March 04, 2009

Study explores competitive athletes’ coping styles

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- No matter whether you strike out, foul out or fumble, how you handle a red face has more to do with your gender than with the sport you play.

“Males cope more by avoidance -- ‘It doesn’t bother me; it’s no big deal’ -- where females are more likely to beat themselves up over something or take themselves out of situations where they feel bad,” said Julie A. Partridge, an assistant professor of sport and exercise physiology at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

Partridge reported on how competitive athletes deal with embarrassment in Volume 103 of the peer-reviewed journal “Psychological Reports” issued in December 2008. The study, conducted with Matthew S. Wiggins from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, focused on coping styles in 94 teenage and young adult athletes of both sexes playing baseball, basketball, football, soccer, softball, tennis, track/cross country and volleyball. On average these athletes had been playing for 11 years.

Researchers know that fear of failure ranks No. 1 when it comes to making athletes anxious.

“The major producer of fear of failure is the shame and embarrassment component,” Partridge said.

“Shame occurs when we lose status. Sport is not only highly valued in our society but by definition involves winners and losers. It also tends to be very public -- people know when you’re failing.”

This being so, Partridge wondered if athletes would rely on different ways of dealing with embarrassment than most folks do. They don’t.

“The findings with athletes are consistent with the general population in terms of coping strategies,” Partridge said.

“The patterns you would expect to find held true, even in this achievement domain.”

Anxiety doesn’t necessarily equal bad performance; for some, it provides the extra edge they need to do their best.

“They say, ‘If I’m not nervous before a competition, then start to worry,’” Partridge said.

But Partridge and her colleague found that those who saw their anxiety as a bad thing drew on more coping styles, using a mix of denial, avoidance, withdrawal and trash talking, both to themselves and others, to fight off embarrassment.

Trouble is, most of these don’t work very well in enhancing performance.

“A more adaptive approach would be, ‘In order to change this situation (to avoid experiencing this embarrassment again), I need to work on these sets of skills,’” Partridge noted.

If coaches understand that athletes quit the team or deny they’re not playing well as a means of handling shame, they may be able to help their athletes substitute those more appropriate coping skills.

Partridge, whose articles on coping styles of high school athletes and sports fans are making their way through the journal review process, has other projects in the hopper. She next wants to look at how coaching styles affect the ways younger athletes cope.

“If the coach is critical and punishes every mistake, I would expect that would lead to different types of shame coping styles,” Partridge said.