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Adversity helps athletes perform under pressure

  • Date

    Wed 26 Jul 17

Athletes who have experienced adverse life events such as illness, injury and bereavement perform better under pressure, new research involving Essex academics has found.

The study, involving sport psychology researchers at Essex, found that student athletes who had encountered a moderate to high number of adverse life events were far better adapted to dealing with a competitive sport situation.

The research team – which also included scientists from the Universities of Gloucestershire, South Wales and Nottingham Trent – asked 100 athletes to take part in a pressurised dart-throwing task as part of the study.

They found that those who had experienced between three and 13 adverse life events outperformed those who had encountered a lower or higher number of events.

The researchers also found that exposure to a moderate number of negative life events – between four and seven – appeared to influence participants’ cardiovascular responses during the pressurised sporting task.

This increase in cardiac activity, the researchers argue, helps to prepare individuals for performing under pressure by creating greater blood flow to the brain and muscles.

Dr Paul Freeman, Lecturer in Sport and Exercise Psychology at Essex, said: “There has been increasing recognition about the role of previous adversity in helping Olympic athletes to reach elite levels and perform under pressure. The findings of our research extend this notion to a lower standard of athlete, and suggest that some previous experience of difficult circumstances in life may enable club-level athletes or perhaps even a ‘weekend warrior’ to approach a sports competition in a more positive manner and ultimately facilitate their performance.”

Dr Mustafa Sarkar, a sport psychologist at Nottingham Trent University’s School of Science and Technology, added: “Contrary to the view that adverse life events increase the risk of psychological problems, this work suggests that exposure to some negative personal events may have a ‘silver lining’. While not encouraging the experience of adverse events, coaches and practitioners should avoid sheltering athletes and instead appropriately and progressively optimise the challenges they encounter.”

The study was funded by the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP) and is published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports.