Understanding the Psychological and Physiological Processes in Stressful Athletic Performance

Project Number
RS 8/16 JW

Project Duration
January 2017 - June 2018


Athletes are commonly placed under high levels of physical and mental stress and in order to attain peak performance, athletes need to be in an ideal performance state cognitively, emotionally, and physiologically (Hardy, Jones, & Gould, 1996). The stressful nature of competitions require athletes to dynamically self-regulate their thoughts, emotions, and physiology so that they can perform well (Singer, 2002). Acute stress is a common occurrence in sports especially during high-stake competitions, due to its situational nature. The ability to cope with stress in sports is hence an essential factor for successful performance (Hardy, Jones, & Gould, 1996). This pressure to perform, coupled with tremendous competition stress, requires athletes to cope effectively with the stress, or risk losing. A qualitative study examined competition stress in athletes and uncovered a total of 283 performance stressors that athletes commonly have to cope with in competitions (Mellalieu et al., 2009). In high stress situations, athletes are likely to experience a wide range of emotions such as performance anxiety. Performance anxiety is believed to negatively influence performance because it emphasizes bottom-up processing over more efficient top-down processing which is more goal-driven (Derakshan & Eysenck, 2009). Physiologically, the amygdala is over-reactive with anxiety and this results in less activation of the prefrontal cortex, thereby affecting for working memory and attention (Bishop, 2007). Stress, emotions, and coping are all highly interdependent (Lazarus, 1999). Cerin and colleagues (2000) adapted Lazarus’ model for the sports context and developed an interactional model that showed that the performance and competition relationship is influenced by the athlete’s appraisal, emotional response, and coping strategies. This model reveals that individual dispositions play a critical role in competitive sports performance, in line with earlier research by Hanton and colleagues (2008). Since every individual is different, coping strategies, personality traits, as well as physiological states differ. This study strives to look into the relationships between stress, physiological states, coping, motivation, and athletic performance. Specifically, this study will examine how athletes appraise stressful situations and identify their physiological reactions to this stress using heart rate variability (HRV) as a marker. Achievement goals and situational factors in the form of motivational climate can affect the coping process, and this could help shed some light on effective coping strategies of athletes.

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