“The world and his wife are expecting us to achieve”: A Shared Approach to Coping During the Rio 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games
Helen Staff, MSc, Leeds Beckett University, UK
Helen Heaviside, MSc, Leeds Beckett University, UK
Faye Didymus, PhD, BASES, Leeds Beckett University, UK
In August 2016, the World’s best athletes and coaches were gearing up to the finale of four years of dedicated and meticulous training. For these individuals, this month was a career defining moment; their chance to become Olympic champions at the Rio 2016 Olympic and Paralympic games. With this potentially life changing opportunity comes a host of performance related expectations. Expectations can be a significant source of stress in anybody’s life, and even more so for high performance athletes and coaches. This is because these individuals not only have their own performance expectations but also carry on their shoulders the expectations of the country for which they are competing. Therefore, it is essential to understand how athletes and coaches manage the expectations that they experience to reduce potential negative impacts on their performance and well-being. During the doctoral studies that Helen Staff and Helen Heaviside are completing at Leeds Beckett University, which are guided by Drs Andrew Manley and Faye Didymus and Professor Susan Backhouse, the doctoral students have explored athletes’ experiences of media expectations, and how coaches and athletes may work together to manage such experiences. The focus of this article is to reflect on the key findings of this research in relation to the Rio 2016 Olympic and Paralympic games.
One source of expectation that has the potential to impact athletes’ and coaches’ performances at Olympic and Paralympic games pertains to the expectations constructed and reported by the media. Our research has demonstrated that, in close proximity to a major event, the central focus of media reports is on performance expectations of athletes who are competing and sometimes that of coaches. Our research also suggests that media expectations of high performance athletes have the potential to influence journalists’ behaviors (i.e., types of interview questions, amount of attention given to an athlete), which in turn, can influence athletes' thoughts, feelings, and behaviors (Heaviside, Manley, Backhouse, & Didymus, 2016). This is because media expectations can be perceived as a stressor for athletes, which can result in various emotional and behavioral responses (e.g., anxiety, motivation, and performance). The media infiltrates every layer of sport systems and therefore, expectations influence not only the athletes themselves but also the attitudes and behaviors of other people (i.e., public, coaches, families, other athletes). To highlight the potential impact of media expectations among high performance athletes, one athlete whom we interviewed as part of a recent research project explained that the accumulation of expectations magnified her own expectations and left her feeling like a “coke bottle that has been shaken up and was about to explode”.
When experiencing media expectations, athletes evaluate (i.e., make appraisals of) this stressor and their ability to utilize appropriate coping strategies to manage potential negative outcomes. These appraisals can result in adaptive or maladaptive consequences for athletes depending on whether the appraisals made are positive (i.e., viewed as a challenge) or negative (i.e., viewed as a threat or with a sense of harm/loss). One approach that athletes may take to alleviate and reduce potential maladaptive consequences is to work with their coach(es) to discuss and share potentially stressful experiences. Traditional theories of psychological stress (e.g., transactional stress theory; Lazarus & Folkman, 1984) highlight the individual processes (e.g., avoiding social media) that athletes or coaches might use to manage media expectations on their own. However, our recent research suggests that coping may be better conceptualized as a dynamic and reciprocal process between two or more people and that coaches and athletes experience and manage demands together. This is known as dyadic coping, which considers the attempts that one individual makes to support the other when they have exceeded their individual coping resources. Dyadic coping also considers the combined effort of two individuals (e.g., an athlete and a coach) when they experience a shared stressor (cf. Bodenmann, 1995). To highlight how this may play out in practice, a coach in one of our recent research projects said that expectation is a stressor that both he and his athletes experience. Specifically, he reported that “we are in this together, the world and his wife will be watching us and everybody is expecting us to achieve”. Our research shows that a shared approach to coping in these situations can facilitate joint problem solving and that communication of stress between the coach and the athlete can extend the coping resources that are available to them. It appears, therefore, that the application of dyadic coping may foster more positive appraisals of media expectations by increasing the availability of coping resources that can be used to manage this stressor.
In summary, our recent research shows that athletes and coaches experience media expectations as a stressor, particularly in the run up to major events, and that media expectations can influence both intra- and inter-personal expectations that are experienced by athletes and coaches. Utilization of dyadic coping through joint problem solving may bolster athletes’ and coaches’ individual coping repertoires. The top tips below have been developed directly from our research and outline several strategies that the coaches and athletes with whom we work have found useful when managing media expectations. As part of our ongoing collaborative research with coaches, athletes, and organizations, we are currently working to better understand the development and manifestation of dyadic coping within coach-athlete relationships.
Top “Dyadic Coping” Tips:
- Coaches and athletes should communicate with each other about their experiences of media expectations as a stressor.
- Coaches would do well to support their athletes in gaining perspective of media expectations (e.g., “it’s not the end of the world if you don’t achieve it”).
- Coaches can emphasize the importance of focusing on controllable (e.g., performance) rather than uncontrollable factors (e.g., media expectations).
- Practitioners should foster optimal coach-athlete relationships to provide a nurturing environment for the development of athletes’ and coaches’ coping strategies.
- Practitioners can advise coaches and athletes to use international holding camps wisely to optimize athletes’ and coaches’ experiences with the media.
Bodenmann, G. (1995). A systemic-transactional conceptualization of stress and coping in couples. Swiss Journal of Psychology, 54, 34-49. Retrieved from http://econtent.hogrefe.com/loi/sjp
Heaviside, H. J., Manley, A. J., Backhouse, S. H., & Didymus, F. F. (2016). “You’re the hot favorite to win, you must be under a lot of pressure?”: Stories about media expectations from three Paralympians. Manuscript submitted for publication.
Lazarus, R. S., & Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, appraisal, and coping. New York, NY: Springer.