Coping has been defined by Lazarus and Folkman (1984) as “constantly changing cognitive and behavioral efforts to manage specific external and/or internal demands that are appraised as taking or exceeding the resources of the person”. Coping involves a personal response on the part of the athlete to address the stress response. The athlete feels anxious in a competitive situation and tries to use personal coping resources to reduce anxiety. The use of various relaxations or arousal management procedures to reduce anxiety is commonly referred to as stress management. When an athlete uses a stress management technique or any other cognitive or behavioral intervention, this is a form of coping. In this lecture we will focus our discussion on:

  • A conceptual framework for coping strategies and styles
  • Measurement of coping skills
  • The dynamic nature of coping skill
  • Factors that enhance the generalizability of coping
  • Coping strategies used by elite athletes.

Conceptual Framework for Coping Strategies and Styles

Coping strategies are of two types: problem-focused and emotion-focused. Problem focused coping strategies center on alleviating the environmental stimulus that is causing the stress response. For example, in cricket, if a right handed batsman is very anxious when batting against a left-arm bowler, an appropriate problem-focused coping strategy might be to get more experience against a left-arm bowler during practice. Other common names for problem focused coping includes the terms “taskfocused coping” and sometimes “action focused coping.” Emotion focused coping strategies seek to regulate emotions in order to reduce or manage cognitive distress. In the same cricket example, the batsman would focus his coping on controlling his emotions through anxiety reduction techniques. Instead of attacking the source of the problem, through problem-focused coping, the athlete seeks to reduce or eliminate the symptoms associated with stress. Several authors have proposed a third coping strategy and called it “avoidance coping”. Anshel and others however, have pointed out that rather than being a coping strategy, avoidance coping is really a coping style. Two different coping styles are identified: approach coping and avoidance coping. Some athletes prefer an approach style of coping in which their coping preference is to address the stressful situation directly. Conversely, some athletes prefer an avoidance style of coping, in which their preferred coping style is to solve the problem by avoiding the problem. Avoidance coping is also referred to as repression, disengagement, or rejection. Based upon these four different coping strategies include:

1. Approach/problem-focused coping

2. Approach/emotion-focused coping

3. Avoidance/problem-focused coping

4. Avoidance/emotion-focused coping Athletes cope with stress by either approaching or avoiding the situation. Within this framework, they will either adopt an active problem-solving strategy or an emotion-focused strategy.

Measurement of Coping Skill

Several different pencil-and-paper inventories have been developed to measure coping resources. Among them are:

  • Ways of Coping Checklist (WOCC) by Crocker, Folkman & Lazarus (1992)
  • COPE and MCOPE instruments by Craver, Scheier and Weintraub(1989)
  • Coping inventory for stressful situations (CISS) by Endler & Parker
  • The Coping Style in Sport Survey (CSSS) by Anshel et al. (1990) The Coping Style in Sport Survey (CSSS) was developed to reflect the coping styles and strategies. The CSSS is composed of 134 items associated with seven common sports-related stressors. The athletes’ task is to indicate how she would usually respond relative to the following acute stressors:

1. After making a physical or mental error

2. After being criticized by the coach

3. After observing my opponent cheat

4. After experiencing intense pain or injury

5. After receiving a “bad” call by an official

6. After successful performance by an opponent

7. After poor environmental conditions such as bad weather, poor ground/court conditions or negative crowd reactions

The Dynamic Nature of Coping Styles and Strategies

Sport psychologists have been interested in knowing if athletes’ coping strategies are dispositional in nature or if they are consistent with a dynamic process. The dispositional hypothesis posits that athletes have a certain learned or innate way of coping with stress-related situations. Conversely, the dynamic hypothesis posits that athletes’ coping responses are dynamic and fluid, changing from situation to situation. Research shows that athletes utilize a dynamic as opposed to dispositional approach to coping with stress. Applied research (Gould, Eklund & Jackson, 1993; Gould, Finch and Jackson, 1993; Park, 2000) supported the hypothesis that coping strategies and styles are dynamic and fluid.

Factors That Enhance the Genralizability of Coping

The skills athletes acquire to deal with anxiety, low self-confidence, and other stressful sport-related situations may generalize to other more global life situations. This means that if an athlete can learn to cope with failure (or success) in an athletic situation, the coping skill may be transferred to another sport situation or even a stressful nonsport situation such as illness, financial setback, loss of job or loss of friend. In this regards, Smith (1999) identifies five different factors that can facilitate the generalizability of coping skills to other situations. These factors are as follow:

1. Recognition of stimulus generality

Many stressful life situations are very similar to athletic situations. Recognizing the similarity and recalling the specific coping strategy that was effective in the athletic situations will facilitate transfer of coping skill to another situation.

2. Broad application of coping skill

Some coping skills are very specific to a specific athletic situation, but others are very broad. Progressive relaxation, for example, is a broad coping skill that should generalize to numerous sport and nonsport situations.

3. Personal significance of coping application

A coping skill that was effective in reducing stress related to an issue of great personal significance will be remembered. Coping skills that have proven to be personally important will generalize to other situations.

4. Internal locus of control of coping skill

When an athlete claims “ownership” of a coping skill it is more easily transferred to other situations.

5. Learned resourcefulness

Learning a specific coping skill to address a specific life stress is effective, The resourceful individual looks for broader application of all coping skills and learning experiences.

Coping Strategies Used By Elite Athletes

Gould and colleagues (Gould, Eklund & Jackson, 1993; Gould, Finch & Jackson, 1993) studied coping strategies reported by Olympic wrestlers and National Champion figure skaters. Thirty-nine different themes were found and then were reduced down to four broad dimensions:

1. Thought control strategies example, self-talk, positive thinking, thought control

2. Attentional focus strategies example concentration control, tunnel vision

3. Emotional control strategies example, arousal control, relaxation, visualization

4. Behavioral strategies. Example, set routine rest, control of the environment All athletes use all four coping strategies. Female sportspersons utilize social support as a strategy more often than males. Elite athletes tend to use an approach style of coping, with the majority of the strategies being problem or action focused. All these strategies may be categorized under the heading of psychological training, physical training and strategizing, and somatic relaxation.


Cox, H. Richard. (2002). Sport Psychology: Concepts and Applications. (Fifth Edition). New York: McGraw-Hill Companies Lavallec. D., Kremer, J., Moran, A., & Williams. M. (2004) Sports Psychology: Contemporary Themes. New York: Palgrave Macmillan Publishers

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