Sources of Acute Stress, Cognitive Appraisals, and Coping Strategies of Male and Female Child Athletes

Article excerpt

The purpose of this study was to describe the cognitive appraisals and concomitant coping strategies following selected sources of acute stress among 52 youth sports competitors, including 36 males and 16 females who volunteered to participate in the study. Using a structured personal interview technique, participants were provided with a 10-item list of possible sources of acute, game-related stress experienced infield hockey each followed by a specific personal example of that stressful situation. Then, cognitive appraisals of each stressor, categorized as positive or negative, and the athletes' use of approach or avoidance coping strategies were determined, also obtained from a structured interview and qualitative data analyses. The results showed that receiving a bad call from the umpire and making a physical game error were the two most frequently cited and intense sources of stress for both males and females. In addition, after experiencing most stressors, the athletes tended to make negative cognitive appraisals (72% and 58% for males and females, respectively) followed by an avoidance coping strategy. Approach coping, on the other hand, was more common following positive appraisals. Supporting the transactional coping model, the use of appraisals and coping strategies was dependent on the type of stressful event. The results suggest that examining positive and negative appraisals and approach and avoidance coping strategies forms an appropriate conceptual framework in future research in understanding the coping process among child athletes.

Stress is a persistent and inherent feature of the youth sport environment (Goyen & Anshel, 1996), primarily due to high, often unrealistic, expectations of parents and coaches and the pressure to perform at high quality levels (Scanlan & Passer, 1979; Smoll & Smith, 1996). For many years, chronic forms of stress among younger athletes has received widespread recognition as an impediment to satisfaction and continued participation (Orlick & Botterill, 1975). Sources of and coping with acute stress, however, has not been widely examined in the sport psychology literature, in general, and among younger athletes, in particular. Acute forms of stress are a particular problem in sport among younger athletes as opposed to their older counterparts. In addition to the 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 (Frydenberg & Lewis, 1993; Gould, 1993). As a result, the satisfaction and enjoyment that usually forms the basis of a child athlete's initiative to participate in sport is likely to become undermined (Smoll & Smith, 1996).

Coping consists of a person's conscious attempt at managing the demands and intensity of events perceived as stressful or improving one's personal resources (e.g., positive affect, confidence, self-control) in attempting to reduce or manage one's perceived stress intensity (Lazarus, 1999). One critical mediator of an athlete's selection of coping strategies is his or her cognitive appraisal of the event or situation. According to an extensive review of the related literature, Lazarus (1999) acknowledges the importance of appraisals and the subsequent use of coping strategies as critical factors in explaining a person's physiological and psychological adaptation to stress in sport. Research on the coping process in youth sports has been virtually nonexistent. Because children differ markedly from adolescents and adults in their cognitive development and coping skills (Compas, 1987), this area requires extensive attention by sport psychology researchers.

The areas of appraisal and coping have been studied under various conceptual frameworks. Traditionally, Lazarus and Folkman's (1984) model has provided the most common framework in the study of cognitive appraisal following stressful events. …