Stress in Sport: Can we break “a vicious circle”?


Stress - Three Arrows Hit in Red Target on a Hanging Sack on Green Background.Le Yuiko showed Bohun-Obscurity his archery: pulled the string, put on the elbow cup with water, shot an arrow, and then, without waiting when it will reach the target, shoot the second and third. All arrows hit the target and all this time Le Yuiko stood still, like an idol.

– It is the skills of shooting within the shooting and not shooting without shooting – said Bohun-Obscurity. – And could you hit the target, if you go with me on the rock, hanging over the abyss of a thousand yards?

Here Obscurity ascended a high cliff, stood on a rock hanging over the abyss of a thousand yards, then he turned and stepped back so his feet were half over the edge of precipice. Standing in this position, he took his bow and hit the target. Then he beckoned to Le Yuiko. But archer, drenched in cold sweat, fell on the ground and covered his face with his hands.

– In the perfect man, – said the Obscurity – the spirit knows no embarrassment, even if he soars in the blue sky, descends into the abyss or fly away to the far ends of the earth. And you now want to close your eyes in fear. Your art is worth nothing!

Dao’s parable


In contemporary high-level Sport failure or success depend on small differences between athletes technical, physical and creative abilities. While most of competitors have equal physical and technical potential, the victory to great extent depends on the ability to use it in full and precisely when needed. Often such peak moments are inseparably connected with the highest psychological tension, which can greatly influence sportsmen ability to perform at the level where they are actually able to do. Such tension is commonly called Stress.

I think it is difficult to find more often used term in relation to psychological aspect of sports performance than Stress. You can hear it from athletes, coaches, journalists and, of course, sport scientists. However, it is probably most difficult topic in Sport Psychology when you are going to write about it.

Indeed, this phenomenon is very complicated. It has different sources, manifestations and is influenced by many different factors. Every aspect of stress deserves and receives separate examination with the great scientists are being involved.

So it is probably a little bit overconfidence to write on this topic, however I am not going to claim expert’s knowledge here. Rather, it would be interesting to familiarize readers, maybe in simplified form, with state-of the-art on the field.

In presented article I am going to discuss possible sources of Stress in contemporary Sport, different mental and physical conditions which it can provoke and how it can alter athlete’s abilities. Finally I will consider different ways of coping with Stress.

What is Stress?

Since the word “Stress” is widely used in different areas from Study of the Strength of Materials to Biology, there are many different definitions of this term. Even if the use will be narrowed to Psychology the definition of its exact meaning still provokes discussions. I am not feeling confident to participate in these debates and this is beyond the scope of the presented article. However, I am not underestimating the importance of exact understanding what we actually mean by “stress” in Sport Psychology.

Indeed, is Stress an exclusively environmental factor? If so, then it doesn’t take into consideration that the same external conditions maybe either extreme or common for different persons. Like, for example, temperature minus 20 C for the habitants of Central Africa and Chukotka. The same problems we meet if only organism’s internal reactions will be considered as Stress. Different factors and situations can provoke the same physiological and psychological responses (e.g. high heart rate) while these responses itself may be extreme for one person and usual for another.

Especially when we are talking about Stress from psychological perspective, it is important to point out that though our reactions are provoked by external factors, their influence is strongly modulated by internal elements of the response. Not only “real” characteristics of external agent are important but how we perceive it. From this point of view, probably, the definition of Stress which belongs to McGrath ( I have derived it from Staal’s work (Staal, 2004)) will be really useful. McGrath considers Stress as “…as the interaction between three elements: perceived demand, perceived ability to cope, and the perception of the importance of being able to cope with the demand”. In simple words, psychological Stress for athletes depends on how big they think a challenge is, how confident they are in their abilities to meet the challenge and how important for them is to successfully cope with the challenge.

Sources of Stress in Sport


Today sports events attract multi-million audiences. Very often, failures or successes in the major competitions are connected with the country’s prestige. It puts an immense psychological pressure on the main actors on the stage – athletes. Even though there are no direct punishment for unsuccessful performance in civilised countries, like it might be in totalitarian, anyway, athletes still are concerned with what people think about them. A few studies have found a negative influence of an audience’s presence on performance. However such influence can be supportive as well. We can see many examples of positive support from the crowd during competitions in different sports and leagues.

Why is influence of the audience on performance so different? One of the most cited theory on the field is Drive Social Facilitation theory, which postulates that arousal, connected with the presence of spectators, improved executions of the simple tasks, which are already well learned, and impairs executions of the complex and/or not well learned tasks (Zajonc, 1965). Nevertheless, we often witness examples of “choking under pressure”, when execution of well-learned and relatively simple tasks (e.g. penalties in football, basketball free-throws and etc.) are impaired by psychological pressure coming from audience. Self-presentation theory of Social Facilitation suggests another explanation (Bond, 1982). When real or expected feedback from performance is predominately negative and leads to the performer’s embarrassment, then presence of the others impaired execution of even simple components of the task. For example, if tennis player is losing to his opponent in shameful manner he feels embarrassed, makes simple mistakes and presence of the audience only makes things worse. In contrast, if feedback is predominantly positive (e.g. player is winning confidently), then crowd may facilitate execution even of very complicated shots.

Both theories don’t take into account that audience might be different itself. It may be supportive or hostile crowd, big or small, close or distant to the performer. All these variables influence the outcome. Athlete’s personality adds additional complexity as well, because the same audience can impact completely differently, for example, extraverted and introverted persons. Even different characteristics of the same task, such as speed and accuracy, may be differently susceptible to the spectator’s influence. It seems that to predict exact outcome from the audience presence (direct observers and TV audience) on performance will be not easy task. Further in this article, I will discuss other stress theories which probably help to throw light upon the problem.

2. Money

Though contemporary Sport suggests huge financial incentives, especially on a top level, probably, their influence is just another side of social pressure. Indeed, social success means better financial reward, whereas failure in public’s eyes often followed by decrease in income. I think it is difficult to separate these two sources of stress in high level Sport. Influence of the financial reward was investigated mostly on “ordinary” people and definitely not during high-rank competitions. Very often such influence was negative (Roy F. Baumeister & Showers, 1986).

3. Self-estimation

Threat to one’s self-estimation is probably one of the most powerful sources of stress.

Most of the people have some opinion about themselves. It gives them necessary support in their social realisation. In Western culture to have high self-estimation is considered to be highly beneficial, though this notion was put into question in the last decades (Roy F Baumeister, Campbell, Krueger, & Vohs, 2003) (Crocker & Park, 2004) . However, in short-term, high self-esteem can give to the person sense of safety, self-importance and make him/her sure that they can find deserved place in the society. Self-estimation connected with how others evaluate us but it is different from social evaluation. It is essential for people to perform successfully in the areas which they consider important even if they are doing tasks alone, without spectators or anonymously. So when task’s outcome threats to one’s level of self-estimation it may put psychological pressure on the performer and impair the results (Roy F. Baumeister & Showers, 1986).

4. Physical (workload and injuries)

Fear of pain and injury is one of the fundamental feelings of the living creatures. Athletes can experience this fear in contact sports (boxing, rugby) , in technically complicated sports with high injury risks (gymnastic, extreme sports) or when they have previous injury’s history. Huge physical workload becomes very common in contemporary Sport. Day by day athlete has to tolerate it. This cumulative effect may result in chronic psychological exhaustion.

Manifestations of Stress: psychological level.

1. Changes in Attention

Since our evolution stress was connected with a danger while the latter could not be separated from attention. Indeed, it was really important for survival to recognise stimuli, which are connected with the life threatening situations, as soon as possible, thus to have more time to react to danger. Hence it would be logical to suggest that stress can improve a performance through enhanced attention to the related stimuli. In accordance with that, Attentional Control Theory (ACT) predicts that stimulus driven attention could be enhanced in stress conditions (Corbetta & Shulman, 2002; Eysenck, Derakshan, Santos, & Calvo, 2007). Thus, a person, who is more susceptible to stress, may react more quickly than somebody who is insusceptible? However the influence on performance such enhanced attention may be contradictive. Whereas the detection of a lion’s silhouette, hidden in the woods, definitely means danger and demands immediate reaction, take for lion every bush and to react to it may be counterproductive. Important stimuli are often hidden among unrelated or, what is even more difficult, among similar but deceptive stimuli. Thus, the successful performance can be connected with the ability to separate “background noise” (unrelated information) and deceptive information from information which is important for reaction. This ability is different between experts and novices and might be crucial not only for reaction per se, but also for anticipation (Jackson, Warren, & Abernethy, 2006). Being too sensitive to the all information may have a negative influence when the subject should inhibit reactions to deceptive or distractive stimuli (e.g. opponent’s feint or spectators shouting). Thus, in accordance with ACT, it can be predicted that participants more vulnerable to stress can make more mistakes whilst trying to select and concentrate on needed information. It might be possible that competitive situations when mistakes in performance are penalised can lead to the loss of confidence among subjects who are not adapted to such circumstances.

Seemingly opposite phenomenon but just another side of the same coin is “narrowed” or “tunnelled” attention under stress conditions (Staal, 2004). When subject identified dangerous stimulus (or which are perceived as a dangerous) he/she points all attentional resources to this stimulus and may miss other important information. Looking at the snake in front of him such person doesn’t see lion few meters aside. Coaches in sport games are very familiar with the tactical mistakes caused by tunnelled vision.

2. Efficiency

The speed and accuracy of the performance in Sport often depend on the brain’s abilities to quickly analyse information and make a decision. This is the “responsibility” of the Working Memory. Working Memory can be described as the brain structures, or rather functions, which control the storage and manipulation of short-term information and which execute connections between current sensory information and long-short-term memory (Baddeley, 2001; Land & Tatler, 2009). Stress may perform as an additional load, as it may make Working Memory overloaded with the information which is not relevant to the primary task (Beilock & Carr, 2001). Sportsman, for example, can be very anxious about social and personal consequences of unsuccessful performance. It does not necessarily mean that stress always impairs performance. Athlete can allocate additional physical and mental resources to the demanding task to support level of performance. Nevertheless this allocation can make ratio between efforts and results less efficient (M. Wilson, 2008). In situations which demand huge amount of Working Memory’s capacities, spending them for stress coping may lead to shortage in these capacities for the main task and thus can impair the performance. Subjects who are not accustomed to stress tend to make intuitive decisions which demands less Working Memory. Not always these decisions are a better choice. Lieberman with colleagues found that under combat stress even experienced officers show significant impairments in decision making (Lieberman et al., 2005). Especially vulnerable to stress conditions are tasks which considerably rely on Working Memory, for example, complicated and new (Beilock & Carr, 2005).

3. Re-investment

I already talked about re-investment theory in the implicit learning article. “Re-investment”, happens when sportsman who needs to perform in stress situation begins to direct attention to skills and movements which should already be automatic and do not need conscious control. This internal shift of attention can cause the performer to make sudden mistakes in technical actions which are relatively simple and were performed thousand times before (Masters, Poolton, Maxwell, & Raab, 2008).

4. Ironic errors

Relatively rarely discussed but very interesting and important topic is ironic errors. A lot of coaches are not aware about this issue. In short, ironic errors means that person makes exactly the same kind of mistakes which he/she was insistently asked not to do and, actually, strongly unwilling to make. It happens when attempts to control a desired state of mind can lead to opposite results and the brain becomes overburdened with negative thoughts. That might be additional causes of failure due to stress (Wegner, 1997).

5. Burn out

This psychological condition, associated with the Stress, is chronicle and sustain, which is opposed to the conditions mentioned above. Raedeke defined burn out in Sport as “psychological syndrome of emotional and physical exhaustion, reduced sense of accomplishment, and sport devaluation” (Raedeke & Smith, 2001) . In my opinion such state may be resulted from accumulative effect of all sources of stress which I described before. It may be one of the main reasons why the athletes, especially those who are or became vulnerable to long term influence of huge physical and psychological load, are failing to perform at the level, where they actually could and, eventually, even can quit the Sport.

Manifestations of Stress: Physical level

It is worth to look how exactly stress may influence athlete’s movements. Readers who might be interested in more detailed description I recommend to read excellent Gray’s work. (Gray, 2011). Here I want to give short quintessence of his findings.

1. Movement’s execution stability.

Under stress conditions sportsman’s technique may become more variable. When stable executions of movements patterns are preferable (e.g. in shooting sport or serving in tennis), these variations often make performance unstable and impair the results. This increase in variability may be due to mentioned above reinvestment and internal shift of attention. Athlete may start to separate already well-learned movement on its parts and even small variations in execution of each part may cause significant cumulative effect on whole movement, thus make performance unstable.

2. Degrees of freedom in joints.

Seemingly contradicting to previous point is decreasing degrees of freedom in multi-joints movements under pressure. When people start to learn technique huge variability in multi-joints coordination may make learning too difficult. Thus beginners tend to “freeze” some possible movements and make their joints more rigid. Expert’s movements are more fluid and increased degrees of freedom between joints help them to deal with changeable sports situations. However under pressure experts may return to the novice level, “to freeze” their movements, thus make them less fluid and efficient.

3. Movements control strategy

Sometimes experts and novices may have different motor-control strategy. For example in golf, one can adjust needed putting length by changing amplitude of the stroke or with the same amplitude to change club’s acceleration. Experts tend to choose first way (which allows stronger strike with the same “smoothness”) while beginners second. And again, under pressure, experts may change their strategy to the novice’s one, which is probably not optimal for the performance.

4. Movements economy

When our movements are not well-learned their execution is not fine-tuned. Thus larger muscle’s groups are involved and bigger than needed muscle tension may be presented. Well-learned skills are more economical. It is one of the reasons why experts are less susceptible to fatigue than novices. Stress and excessive conscious control may eliminate this advantage.

Can we predict why and when it happens?

It would be useful to have theory which can predict when and how drop in performance will happen under stress. There are few candidates. Probably one of the most popular is Hardy’s catastrophe theory (Hardy, Beattie, & Woodman, 2007).


This theory considers result of performance as interaction between cognitive arousal (worry) and efforts (expected or real) required for task fulfillment. When some moderate arousal present it may be beneficially combined with optimal efforts. When arousal remains moderate but efforts (physical or mental) continue to increase beyond optimal level, performance starts gradually decrease. This process can be easily reversed by decreasing efforts again. However, when worry is high and efforts are increasing (or subject anticipates increasing efforts) then, after some point, sudden and dramatic drop in performance (catastrophe) happens. Interestingly, in this case, just decreasing efforts cannot reverse the process and to restore performance level.

Let’s illustrate this with the hypothetic example of biathlonist who is running last leg of relay for his team in Olympics. Imagine that he started his leg with big advantage, which was created by his team-mates on the previous legs, so he doesn’t feel pressure from other competitors (moderate cognitive arousal). He is skiing comfortably to the gold in a good pace but not to the limit of his capacities (optimal efforts). His first shooting (performance) was good and everything looks fine. Suddenly he is falling down and breaks one of his skis. He has to waste time to change it and now his advantage disappears. Opponents on his back now and he has to run to a limit of his capacities (efforts required increase). He comes to the last shooting tired, breathing heavily and overwhelmed by the thoughts that if his team and country lost, it will be completely his fault (cognitive anxiety is high). His shooting is disastrous and he lost not only gold but silver and bronze as well. Catastrophe.

Another practical example which I remember very well was football World Cup 2010 quarter-final game Ghana vs Uruguay. Leader of Ghana Asamoah Gyan showed brilliant performance during whole match and when Ghana was awarded penalty on the last seconds of extra time he was a clear choice. That penalty, if converted, made Ghana first African nation in history who reached last four in the World Cup. However, he skimmed the bar. Can we explain this with catastrophe theory? Probably, during the match, Gyan shared responsibility for the outcome with his team-mates thus had optimal level of cognitive arousal. When it happened that result was depended entirely on him, his worry increased dramatically and he choked. So is it a catastrophe? If we consider missed penalty as a catastrophe, then Gyan shouldn’t restore his performance after that. However, just few minutes later, in the penalty shoot-out, he scored a great penalty in the high-left corner. This didn’t help his country however and Ghana was out.

I leave to the professional psychologists discussion on whether Hardy’s theory is correct or not. However I think it wouldn’t be always possible to make forecasts based on it. Could Ghana coach predict that his leader (who already scored two penalties on that World Cup) missed that decisive shot? I have doubt about it.

Challenge and Threat

Another interesting theory, Biopsychosocial Model of Challenge and Threat, was suggested by Jim Blascovich and his colleagues. This theory postulates that while evaluating our ability to fulfil task’s demand in areas which is important for us, we can perceive our resources as sufficient or insufficient (please refresh definition of stress: perception how demanding task is, perception of the ability to cope and perception how important is to cope successfully). In first case we consider task as challenge and this facilitate execution. In second case we consider task as a threat and perform worse than we are able (Blascovich, Mendes, Hunter, & Salomon, 1999). Though evaluation of available resources and thus perception of task either challenge or threat may be conscious on some occasions, it is generally unconscious, so subject doesn’t aware about the process and cannot report his/her state. However, objective physiological measures show that challenge state elicits more favorable response (e.g. higher cardiac output and lower peripheral resistance) than threat conditions (Moore, Vine, Wilson, & Freeman, 2012). Interestingly, as consistently with Gray findings, threat condition may influence movement kinematics and makes technique less efficient (Moore, et al., 2012). Can this somehow help us practically? Well, probably “online” physiological measurements to predict whether sportsman is in challenge or in threat state are impractical for now (so we don’t know trust him/her with the penalty or not) , nevertheless, teaching athlete to consider high demanding task as a challenge rather than a threat would be beneficial (Moore, et al., 2012).

To conclude all that was said in this chapter and previously, it probably would be correct to say that effect of the Stress on performance is very complex. One universal law, which can describe this influence, not yet has been found and, probably, cannot be found at all.

Coping with Stress

It may be useful to separate stress-coping strategy on “local” , which is dealing with particular event and/or already formed athlete, and “global”, which main concern is developing stress-resistant athlete from his/her childhood.


I think local methods are intensively studied and developed in recent years. Some kind of summery and examples of local strategies can be found in Mark Wilson’s (my university teacher) paper (M.R. & Wilson & Richards, 2011).

1. Planning and preparation

Though it is difficult to underestimate the importance of this point and it is looks obvious for everyone, however a lot of coaches and athletes make mistakes in preparation again and again. There are no small details here because stress can magnify everything. Unfamiliar menu in local restraints? Favorite book forgotten at home? Hotel at a noisy street? All these may eventually negatively impact performance. Everything that can be planned should be planned. When and where athlete going to warm up, what he/she is going to do in performance’s breaks, possible weather conditions and many-many other things should be consider before the competition. “What if?” question is one of the main in the preparation phase. If you expect things may happen and have worked out your possible response, the situation will be not so stressful for you.

2. Performance routines

During or before a performance, athletes, sometimes, are doing things which look unnecessary or even strange for the lay public. It may be touching the grass before entering a football pitch, bouncing the ball exact number of times before tennis serve or swing a golf club few times before make a strike and many other things. When I had been couching high-class kickboxer, we used to make a short 10-20 min walk in outside immediately prior to fight. Maria Sharapova use to turn her back to the court between points. All these aim to help to achieve optimal mental state. However it is important that routine can be adjustable (make four bounces instead of three if necessary) and replaceable (walk in the hall if it is impossible to walk outside).

3. Self-talk

While it is probably better to keep “internal silence” and avoid conscious control during performance this perfect state of mind may be not achievable. Indeed, we so used to talk with our-self that it became our nature and it is difficult to expect that we can switch off “internal dialogue” whenever we want. Hence, Mark Wilson advises to make self-talking optimal for performance. This can help in motivation, avoiding distracting thoughts and emotions and even avoid reinvestment. In this case sportsman can substitute step-by-step declarative instructions that can lead to reinvestment with one holistic metaphoric word or phrase which creates visual image or filling of correct technique. It doesn’t necessary means that self-talk should be positive. High –class athletes often use negative self-talk to keep themselves focused and motivated.

4. Gaze control

The relationship between gaze patterns and successful performance was known from ancient times and ancient martial art practice emphasised its importance. In recent decades, due to technological advances, gaze behaviour became the subject of assiduous investigation. It was found that elite athletes in aiming sports fixed on aim rarely but with longer duration of separate gaze in comparison with their less skilled counterparts. This strategy might be more efficient because during saccades between the glances people cannot pick up information (Mann, Williams, Ward, & Janelle, 2007). Especially important may be the final gaze fixation on target with duration more than 100 ms and deviation from target on visual angle less than 1 degree. This last fixation prior to execution of goal’s movements was named a ”Quiet Eye” (QE) by Joan Vickers in 1996. QE duration was found positively correlated with accuracy in aiming tasks such as: shooting, simulated arching, basketball free throws, putting in golf (Behan & Wilson, 2008; Vickers & Williams, 2007; M. R. Wilson, Vine, & Wood, 2009). The same connection between QE earlier onset and length of object’s tracking was found in intercepting task: puck keeping in ice hockey(Panchuk & Vickers, 2006) and gun shooting (Causer, Bennett, Holmes, Janelle, & Williams, 2010; Vickers, 1996). One of the possible explanation of this phenomenon is that longer fixation on targeting object allows to collect more important information about it parameters (e.g. spatial coordinate in aiming or spatial and movement data in interceptive sports). This advantage in time and amount of collected information allows correct planning of movements and their precise realization (Vickers, 1996).

QE may influence success through stress modulation. Wilson found that under stress conditions basketball players perform more frequent fixation with shorter duration in comparison with non-stress (M. R. Wilson, et al., 2009). As it was said previously, this strategy is less effective and maybe one of the reasons for decreasing in performance under stress. Athletes, who can maintain QE, manage to perform better during stress (Vickers & Williams, 2007; Vine & Wilson, 2011). Longer QE duration might attenuate the stress influence by drawing attention away from re-investing thoughts and distracting cues.

5. Put it together

There are other methods which can be used to control nerves before and during performance. Among those are: breath control, creating inside one’s mind positive visual image of performance, post –performance evaluation and etc. Interested reader can find relevant information in sports literature. One of the important thing is to combine necessary methods together thus to make psychological intervention more effective. I am sure that Maria Sharapova combined her mentioned routine with internal dialog, and I combined our walk with kickboxer with short “what if?” tactical discussion. Surely QE may be part of routine as well and probably my be used together with internal dialogue (M.R. & Wilson & Richards, 2011). There are plenty of opportunities for coaches and sport psychologists here.

Global strategy

While using local methods are, without doubt, important way to deal with psychological pressure, probably far more effective way is developing stress-resistant athletes from the childhood. However this is giving rise to many methodological, moral and even philosophical issues.

1. Make learning natural for learners.

We have some “natural”, genetically inherited or acquired in early childhood skills, which won’t betray us even under pressure. The question is; how to make skills that we need for sport and which are not our inherited abilities similar natural thus reliable in every condition? Possible answer is: Develop them implicitly; Harden them, Develop wide sensory-motor skills

Develop skills implicitly

Advantages of developing skills more implicitly were already discussed earlier ( see article ). Since then I have got few responses from coaches who argued that explicit, declarative knowledge cannot be avoided while learning techniques. Actually. their main argument is that sport itself is artificial human’s inventory, thus learning cannot be natural. Indeed, coaches have to create conditions for learning and manage the process. In this sense learning is not pure natural. However, if created conditions facilitate acquisition of desire technique without declarative knowledge, unconsciously, where it is possible, and/or through metaphoric visual images, then, probably, skills will be acquired more comprehensively and will be deeper integrated into one’s natural abilities. Maybe these skills will not crack under pressure.

Harden learned skills

Learned skills will be performed in competitive and stressful conditions. So these conditions are inseparable part of equation. Some coaches tend to wait until perfect technique will be developed before introducing their students to real situations. I don’t think it is a right way. In my opinion learners should be exposed to conditions that mimic reality from the earliest stages of athlete’s development. This provides necessary feedback for athlete and coach. Of course coach has to carefully manage psychological stress and level of competitive distraction, because it shouldn’t be harmful and detrimental for development. However that is better to do earlier when athlete psychic is more flexible and may be naturally adapted to the stressful and competitive conditions.

Develop wide sensory-motor skills

Sport is human’s invention and some of its movements pattern are highly specific for particular activity However, in my opinion, sports technique are based on our natural, inherited from evolutional ancestors sensory-motor skills, hence it is not completely artificial. In my personal practical experience, subjects with better general sensory-motor skills are better in maintaining their performance under pressure probably because their base is wider and better “tuned”. Probably it looks strange and unnecessary for footballer to have some acrobatics skills but it can give him/her body awareness, agility and natural fluidity which can be helpful in high-pressure circumstances. Developing sensory skills like hearing or sense of smell along with art of dancing and calligraphy were common practice in learning Kung-Fu (see article). I don’t think we can find direct practical application to competitive actions here. However, maybe this practice gives Kung-Fu students ability to maintain psychological balance, to silence distracting “internal dialogue” and to concentrate entirely on important cues.

2. Harmonious people.

For many generations in Western society ideals are hard work, self-discipline and success. Possibly the roots of this notion lie in the Protestant doctrine that only the best, “elected” will go to heaven (Crocker & Park, 2004). Thus “to step out of crowd”, to prove to yourself and to others that you “deserve your place” is the most important goal in one’s life. Though religious values don’t play the same role in our time, passionate chase for acceptance one’s exclusivity by others and for high self-estimation became even stronger. However is this passionate pursuit beneficial for person and society? Does it help to make one’s life happier and more harmonious? And, finally, does it really help to get better results?


It is clear that achieving high-level result in some activity demands significant time and efforts. When people devote most of their time to particular activity, consider it very important and really like it, such attitude can be called passion (Vallerand et al., 2003) . It seems obvious that passion is beneficial for Sport. While, as a coach and former athlete, I, throughout all my life in Sport, have promoted this notion, recently I started to consider how passion is really beneficial for coping with stress in Sport. Indeed, during my coaching career, sometimes I observed occurrences when sportsmen who were “ coach’s dream”, who always worked hard on training and passionately wanted to win , were more susceptible to choking and burn out than somebodies who looked like they don’t care to much about results of the performance. Then, writing this article, I have found interesting consideration about passion in Vallerand et al. study (Vallerand, et al., 2003) .

Authors made distinction between two kinds of passion Obsessive (OP) and Harmonious (HP). They argued that though people can be passionately involved in their activities, the reasons for that might be different. Those, who are obsessed with the passion, are involved in activity because there are some benefits and rewards for participation and achievements. These benefits may be material, moral, emotional, social or religious (e.g. place in heaven). That passion may be introduced to the person during their childhood by his parents, coaches, teaches and/or through the social and cultural environment. OP becomes so deep integrated into one’s identity that person cannot consider him/herself without participation (and without success) in the activity. So what is wrong with it? To be obsessed with your activity and be passionately willing to win is a necessity for success. Isn’t it?

Not always. OP can be detrimental and even devastating when success was not achieved or cannot be achieved. Because of its nature, OP is the only activity which makes life “worth to live”. Failure to achieve success means catastrophe for obsessive person. In relation to stress, it is important to note that even threat of failure can put enormous psychological pressure on such subjects because that places at risk everything that is important for them.

In opposite to Obsessive Passion, Harmonious Passion refers to activity which persons choose because they genuinely, without any conditions, like it. Thus, though they devote significant time and efforts to the activity and are really persistent in achieving their goals, the activity for them is not ultimately connected with the purpose of life. It is only part of life. So when it comes to competition, harmonious person may continue to enjoy the process whereas obsessive will be preoccupied with the result. Especially, the difference between OP and HP may be obvious after failure or in the presence of threat of failure. Paradoxically, person who doesn’t “stake everything” on success can be better in dealing with such situations.

Pursuit of Self-estimation

Self-estimation which was already mentioned as one of the sources of Stress may be one of the rewards for success in case of OP. The endeavour to achieve satisfactory high level in self-esteem is one of the fundamental traits of social life in Western world. However, it was questioned whether it is a fundamental human need or not. (Crocker & Park, 2004). For many years it was a common belief that high level of self-estimation is beneficial for person and for society. In the last decades this notion was examined and surprisingly it was found that it is not always true. In their highly cited work, Roy Baumeister et al. argued that boosting self-esteem through therapeutic interventions or social programmes doesn’t lead to better achievements and may be even counterproductive. People with artificially developed high self-esteem exaggerate their successes, don’t accept criticism and may have difficulties in relationships (Roy F Baumeister, et al., 2003). Authors advised not to boost high self-esteem with the aim to achieve better results but, rather, make high self-estimation a reward for achievements. However, even chasing after high self-esteem as a deserved reward might be costly for one’s happiness and harmony. In their brilliant work, Crocker and Park went further than Baumeister and suggested that it is not the level of self-esteem is important but, rather, what people do to increase and save it (Crocker & Park, 2004). In this study authors discussed the nature of self-esteem and possible costs and benefits of pursuing higher and/or defending existed level of it. Their conclusion suggests that “… people pursue self-esteem by trying to satisfy their beliefs about what they need to be or do to have worth and value; this pursuit has temporary emotional benefits when people succeed, but big costs when they fail” Does this remind you conclusion about Obsessive Passion? And like in OP scenario, even threat to self-estimation can be exhaustive and destructive. In relation to sport performance, authors suggest that: “Although chasing after self-esteem can motivate excellent performance, performance itself is not a fundamental human need, and it can be achieved through other, less destructive sources of motivation”. What are these “other sources”? Authors propose that shifting goals from achieving high level of self-esteem to larger goals, focused on doing good things for others, can provide a solution. These goals have not to be necessary altruistic or more moral than pursuing higher self-esteem. It may be success in business or in sport. However, this desire has to be sincere (not just another, hidden way to having better opinion about self). Only then person can share successes and, more importantly, failures with the others, thus to reduce stress.

I can imagine sceptical smiles from sports professionals here. High level Sport, it is all about result. Isn’t it? Yes it is for now but it looks like dead end here. We often see when athletes are so obsessed with the result and they are so afraid to lose that eventually pressure makes them to lose. It is like a vicious circle.

Perfect athletes.

The main point of this article is that stress-resistance already defines, and will define even more, success in the high level Sport. And if you want to win you have to develop stress resistant athletes from childhood. But there is one fundamental problem. While ideals in our society, and therefore goals for our children, are Success, Social Approval and High Self-Estimation bringing up stress-resistant athletes would be difficult.

One of the ways to overcome stress problem is to bring up athletes in specialised “sport factories”, in relatively closed environment. It is arguably the most efficient way of growing up champions. It allows concentrating on goals, reducing distracting social influence, effective selection and competitive environment. Best scientist and coaches will be working with the students. Graduates from these schools will be the cream of the crop, harden in battles and perfectly accustom for chosen task. They won’t be vulnerable to competitive stress because competing will be their instinct. We already saw prototypes of these factories in the past – sports boarding schools in the Soviet Union and, in its perfectness, in Eastern Germany. And it gave the results. Dominance of these two countries in Sport was really huge. In the Seoul Olympics Games 1988, last Games before the Communists System collapsed they won 92 golds between them whereas other eight top-ten nations, including US got 99 (Wikipedia). In nowadays, we can see excellent production of Barcelona FC academy in football (three graduates among World five best players in 2010), Nick Bollettieri academy in tennis and some others sports factories. I suppose this process will be further going towards earlier identification of talented children and earlier specialization to chosen sport. Nevertheless, despite their clear advantage, sports factories are presenting some problems. First of all it is a moral problem. Do we have right to decide for our kids their future? Of course they like to play sport and all of them want to be champions in early age but will they really be happy after graduating from the special school? We are watching the cream of sports academies production on sports arenas and TV. They are enjoying fame and fortune but what about others? Most of the academy’s students will be “rejects”. Spending the same time and efforts as their more lucky or talented classmates they, however, are not able to reach the top and are doomed to get their bread being the toilers of sport. Possibly, they have been missing other opportunities in their lives and are just mere victims of their parent’s ambitions and cruel sport’s life reality.

Another problem is more close to our topic. Will be sport’s factories graduates perfectly stress-resistant? Of course they come through intensive competitive and tough selection process so to the great extent they are accustomed to pressure. However, if they are not immune against passion to achieve Success, Fame and Fortune by any cost, then the fear of defeat will be waiting for them. To produce winners is a goal for sports factories, hence it would be difficult to expect that they change their objectives in favour of developing harmonious people. Therefore it is a vicious circle again.

Is it possible to break it?

My answer is – yes, but to achieve this we have to change our ideals.

Look again at the epigraph to this article. Obscurity was not afraid to shoot standing at the edge of the cliff whereas Le Yuiko was, because he exercised his spirit whereas Le Yuiko exercised only his archery. Archery for Obscurity is just the means for self-development and is not the aim itself. Fear of Death, Fame, Money, Passion and Self-esteem cannot distract his shooting because these things mean nothing for him. Shooting itself is not important. He is not a shooter. He is not a fighter. His spirit is deeper and wider than any “specialization”. However he is the better shooter then Le Yuiko.

Probably, this article is not a place for talking on Oriental Philosophy. Nevertheless, I am convinced that oriental philosophy and conclusions from highly scientific studies on Self-esteem and Passion pointed in a similar direction to solve stress problem.

“Perfect” athletes may overcome stress if their spirit will not be restricted and obsessed with the competition. Harmonious passion to the chosen sport has to be identified and developed in them. Their body and mind should be educated in the way which includes sport skills instead of being restricted by them. Their objectives have to be wider and different from pursuing a better self-esteem and a better life. These goals will make them pioneers and explorers. Achieving these goals they will expand borders of human abilities and knowledge. Free of burden of pressure they will make sport more beautiful, creative and honest…So, can we change our ideals?


Probably, after reading this long and complicated article, tired reader would like to get some short and exact advice:

1. Use local strategy when you are dealing with the preparation to particular event. You can find needed information from this article, its references and elsewhere.

2. Separate your parental or coach’s ambitions from real needs of your kid/student.

3. Try to identify and develop true passion to the chosen sport in your students. They have to enjoy process not only victories.

4. Be careful how much and what you are talking about on your training when you are teaching technique. Try to understand and predict how your talk will come back to your students under pressure.

5. Educate your students wider on training ground (sensor-motor skills) and beyond (music, art, literature and etc.). This will help them to deal with pressure.                                                                               6. Teach your students to consider stressful situations as a challenge not a threat.                                         7. Give them goals wider and higher than just to be the champions and to prove self-worth to themselves and to others. Don’t be afraid to be romantic. For me, personally, these aims may be exploration and humankind development. This doesn’t mean that concrete and short-term goals should be avoided. Just don’t be restricted by them.


Baddeley, A. D. (2001). Is working memory still working? American Psychologist, 56(11), 851-864.

Baumeister, R. F., Campbell, J. D., Krueger, J. I., & Vohs, K. D. (2003). Does high self-esteem cause better performance, interpersonal success, happiness, or healthier lifestyles? Psychological science in the public interest, 4(1), 1-44.

Baumeister, R. F., & Showers, C. J. (1986). A review of paradoxical performance effects: Choking under pressure in sports and mental tests. European Journal of Social Psychology, 16(4), 361-383. doi: 10.1002/ejsp.2420160405

Behan, M., & Wilson, M. (2008). State anxiety and visual attention: the role of the quiet eye period in aiming to a far target. J Sports Sci, 26(2), 207-215. doi: 782925132 [pii]


Beilock, S. L., & Carr, T. H. (2001). On the Fragility of Skilled Performance: What Governs Choking Under Pressure? Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 130(4), 701-725.

Beilock, S. L., & Carr, T. H. (2005). When High-Powered People Fail. Psychological Science, 16(2), 101-105. doi: 10.1111/j.0956-7976.2005.00789.x

Blascovich, J., Mendes, W. B., Hunter, S. B., & Salomon, K. (1999). Social” facilitation” as challenge and threat. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77(1), 68.

Bond, C. F. (1982). Social facilitation: A self-presentational view. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 42(6), 1042.

Causer, J., Bennett, S. J., Holmes, P. S., Janelle, C. M., & Williams, A. M. (2010). Quiet eye duration and gun motion in elite shotgun shooting. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 42(8), 1599-1608. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e3181d1b059

Corbetta, M., & Shulman, G. L. (2002). Control of goal-directed and stimulus-driven attention in the brain. Nat Rev Neurosci, 3(3), 201-215. doi: 10.1038/nrn755

nrn755 [pii]

Crocker, J., & Park, L. E. (2004). The costly pursuit of self-esteem. Psychol Bull, 130(3), 392-414.

Eysenck, M. W., Derakshan, N., Santos, R., & Calvo, M. G. (2007). Anxiety and cognitive performance: attentional control theory. Emotion, 7(2), 336-353. doi: 2007-06782-011 [pii]


Gray, R. (2011). Links Between Attention, Performance Pressure, and Movement in Skilled Motor Action. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20(5), 301-306. doi: 10.1177/0963721411416572

Hardy, L., Beattie, S., & Woodman, T. (2007). Anxiety-induced performance catastrophes: investigating effort required as an asymmetry factor. Br J Psychol, 98(Pt 1), 15-31.

Jackson, R. C., Warren, S., & Abernethy, B. (2006). Anticipation skill and susceptibility to deceptive movement. Acta Psychologica, 123(3), 355-371. doi: DOI: 10.1016/j.actpsy.2006.02.002

Land, M. F., & Tatler, B. W. (2009). Looking and acting : vision and eye movements in natural behaviour. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lieberman, H. R., Bathalon, G. P., Falco, C. M., Morgan, C. A., 3rd, Niro, P. J., & Tharion, W. J. (2005). The fog of war: decrements in cognitive performance and mood associated with combat-like stress. Aviat Space Environ Med, 76(7 Suppl), C7-14.

Mann, D. T., Williams, A. M., Ward, P., & Janelle, C. M. (2007). Perceptual-cognitive expertise in sport: a meta-analysis. J Sport Exerc Psychol, 29(4), 457-478.

Masters, R. S., Poolton, J. M., Maxwell, J. P., & Raab, M. (2008). Implicit motor learning and complex decision making in time-constrained environments. J Mot Behav, 40(1), 71-79.

Moore, L. J., Vine, S. J., Wilson, M. R., & Freeman, P. (2012). The effect of challenge and threat states on performance: An examination of potential mechanisms. Psychophysiology, 49(10), 1417-1425.

Panchuk, D., & Vickers, J. N. (2006). Gaze behaviors of goaltenders under spatial-temporal constraints. Human Movement Science, 25(6), 733-752. doi: DOI: 10.1016/j.humov.2006.07.001

Raedeke, T. D., & Smith, A. L. (2001). Development and preliminary validation of an athlete burnout measure. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology.

Staal, M. A. (2004). Stress, cognition, and human performance: a literature review and conceptual framework. NASA Johnson Space Center, Houston.

Vallerand, R. J., Blanchard, C., Mageau, G. A., Koestner, R., Ratelle, C., Leonard, M., . . . Marsolais, J. (2003). Les passions de l’ame: on obsessive and harmonious passion. J Pers Soc Psychol, 85(4), 756-767.

Vickers, J. N. (1996). Visual control when aiming at a far target. J Exp Psychol Hum Percept Perform, 22(2), 342-354.

Vickers, J. N., & Williams, A. M. (2007). Performing under pressure: the effects of physiological arousal, cognitive anxiety, and gaze control in biathlon. J Mot Behav, 39(5), 381-394. doi: J70426J2850UN525 [pii]


Vine, S. J., & Wilson, M. R. (2011). The influence of quiet eye training and pressure on attention and visuo-motor control. Acta Psychologica, 136(3), 340-346. doi: DOI: 10.1016/j.actpsy.2010.12.008

Wegner, D. M. (1997). When the Antidote is the Poison: Ironic Mental Control Processes. Psychological Science, 8(3), 148-150. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.1997.tb00399.x

Wilson, M. (2008). From processing efficiency to attentional control: a mechanistic account of the anxiety–performance relationship. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 1(2), 184-201.

Wilson, M. R., & Richards, H. (2011). Putting it together: Skills

for pressure performance

In D. Ed. Collins, Button, A. & Richards, H (Ed.), Performance Psychology: A Practitioners Guide. London: Elsevie

Wilson, M. R., Vine, S. J., & Wood, G. (2009). The Influence of Anxiety on Visual Attentional Control in Basketball Free Throw Shooting. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 31(2), 152-168.

Zajonc, R. B. (1965). Social Facilitation. Science, 149(3681), 269-274.