Athletic Insight - The Online Journal of Sport Psychology

Embracing the Richness of Athletes’ Emotional Experiences:
Intersections between Coping Research
and Mental Training Consulting

Kent C. Kowalski
University of Saskatchewan

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I see little real advance in our species over its entire history, believe we have lived through one of the most hateful, cruel, and degraded of centuries, and have the impression that this state of affairs may be getting worse rather than better. (Richard Lazarus, 1999, p. 673)
Challenge is the richness of sport. How we choose to behave in the face of adversity provides us the opportunity to find the gruff edges of our personal character. The beautiful reality is that no matter the result, the experience endured to uncover that character is priceless. (Taylor Petrucha, personal communication, May 3, 2010)

       There has been no more influential theorist in the history of my career than Richard Lazarus. I was profoundly and deeply shaped by his 1991 text Emotion and Adaptation, which I first read as a Ph.D. student over a decade ago. To this day, the resonances of his various writings continue to infuse both my coping research and my mental training consulting with elite athletes. And it is obvious that I’m not alone. Even a brief scan of recent literature highlights the enduring influence of Lazarus’ (1991, 2000a) cognitive-motivational-relational theory on stress and coping research in the field of sport and exercise psychology (e.g., Anshel & Si, 2008; Bolgar, Janelle, & Giacobbi, 2008; Carson & Polman, 2010; Gaudreau & Antl, 2008; Hadd & Crocker, 2007; Nicholls, Hemmings, & Clough, 2010; Ntoumanis, Edmunds, & Duda, 2009; Sagar, Lavallee, & Spray, 2009; Tamminen & Holt, 2010; Tashman, Tenenbaum, & Eklund, 2010; Weston, Thelwell, Bond, & Hutchings, 2009). In addition, as recognized by Buman, Omli, Giacobbi, and Brewer (2008), and demonstrating Lazarus’ reach beyond the research enterprise, “In the applied sport psychology literature, researchers have long recognized the utility of the cognitive-motivation-relational (CMR) theory of stress, emotion, and coping” (p. 284). In many ways the potential application of Lazarus’ theory to the lives of athletes exemplifies the goal espoused by Nicholls and Polman (2007) in their review of coping in sport, which is to translate coping in sport knowledge into practice and help athletes to better cope with performance stress. In this article I reflect on how emotion and coping theory and research have woven their ways into my applied work as a mental training consulting with elite athletes, ending with two ethical questions that are particularly important to consider if we are going to embrace an approach that faithfully integrates coping in sport research and applied sport psychology practice.

       The two quotes to start this article essentially serve as a metaphor for the intersection between my coping in sport research and my mental training consulting. The quotation by Lazarus (1999) was, perhaps surprisingly, stated in a chapter on hope and the potential for hope to act as a coping resource against despair. Maybe in this viewpoint Lazarus and I share a kindred spirit, realizing the potential of the human spirit to overcome challenge, but recognizing that things might not always come easily. This, I think, applies to the worlds of many athletes, who often first step into my office when things have gone terribly awry along their paths to excellence, typically looking for a solution to help them through what are often quite difficult times. The second quote emerged from a conversation I had with an athlete who is often recruited as part of a panel of athletes, coaches, and mental training consultants in my upper-year undergraduate level applied sport psychology course at the University of Saskatchewan. His quote acts as a counterpoint to Lazarus’ self-acknowledged pessimism and reflects the ways athletes can view and overcome challenges following the darkest of times, something that is fundamental to both my research and applied interests.

       A couple of years ago I was asked to summarize what connects my research and applied interests. After a great deal of reflection I resolved that most, if not all, of what I do is ultimately aimed at finding ways to ensure that sport and physical activity is emotionally rewarding and fosters a healthy attitude towards the self for those involved. In fact, many of my life interests are occupied by a striving to help people cope with difficult times, in particular the experience of negative emotions and harsh self-evaluations. Thus, the kinds of research that I, along with my many graduate students and colleagues, have been involved with over the years should probably come as no surprise. Examples include research on the strategies athletes use to cope with stress in sport (e.g., Kowalski & Crocker, 2001; Kowalski, Crocker, Hoar, & Niefer, 2005); the links between physical activity and the physical self (e.g., Crocker, Sabiston, Kowalski, McDonough, & Kowalski, 2006; Kowalski, Crocker, Kowalski, Chad, & Humbert, 2003); the potential for self-compassion as a personal resource for women exercisers (e.g., Berry, Kowalski, Ferguson, & McHugh, in press; Magnus, Kowalski, & McHugh, in press); and how adolescents experience and cope with social physique anxiety (e.g., Kowalski, Mack, Crocker, Niefer, & Fleming, 2006; McHugh et al., 2008), the desire for muscularity (e.g., Kyrejto, Mosewich, Kowalski, Mack, & Crocker, 2008; Mosewich, Vangool, Kowalski, & McHugh, 2009), and other body-related emotions (e.g., Fleming et al., 2006; McHugh & Kowalski, 2009). Really, in many ways I have never been able to free myself from the very idealistic, and arguably naive, goal to “make the world a better place”, or at least a place that is less emotionally difficult and painful for those involved in sport and physical activity. These underlying motives have played a very significant role in shaping not only the content of my mental training sessions with athletes, but my approach to consulting itself.

       I have worked as a mental training consultant with elite athletes for approximately 15 years. Relevant to this article and my goal of improving the lives of athletes, my journey as a consultant can be described as not all that dissimilar to Lindsay and colleagues (2007) whose own questioning of their applied sport psychology training and practice led them to revisit and question the dominant method of service delivery in sport psychology. As their autoethnography demonstrated, they found themselves moving away from typical psychological skills training in their practice towards an approach in which the client is treated as a person first and an athlete second and to value client-based solution-making processes. This is similar to my own experience because there was a two-year period about seven years ago when I did very little consulting with athletes, in large part because I had become quite disenchanted with the process. My main dilemma at that point was whether a 1 to 7 session model of service delivery, a system based largely on funding systems, was indeed providing sufficient benefit to the client. Clients at “lower” levels of sport seemed to gain little from the process because many of the skills taught were not well-matched to their level of commitment (e.g., reflective logs are only going to be so beneficial for athletes who make it out to only the occasionally practice), and “elite” athletes especially seemed to be have insufficient access to services to meet their needs, particularly developmental athletes who had limited funding for service (and as a result, when I worked with elite athletes I seemed to always be left with feelings of abandonment following the allotted sessions; which I think in many ways reflected what was happening). My decision for that period was to do little consulting. However, during that time I did continue to think about new service delivery models that I would find more beneficial and, at least in my eyes, ethically palatable.

       Sometimes there are critical moments in a career when everything changes. It was September of 2005, when I was asked to work with a woman athlete who had competed internationally and was funded as a nationally carded developmental athlete, but was struggling with her developmental trajectory. I had been approached because she had previously sought out applied sport psychology service, but had gained little from that process (a confirmation of my concern with the present service delivery model). My decision was complicated by the ethical challenges associated with situation, including: (1) me knowing her from the sporting world, and (2) her being a university student in the program in which I taught. One of the biggest challenges is that, as reported by Watson, Clement, Harris, Leffingwell, and Hurst (2006), and is certainly the case in Saskatchewan (Canada), there tends to be relatively few sport psychology professionals in many places and those that are tend to be professors at universities; so there was a strong likelihood that if I was unwilling, she would not receive the services she needed. Thus, it was not first without a great deal of reflection and ethical decision making that I agreed to work with her. However, I refused to do it within my previous model of service delivery, which I thought at best would provide little benefit (and certainly not the type of service she really needed to be successful).

       As a result, the mode of service delivery I and the athlete collaboratively established was (a) ongoing weekly one-on-one meetings, (b) me having a high involvement in the training environment so that I could learn more about the physical, technical, tactical, and psychological demands of her discipline (a complex discipline that I had little previous experience with), and (c) setting it up so that my service was not tied to funding, such that she would never pay for any service I offered her (and that any level of support she received from external sources leading to payment would then be donated back to the university program in the form of athletic scholarships). It is within this model that we worked over a number of years, and is one I believe that was effective in providing her the best service possible. In addition, it has served as an excellent model of consulting that I use when working with other athletes. It is also an approach that in retrospect has been fundamentally shaped by, as well as consistent with, theory and research on emotion and coping in sport.

       It is my belief that the essential linking piece from the above discussion is that if we want to help athletes to be successful in sport, which includes dealing with the rough patches, there is a need to understand the richness and complexity of athletes’ emotional experiences as they go through the highs and lows of sport. In addition, an understanding of those emotional processes needs to be accessible to the athletes themselves, so that they can develop both the self-awareness and psychological skills necessary for reaching their own personal peak potentials. This brings us back full-circle to Lazarus’s (1991, 2000a) cognitive-motivational-relational theory of emotion, which highlights two critical processes in emotional experience: cognitive appraisal and (fundamental to this article) coping.

       In Lazarus’s (1991, 2000a) theory, cognitive appraisal is a process of ongoing evaluations of the significance of a person-environment relationship for one’s well-being. In other words, how athletes interpret situations or establish relational meaning in person-environment relationships is critical to the types of emotions that are experienced. The important factors that are considered in the cognitive appraisal process include an evaluation of what is at stake for oneself in the situation (i.e., primary appraisal) and the options for coping (i.e., secondary appraisal). For example, if an athlete appraises a competition as important for national team selection, has a strong desire to make that team, but also has significant concerns as to whether or not he or she will be able to effectively deal with the demands of the upcoming competition, then an emotion such as anxiety is likely to be experienced.

       Coping represents the effortful attempts to manage the resultant emotion, which can take many forms including problem-focused efforts aimed at directly changing the situation in some way and emotion-focused efforts that change the focus of one’s attention or result in a reinterpretation of the situation (Lazarus, 2000a). However, as Lazarus emphasized, coping not only follows emotion, but also acts to shape subsequent cognitive appraisals and emotional responses. Hence, there is a dynamic interplay among appraisal, coping, and emotional experience, such that all influence one another as the process unfolds over time. This interplay is critical to our discussion because coping is essential to the process of emotion; hence, understanding the emotional lives of athletes provides much insight into the ways athletes are coping with the challenges faced in sport. The potential application of his emotion theory to athletes was recognized by Lazarus, which he himself detailed within the context of competitive sports (Lazarus, 2000b). I will discuss some of the ways that his theory has shaped my mental training consulting with elite athletes below, as well as provide a bit more detail on the theory itself; however, one final brief interlude is necessary, that being a mention of existing literature representing the current body of coping in sport research.

       Coping in sport research has exploded over the past 20 years and has employed a myriad of research methodologies ranging from quantitative to qualitative (see Crocker, Mosewich, Kowalski, & Besenski, 2010 for a review). Recent texts have also been dedicated to a focus on coping in sport (e.g., Lavalle, Thatcher, & Jones, 2004; Nicholls, 2010). In addition, two recent reviews have (independently) attempted to bring together the growing and diverse body of coping in sport literature (see Hoar, Kowalski, Gaudreau, & Crocker, 2006; Nicholls & Polman, 2007). While an overview of the aforementioned texts and reviews are beyond the scope of this article there seems to be some key themes emerging that have the potential to shape mental training consultant with athletes. I will integrate some of those themes into the section below when I discuss specific ways that the coping in sport theory and research have made their way into practice. That is the topic to which I now turn.

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