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Perception, Stressors, and Sports Performance- Enhancing the Athlete's Perspective:

Sports competitions captivate large audiences due to their unpredictable nature. Unexpected outcomes and situations arise, leaving fans on edge with uncertainty. Consider events such a seeded tennis player losing first round in a Grand Slam, or take Leicester FC (Premier League) losing to Newport FC (League two) or the Milwaukee Bucks (1st) losing to the Phoenix Suns (30th) in basketball. These instances, seemingly easy victories, highlight how unforeseen situations can impact both the final results and individual performances in sports (Doron & Bourbousson, 2017). The critical aspect, however, lies in the athlete's and coaches perception of these situations. This article explores specifically, the athlete's perception and its influence on performance, offering practical suggestions for utilising psychological skills and techniques to shape this perception positively.

Understanding Stressors

Every sport, team, and individual athlete faces unique demands, including environmental factors, opposition strength, and self-imposed expectations (Fletcher, Hanton, Mellalieu, & Neil, 2012). The impact of these demands on an athlete's performance depends on their perception. When an athlete perceives a situation as exceeding their physical and psychological capabilities, it becomes a stressor (Nicholls, Levy, Grice, & Polman, 2009). For instance, an athlete may perceive defending against a faster opponent as a stressor if they believe the demands outweigh their capabilities. Stressors can also manifest at the team level, where a player receiving a red card creates a stressor due to the perceived impact on team performance.

A negative perception of stressors can hinder an athlete's mental and physical skills, ultimately affecting overall performance (Neil, Hanton, Mellalieu, & Fletcher, 2011; Nicholls et al., 2009). This limited focus on the stressor prevents the athlete from concentrating on the performance necessary for success (Anshel et al., 2001; Campbell & Jones, 2002). By fixating solely on the opponent's speed or a hole in the team's formation, performance is compromised. However, if stressors are perceived positively, what impact does it have on the athlete's performance?

Fostering a Positive Perception

A positive perception of stressors means viewing them as challenges rather than harmful to performance. This mental switch does not eliminate or avoid stressors, as they are inherent in sports. However, it opens avenues for finding solutions to cope with the stressor (Folkman, 2013; Lazarus & Folkman, 1987). For example, in the 2016 NBA finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers faced the Golden State Warriors, who were expected to win after a record-breaking regular season. Despite being 3-1 down in the series, the Cavaliers perceived the situation as a challenge. They made adjustments to their offensive and defensive strategies, eventually winning three consecutive games and becoming the 2016 NBA Champions.

Clearly, a negative perception of stressors can impact performance, while a positive perception can yield positive outcomes. To foster a positive perception, implementing psychological skills becomes crucial. These skills and techniques shift the athlete's focus towards problem-solving, expanding the options available to cope with stressors and perform optimally (Kaiseler, Polman, & Nicholls, 2009). These skills can be utilized when encountering individual or team stressors.

Psychological Skills and Techniques

For individual stressors, self-talk is a valuable technique to promote a positive perception. Self-talk refers to the internal and external dialogue a person has with themselves. It is believed that what one says to themselves impacts their behavior (Hardy, 2006). Goal-directed self-talk, a specific type of self-talk, focuses on making progress or solving problems (Latinjak, Font-Lladó, Zourbanos, & Hatzigeorgiadis, 2016). Athletes can create a unique cue word that directs their attention towards what is required to perform at their best. For example, a tennis player stressed by their opponent's defense could use the cue word "target." This cue word shifts their focus to the desired ball placement and strategies for scoring points, transforming the perception of the situation from a threat to a challenge.

In team settings, the psychological skill of team cohesion can promote a positive perception of stressors. Team cohesion involves keeping the group united and focused on a common objective (Carron, Bray, & Eys, 2002; Kleinert et al., 2012). Similar to self-talk, task cohesion—the team's focus on the task at hand—increases the likelihood of desired actions. Effective team communication, leadership, and role understanding contribute to task cohesion. When stressors arise, a well-established structure enables the team to understand their individual roles and collectively find solutions.

Unforeseen situations are inherent in sports, making them captivating and unpredictable. These situations, known as stressors, affect every athlete. Since stressors cannot be completely eliminated, sports psychology emphasizes the athlete's perception of these stressors. A negative perception can hamper performance, while a positive perception opens doors to problem-solving and optimal performance. Psychological skills and techniques enable athletes to develop a positive perception of stressors, focusing on finding solutions and performing at their best. By understanding and implementing these skills, athletes can navigate stressors effectively, ensuring they are primed for success.


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