How university athletes deal with stressors

KPE Professor Katherine Tamminen on how parents, coaches help athletes to cope
JOSEPH DONATO/THE VARSITY
JOSEPH DONATO/THE VARSITY

Varsity athletes often have a large amount of stressors to deal with that are different from those of other athletes. They often have to balance school, sport, and other factors in their personal lives. Professor Katherine Tamminen from the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education studies the abilities of adolescents and university aged athletes to deal with stress in sport — and helps them face it in a healthy way.

Tamminen said that parents and coaches can play a huge role in how athletes deal with stress by “helping them learn to cope with [it],” she said in an interview with The Varsity. “And they also influenced the type of stress that they might experience. So parents and coaches might also be a source of stress for athletes… I think it’s a bit of a double-edged sword there.”

Tamminen also emphasizes that this topic is very nuanced, and that there is no one universal answer when it comes to dealing with stress in younger athletes. “There are some strategies that may be more useful in some situations whereas other strategies are going to be more useful in other situations,” she said.

“It really comes down to the type of stressor that the athlete is facing and then selecting the most appropriate coping strategy to use when dealing with that stressor.”

“If an athlete is having problems with their performance or a skill or something technical, seeking information from their coaches and from their teammates or spending more time working specifically on that skill in practice is likely going to help them to deal with that performance issue,” Tamminen said.

“But if the issue is an ongoing conflict with a teammate or if it’s an issue in a conflict with a coach, or if it’s a stressor from outside of sports that they’re dealing with, like academic demands or they’re dealing with health concerns from a family member, those are going to require different coping strategies.”

However, some athletes deal with things that they have no control over, to which Tamminen recommended dealing with one’s emotions instead of trying to control the situation. She advised “seeking social support or re-appraising the situation and trying to see the positive side of things. Practicing mindfulness.”

She continued, “These can also be very helpful strategies, whereas in situations where they have more control over the stressor, then they might do things that are more active and problem-oriented.” She said that athletes may need to spend more time on these problems, and seek out additional information.

When asked what the most important thing she learned in her research was, she highlighted the importance of social support and having people to turn to.

“The importance of having either a close friend, a teammate, a coach, a parent, somebody that you can confide in and talk to and turn to is so important. It comes up across every single study that I think I’ve ever done in this area… the importance of that social connectedness that people, that athletes have.”

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