Sports Science Monthly – May 2021

Every month we take a deep dive into the latest research in sports science. In this month’s edition we look at research on coping styles of athletes during the pandemic and how understanding that can help coaches support athletes. Then we look at the role of gut instinct in talent identification, health problems in young runners, oral health for athletes, and much more.

As always, the full Sports Science Monthly is available exclusively to HMMR Plus Members. You can browse the past topics on our archive page. The first topic below is free to everyone, but sign up now to read about all the latest research. To get an idea of what Sports Science Monthly is all about, the April 2016 edition is available in its entirety for free.

This Month’s Topics

COVID-19 and athlete coping

Quick Summary – COVID-19 is a generational challenge of epic proportions, affect us all—including athletes. This study suggests that, whilst athletes are used to dealing with high levels of physiological and psychological stress, there are four key basic coping styles. Having a better idea of the coping styles of our athletes means we can best support them through stressful times, such as the current COVID-19 pandemic, by providing more bespoke solutions and support.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a major challenge for all involved in sport. For elite athletes, there has been the postponement of the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics into 2021, along with an overall lack of competitions and difficulties accessing training facilities. For coaches, planning training has been hugely challenging; like athletes, they have struggled to gain access to training facilities, along with being able to utilize training camps. For sports administrators, organizing training camps, competitions, and teams has become fraught with issues. Alongside these practical issues, many people—athletes, coaches, support staff—are facing a reduction in income and the threat of job losses or contract cancellations. Some athletes will have been looking to retire following the 2020 Olympics; what should they do now? Sport aside, athletes are people too, and COVID-19 will no doubt be having an influence on their personal lives; perhaps loved ones has become ill or lost a job, perhaps they’re having to home school their children, perhaps they’re socially isolated away from friends and family. As a result, it’s probably not an exaggeration to state that the COVID-19 pandemic is a generational challenge of epic proportions.

Athletes, however, are used to dealing with high levels of physiological and psychological stress as they drive towards success. As a result of this consistent exposure to a variety of stressors, athletes tend to accumulate effective coping skills. Research from the early 1990s identified six stress appraisal dimensions, and we understand that, when adapting to stress, how we appraise a stressful stimulus can have a large impact on whether an individual’s stress response is adaptive—leading to effective coping—or maladaptive, leading to ineffective coping and comprised well-being and health. This is all well and good in normal situations, such as competition, or dealing with a delayed flight, but COVID-19 is an issue like no other. It is unprecedented, at least in modern memory, and highly complex and rapidly evolving. As a result, there is a strong feeling of the unknown during the pandemic, and, due to the high levels of complexity and rapid changes, athletes (and, indeed, everyone) are exposed to a number of multiple stressors. This unprecedented situation means that we need to better understand what the effects of the pandemic are on athletes, and how they are able to best cope with the situation. This was the focus of a paper published earlier this year in the European Journal of Sport Science.

First, the authors examine what coping is; in their paper, they define it as a multidimensional construct that encompasses cognitive, emotional, and behavioural regulatory processes to manage the specific demands encountered during a stressful situation. Research from 2016 provided a classification of coping, which consisted of:

  1. Mastery coping – where the athlete attempts to take control of a situation, and eliminate the stressor;
  2. Internal regulation coping – where the athlete manages their internal response to stress;
  3. Goal withdrawal coping – where the athlete stops trying to achieve a certain goal.

Coping also has an inter-personal aspect; alongside coping individually, we can also attempt to cope as part of a team—for example, a family unit, neighborhood or community, or sports team. In this instance, people work together to manage stressful situations in a co-operative manner.

By understanding how people cope with stressors, we can begin to develop a coping profile of an individual; as such, we can then identify sub-groups of people based on their shared coping profiles. That was one of the main purposes of this study; here, the authors recruited 526 French athletes (271 women), with an average of just under 22 years old. The athletes came primarily from individual sports, comprising almost 90% of the sample, with the remaining 10% coming from team-based sports. The vast majority (95%) were able-bodied, with a small number of Paralympic athletes included. The athletes had been involved in sport for an average of 12.5 years, and had been taking part in top-level sport for just under five years on average. During the French lockdown, an online questionnaire was completed by these athletes, which gave some insight into how they were coping with the stress of the situation through questions aiming to ascertain their state anxiety, stress appraisal, individual coping, sources of support, and interpersonal coping.

Based on the results, the researchers identified four different coping strategies:

  1. Self-Reliant copers – 112 athletes displayed this profile, which was characterized by a combination of cognitive restructuring (e.g., acceptance, humour, positive reframing) and distraction (e.g., self-distraction and venting).
  2. Engaged Copers – 190 athletes displayed this profile, comprised of high levels of cognitive restructuring, along with problem solving (e.g., planning and active coping), and moderate levels of distraction.
  3. Avoidant Copers – 76 athletes displayed this profile, in which they reported higher levels of avoidance (e.g., behavioural disengagement, self-blame, denial, substance use) than others, along with moderate levels of cognitive restructuring, problem solving, and distraction.
  4. Active and Social Copers – 148 athletes displayed this profile; they typically demonstrated high levels of cognitive restructuring, problem solving, and distraction, along with moderate levels of support seeking (e.g., instrumental support, emotional support, and religion).

Crucially, from the perspective of the authors, individuals with different coping profiles also differed in how they scored in appraisals of anxiety and stress, along with satisfaction with their sources of support, and ability to utilise interpersonal coping. Avoidant copers reported higher levels of anxiety than the three other profiles, and viewed the COVID-19 outbreak as both more threatening and less controllable. As a result, management of athletes with this coping style may be of an increased priority during stressful periods, such as COVID-19.

Athletes who fell into both the engaged and active and social profile tended to report lower levels of anxiety, had a better ability to adapt to stress, and reported being in a protective social environment. They also viewed COVID-10 as more controllable (as controllable as a complex and rapidly evolving global pandemic can be, I guess), and viewed the pandemic as a challenge to be overcome. As a result, both these profiles might be viewed as more favourable when it comes to dealing with COVID-related stress and anxiety.

Interestingly, athletes within the sample were stratified across different performance levels, from national, to international, to world elite. The engaged and active and social profiles were much more common in the elite group than in others. Here, we’re presented with a chicken and egg scenario; are elite athletes better able to cope with the pandemic due to the skills they’ve learnt through being elite, or are they elite because of how they cope with various situations? There were also sex differences between the coping strategies; when compared to the engaged group, the active and social group was comprised mainly of women.

Those in the self-reliant coping strategy group also reported low levels of anxiety and stress in response to COVID-19, primarily through the use of different tools that enabled them to accept the stress of the situation, and then re-orientate their perspective to attempt to see it in a more positive light. This might be a change in priorities, or taking the opportunity to re-set. For example, an athlete using the pandemic, and its lack of competitions, to fully recover from an injury that they have been managing for a couple of years would be utilising the self-reliant coping style. Self-reliant copers, as the name might suggest, are also less likely to utilise interpersonal coping; they’re happy to focus on themselves.

So what does this mean? Firstly, we need to acknowledge that people respond to stress differently; as a result, we can’t apply a one size fits all approach to supporting athletes through stressful periods. Secondly, it’s clear that some athletes will have a coping profile that sets them up to respond well—or at least not as badly as others—to stressful situations. Conversely, some athletes having coping styles which increase the potential for feelings of stress and anxiety, which may have negative consequences over the long term. Being able to identify these athletes in advance of any major problems, and provide them with the skills to better tolerate and respond to stressful circumstances, will go some way to mitigate this, and may even improve their performance under “normal” stressful conditions such as competitions. This process may involve improving athlete’s abilities to cognitively restructure, seek support, distract, and problem solve, as well as changing the athlete’s stress appraisal response. Either way, as a coach, it’s clear that you need to keep an eye out for athletes who aren’t coping, and provide social support where needed, such as through online team meetings or similar—whilst also keeping in mind that, for at least one coping profile, social support is not desired.

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