it, such an attitude can be called passion (Vallerand et al., 2003) . It seems obvious that passion is beneficial for the sports. While, as a coach and former athlete, I, throughout all my life in sport, have promoted this notion, I recently started to reconsider how passion is really beneficial for coping with stress in sport.
Indeed, during my coaching career, sometimes I observed occurrences when sportsmen who always worked hard on training and passionately wanted to win , were more susceptible to choking and burnout than somebodies who looked like they don’t care to much about results of the performance. Then, writing this article, I have found interesting consideration about passion in Vallerand et al. study (Vallerand, et al., 2003) .
The authors distinguish between two kinds of passion Obsessive (OP) and Harmonious (HP). They argued that though people can be passionately involved in their activities, the reasons for that might be different. Those obsessed with passion, are involved in the activity because there are some benefits and rewards for participation and achievements. These benefits may be material, moral, emotional, social, or religious (e.g., place in heaven).
That passion may be introduced to the person during their childhood by his parents, coaches, teaches and/or through the social and cultural environment. OP becomes so deeply integrated into one’s identity that person cannot consider him/herself without participation (and without success) in the activity. So what is wrong with it? To be obsessed with your sport and have passionate desire to win is a necessity for success. Isn’t it?
Not always. OP can be detrimental and even devastating when success was not achieved or cannot be achieved. Because of its nature, OP is the only activity which makes life “worth to live”. Failure to achieve success means catastrophe for an obsessive person. Concerning stress, it is important to note that even threat of failure can put enormous psychological pressure on such subjects because that places at risk everything important for them.
In contrast to Obsessive Passion, Harmonious Passion refers to the activity that persons choose because they genuinely, without any conditions, like it. Thus, though they devote significant time and efforts to the activity and are really persistent in achieving their goals, their activity is not ultimately connected with the purpose of life. It is only part of life.
So when it comes to competition, a harmonious person may continue to enjoy the process, whereas an obsessive will be preoccupied with the result. Especially, the difference between OP and HP may be obvious after failure or in the presence of the threat of failure. Paradoxically, a person who doesn’t “stake everything” on success can better deal with such situations.
Pursuit of Self-estimation.
Self-estimation, which was already mentioned as one of the sources of stress, may be one of the rewards for success in the case of OP. The endeavour to achieve a satisfactorily high level of self-esteem is one of the fundamental social life traits in the Western society. However, it was questioned whether self-esteem is a fundamental human need or not (Crocker & Park, 2004).
For many years, it was common to believe that a high level of self-estimation is beneficial for people and society. In the last decades, this notion was examined, and surprisingly it was found that it is not always true. In their highly cited work, Roy Baumeister et al. argued that boosting self-esteem through therapeutic interventions or social programmes doesn’t lead to better achievements and may be even counterproductive. People with artificially developed high self-esteem exaggerate their successes, don’t accept criticism, and may have difficulties in relationships (Roy F Baumeister, et al., 2003).
Authors advised not to boost high self-esteem to achieve better results but, rather, make high self-estimation a reward for achievements. Moreover, even chasing after high self-esteem as a deserved reward might be costly for happiness and harmony. In their brilliant work, Crocker and Park went further than Baumeister and suggested that it is not the level of self-esteem is important but, rather, what people do to increase and save it (Crocker & Park, 2004).
In this study, authors discussed the nature of self-esteem and possible costs and benefits of pursuing higher and/or defending existed level of it. Their conclusion suggests that “… people pursue self-esteem by trying to satisfy their beliefs about what they need to be or do to have worth and value; this pursuit has temporary emotional benefits when people succeed, but big costs when they fail”
Does this remind you conclusion about Obsessive Passion? And like in OP scenario, even a threat to self-estimation can be exhaustive and destructive. Concerning sports performance, authors suggest that: “Although chasing after self-esteem can motivate excellent performance, the performance itself is not a fundamental human need, and it can be achieved through other, less destructive sources of motivation.” What are these “other sources”?
Authors propose that shifting goals from achieving a high level of self-esteem to larger goals focused on doing good things for others can provide a solution. These goals have not to be necessarily altruistic or more moral than pursuing higher self-esteem. It may be a success in business or in sport. However, this desire has to be sincere (not just another, hidden way of having a better opinion about self). Only then can the person share successes and, more importantly, failures with the others, thus reducing stress.
I can imagine skeptical smiles from sports professionals here. High-level sport, it is all about the result. Isn’t it? Yes, unfortunately it is true, but it looks like a dead-end is here. We often see when athletes are so obsessed with the result, and they are so afraid to lose that eventually, pressure makes them fail. It is like a vicious circle.
Stress-resistance already defines, and will define even more in the future, success in the high-level sport. And if you want to win, you have to develop stress-resistant athletes from childhood. But there is one fundamental problem. While ideals in our society, and therefore goals for our children, are Success, Social Approval, and High Self-Estimation, bringing up stress-resistant athletes would be difficult.
Therefore it is a vicious circle again.
Is it possible to break it?
My answer is – yes, but to achieve this, we have to change our ideals.
Look again at the epigraph to this article. Obscurity was not afraid to shoot standing at the cliff’s edge because he exercised his spirit, whereas Le Yuiko exercised only his archery. Archery for Obscurity is just the means for self-development and is not the aim itself. Fear of Death, Fame, Money, Passion, and Self-esteem cannot distract his shooting because these things mean nothing for him. Shooting itself is not important. He is not a shooter. He is not a fighter. His spirit is deeper and wider than any “specialisation”. However, he is a better shooter than Le Yuiko.
Probably, this article is not a place for talking about Oriental Philosophy. Nevertheless, I am convinced that oriental philosophy and conclusions from highly scientific studies on Self-esteem and Passion pointed in a similar direction to solve the stress problem.
“Perfect” athletes may overcome stress if their spirit will not be restricted and obsessed with the competition. Harmonious passion for the chosen sport has to be identified and developed in them. Their body and mind should be educated in the way which is enriched by sport instead of being restricted by it. Their objectives have to be wider and different from pursuing better self-esteem and a better life. These goals will make them pioneers and explorers. Achieving these goals will expand the borders of human abilities and knowledge. Free of the burden of pressure, they will make sport more beautiful, creative, and honest…So, can we change our ideals?
Probably, after reading this long and complicated article, a tired reader would like to get some short and exact advice.
Here it is:
1. Use local strategy when you are dealing with the preparation for a particular event. You can find needed information from this article, following references, and elsewhere in literature.
2. Separate your parental or coach’s ambitions from the real needs of your kid/student.
3. Try to identify and develop a true passion for the chosen sport in your students. They have to enjoy the process not only victories.
4. Be careful how much and what you are talking about on your training when you are teaching technique. Try to understand and predict how your talk will come back to your students under pressure.
5. Educate your students wider on the training ground (sensor-motor skills) and beyond (music, art, literature, etc.). This will help them to deal with pressure.
6. Teach your students to consider stressful situations as a challenge, not a threat.
7. Give them goals wider and higher than only to be the champions and prove self-worth to themselves and others. Don’t be afraid to be romantic. For me, these aims may be exploration and self-development. That doesn’t mean that concrete and short-term goals should be avoided. Just don’t be restricted by them.
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