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  • Writer's pictureGeorge Mitchell

Stress; Challenge Vs Threat

Pressure is ever-present in competitive environments and the ability to deal with this pressure is important for a successful performance (Gould, Eklund, & Jackson, 1993). The nerves we feel occurs because when we are about to compete we unconsciously assess the demands and stressors of that event.

The transactional theory of stress (Lazarus and Folkman, 1984) suggests that it isn’t the actual demands and stressors that cause problems, it is how we each appraise them and the decision we then make as to whether we have the resources (ability, previous experience, skill or support) to meet them. 

One study (Fletcher et al, 2012) revealed that there could be up to 339 distinct stressors in sport and these potential stressors would be unique to an athlete (as an individual) who would interpret them differently. By evaluating the stressors, they can then be appraised (not all of them) then they would have the resources to cope with them. 

There are certain personality traits that will have an influence over the type of situations that are perceived as being stressful, in addition to the appraisal of the stressor (Kaiser et al., 2009).

An example would be a neurotic athlete being more likely to experience interpersonal stressors and appraise situations with increased levels of reactivity to stress and negative affects (Suls & Martin, 2005).

One example situation could be where a youth rugby player within a professional Academy recognises that he is being observed by the 1st team coach for the first time.

He may see this as a challenge and an opportunity, thanks to a belief that he has the sufficient resources to deal with this situation by displaying his skills and abilities to show he has the potential to be a professional rugby player and play for the coach.

On the contrary, a threat state occurs when an individual player doesn’t have sufficient resources to cope with a stressor and, therefore, would perceive themselves as being in danger (Blascovich & Mendes, 2000).

As an alternative example, an Academy rugby player being observed by the 1st team coach for the first time may see this as a threatening situation due to a recent bout of poor performances and, could therefore believe he won’t perform very well and not meet the coach’s expectations.

Therefore, stress appraisals (challenge or threat) comes from perceived demands from the situation, relative to perceived personal coping resources. Dugdale et al (2002) revealed that with a range of elite athletes in a cross-sectional analysis that unexpected stressors were assessed as more of a threat than those that were to be expected during competition.

Likewise, in a qualitative inquiry (Neil et al, 2011) with athletes from different sports, suggests that appraisals of a stressor were interpreted as debilitative for performance and, therefore consequently, affects player’s behaviour due to a reduced lack of control over their thoughts and emotions.

So, what could you do when approaching a competition? You could think “what if.” Plan and think about anything that could potentially arise and negatively impact your thoughts and emotions which could affect performance. Have a chat with your coaches and see if they could think of anything that could happen and what you could do to counteract this stressor. 

Have a think about the phrase “controlling the controllables.” This is an approach which is used by individual athletes, teams or organisations.

They can direct their energy on the things they can do (control) to shape their upcoming performances. Think about the things that you have control of or could control in the upcoming performance and what could arise that you could have control of.

This will help put your mind at rest and gain greater control and appraisal of the stressors in a threat state. 


Blascovich, J., Mendes, W. B., Hunter, S. B., & Lickel, B. (2000). Stigma, threat, and social interactions. The social psychology of stigma, 307-333.

 Dugdale, J. R., Eklund, R. C., & Gordon, S. (2002). Expected and unexpected stressors in major international competition: Appraisal, coping, and performance. The Sport Psychologist16(1), 20-33.

 Fletcher, D., Hanton, S., Mellalieu, S. D., & Neil, R. (2012). A conceptual framework of organizational stressors in sport performers. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports22(4), 545-557.

Gould, D., Eklund, R. C., & Jackson, S. A. (1993). Coping strategies used by U.S. Olympic wrestlers. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport64, 83-93. 

Lazarus, R. S., & Folkman, S. (1984). Coping and adaptation. The handbook of behavioral medicine (pp.282-325). New York, NY: Guilford.

Neil, R., Hanton, S., Mellalieu, S. D., & Fletcher, D. (2011). Competition stress and emotions in sport performers: The role of further appraisals. Psychology of sport and exercise12(4), 460-470.

Suls, J., & Martin, R. (2005). The daily life of the garden‐variety neurotic: Reactivity, stressor exposure, mood spillover, and maladaptive coping. Journal of personality73(6), 1485-1510.

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