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Relationships between life stress and performance in sports: much theory, but very little data.

The present investigation examined relationships between figure skating performance and perceived stress from daily hassles and skating-specific stressors. Results from 13 young, female figure skaters showed that higher levels of dally stress, skating-specific stress, and total stress were related to poorer skating performance. Our study, although very limited, was consistent with theory-based predictions. We also provide a discussion of the different approaches generally taken by sports psychologists and stress researchers in studies relating stress to athletic performance and suggest that these may be combined to more fully evaluate stress-performance relationships in sport.

La presente etude porte sur la relation entre la performance en patinage artistique et le stress percu a partir d'embetements quotidiens et de stresseurs specifiques au patinage artistique. Les resultats de 13 jeunes patineuses demontrent que des niveaux superieurs de stress quotidien, de stress specifique au patinage et de stress total sont associes a de moindres performances. Notre etude, quoique limitee, est coherente avec les predictions theoriques. L'article discute des differentes approches generallement adoptees per les psychologues du sport et les chercheurs qui tentent de reller stress et performance athletique et suggere que celles-ci doivent etre combinees pour mieux evaluer la relation entre stress et performance dans le sport.

Although there is no consensus definition of stress, modern researchers often view it as a process in which environmental demands (stressors) are perceived to be out of balance with (McGrath, 1970) or overtax (Lazarus, 1976) a person's resources, resulting in a state of emotional anxiety and physiological arousal (Spielberger, 1989). Most studies of stress in sports have focused on this emotional reaction rather than on the characteristics of the sport stressor (Spielberger, 1989). Today, stress in sports is generally viewed as elevated anxiety from the perceived demands of, and expectations of poor performance in a specific athletic event (Martens, Burton, Vealey, Bump, & Smith, 1990). As a result, sport stress is often assessed with sport-specific state anxiety inventories shortly before an event to examine relationships between anxiety and performance during the event (Martens, Vealey, & Burton, 1990).

This approach to the investigation of stress-performance relationships in athletics is quite recent. Until the mid-1970s, the trait approach dominated psychological study in sports, but had limited success predicting behavior (Martens, Vealey, & Burton, 1990). The interactionist approach grew popular in psychology and received considerable support from researchers (e.g. Spielberger, 1972) who showed that situation-specific measures of trait anxiety (A-trait) were better predictors of situation-specific state anxiety (A-state) than were general A-trait measures. Consistent with these findings, Martens (1977) developed the Sports Competition Anxiety Test (SCAT) to assess competitive A-trait, and later the Competitive State Anxiety Inventory (CSAI; Martens, Burton, Rivkin, & Simon, 1980) to assess competitive A-state. SCAT and the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI; Spielberger, Gorsuch, & Lushene, 1970) were used in hundreds of studies of anxiety in sports in the 1970s and 1980s, most of which examined influences of A-trait and situational factors on A-state (Martens, Vealey, & Burton, 1990; Spielberger, 1989). The few studies of anxiety and motor performance that used SCAT produced equivocal findings, and it was suggested that A-state would best predict performance because it accounts for the interaction between trait and situational factors (Martens, Vealey, & Burton, 1990). Similarly, Spielberger (1989) reported that situational factors and individual differences in skill and experience appeared to have greater effects on athletic performance than A-trait.

Theoretical advances led to conceptualization of A-state as a multidimensional construct, consisting of cognitive and somatic components (Borkovec, 1976; Davidson & Schwartz, 1976). In a review of anxiety and performance outside of sports, Morris, Davis, and Hutchings (1981) found that cognitive A-state was more consistently and more strongly related to performance than somatic A-state. The Competitive State Anxiety Inventory-2 (CSAI-2; Martens et al., 1990) was developed to assess competitive A-state as a multidimensional construct. It includes scales to assess cognitive and somatic competitive A-state, as well as sports confidence. Competitive cognitive anxiety is proposed to result from expectations of poor performance and is characterized by worry, disturbing imagery, and reduced self-confidence, whereas somatic anxiety is proposed to result from autonomic arousal and includes such physiological responses as rapid heart rate and sweaty palms. The CSAI-2 is now a widely used instrument for assessing the influences of anxiety in sport.

Outside of sports, stress researchers generally view stress as the entire process that includes environmental stressors, cognitive appraisal, and the ensuing psychobiological arousal (Spielberger, 1989). However, for evaluating relationships between stress and adaptational outcomes, stress is generally quantified using life events or hassles inventories as the total perceived impact of undesirable person-environment encounters within a given time period (Kessler, Price, & Wortman, 1985). There have been thousands of studies of relationships between life stress and psychological and somatic disorder (Dohrenwend & Dohrenwend, 1978; Kessler, Price, & Wortman, 1985) and numerous studies of relationships between life stress and performance in the laboratory (Collins, Baum, & Singer, 1983), in academics (DeMeuse, 1985), and in the workplace (Bhagat, 1983). Stress may be measured within a specific domain, such as athletics, or across all domains of life. The effects of stress on adaptational outcomes are cumulative over time and are mediated by coping processes (Compas, 1987; Folkman, Lazarus, Gruen, & DeLongis, 1986). The effects of stress are also moderated by intrapersonal factors such as locus of control (Johnson & Sarason, 1978) and extrapersonal factors such as social support (Cohen & Wills, 1985). In summary, the major distinctions between sport-specific stress and life stress involve their antecedents and temporal properties: Sport-specific stress is a temporary state of elevated anxiety resulting from an interaction between trait anxiety and the situational characteristics of an impending athletic event. That anxiety may affect performance during that event. Life stress is a state of psychobiological arousal arising from interactions between psychosocial and situational factors; it waxes and wanes over time, but has cumulative effects on well-being and performance.

Relationships between state anxiety and performance in sports

Consistent with the classic findings of Yerkes and Dodson (1908), inverted U-shaped relationships between unidimensional measures of A-state and athletic performance have often been predicted (Spielberger, 1989). Multidimensional A-state inventories permit different predictions for the effects of cognitive and somatic A-state on performance, and these have varied with theoretical viewpoints. Relationships between A-state and performance may also vary with the specific demands of different sports (Oxendine, 1970; Taylor, 1987).

Studies of relationships between state anxiety and sport performance have produced inconsistent results. Inverted U-shaped relationships have most often been found between athletic performance and unidimensional A-state measured with a variety of instruments (Spielberger, 1989), including the STAI (Klavora, 1978) and the CSAI-1 (Sonstroem & Bernardo, 1982). However, A-state assessed with the CSAI-1 and performance were not related in wrestling (Scanlan, Lewthwaite, & Jackson, 1984) and gymnastics (Weiss, Wiese, & Klint, 1989), and STAI-assessed A-state was inversely related to performance in golf (Weinberg & Genuchi, 1980). CSAI-2 assessed, cognitive A-state and performance were unrelated in wrestling (Gould, Petlichkoff, & Weinberg, 1984), pistol shooting (Gould, Petlichkoff, Simons, & Vevera, 1987), gymnastics and distance running (Martin & Gill, 1991), and golf (Krane & Williams, 1987). They were negatively correlated in swimming (Barnes, Sime, Dienstbier, & Plake, 1986; Burton, 1988) and soccer (Rodrigo, Lusiardo, & Pereira, 1990), but related as an inverted U-shaped function in cross-country running and tennis (Taylor, 1987). Somatic A-state assessed with the CSAI-2 and performance in swimming were not related in one study (Barnes et al., 1986), but were related as an inverted U-shaped function in another study (Burton, 1988). The inverted U relationship was also found in pistol shooting (Gould et al., 1987).

Researchers have suggested that failure to find consistent relationships between anxiety and athletic performance may have resulted from the use of imprecise and subjective measures of athletic performance and between subject objective measures that ignored effects of skill and conditioning on outcomes (Burton, 1988; Gould et al., 1987; Martens et al., 1990). Individual differences in such factors as self-confidence and self-efficacy expectations have also been shown to influence performance in sport (Burton, 1988; Martin & Gill, 1991; Taylor, 1987). Theoretical and methodological advances have led to the development of sensitive measures of sport-specific anxiety, performance, task characteristics, stress-mediators, and stress-moderators for studies of anxiety and athletic performance. This approach was recently used to obtain predicted relationships between cognitive and somatic competitive anxiety and swimming performance (Burton, 1988).

Relationships between life stress and performance in sports

In contrast to the many studies of sport-specific anxiety and athletic performance, efforts to relate general life stress to sport performance have been extremely rare. McCutcheon, Lummis, and Ellis (1989) reported that only one study of life stress and athletic performance preceded theirs, and we found no evidence to contradict their claim. In sports, life stress was negatively correlated with order of finish in the Iditarod Trail International Sled Dog Race (Popkin, Stillner, Pierce, Williams, & Gregory, 1976), but unrelated to race times for adult male runners in a half-marathon (McCutcheon et al., 1989). Both of these studies used fairly insensitive between subjects measures of performance that depended mostly on endurance and strength. The latter authors criticized the former study for ignoring the efforts of the dogs and for using a relatively insensitive life events survey, but they did not account for the relationship found. Outcomes in the half-marathon were attributed to such physical factors as age, number of races entered, and miles run per week, and to the physical and psychological hardiness of the runners and the stress-buffering effects of running.

In view of these limited findings, it is impossible to draw conclusions about relationships between life stress and athletic performance. However, because there is no reason to believe that athletes do not encounter the same range of psychosocial stressors that others experience, or that the stress process in athletes differs from that in others, further study of relationships between life stress and sport performance is warranted. We performed a study, which although limited in scope by the small number of available subjects, evaluated the life stress-performance relationship in figure skating, a sport in which performance depends on mental concentration and precision movements. We assumed that performance in such a sport would be more sensitive to the effects of life stress than in sports that depend primarily on strength and conditioning. Consistent with these views, we hypothesized that life stress from both common daily hassles and skating stressors would be associated with impaired skating performance. We tested this hypothesis using sensitive measures of stress and performance.


Originally, the plan was to evaluate relationships between perceived stress, mastery, social support, and skating performance prospectively over a 4-week period of a summer skating school. The availability of only a small number of subjects necessitated the modification of the design and resulted in a study with modest goals.

Subjects and Judges

Subjects were 15 female figure skaters ranging in age from 8 to 17 years, with a mean age of 12.0 years. The skaters were volunteers registered for a summer figure skating school at a college in the Northeast. Judges were three adult female skating coaches who also served as the subjects' instructors.

Assessment materials

Lists of items used for stress and performance assessment may be obtained from the first author. Stress was assessed with a child-centered inventory that listed 24 common daily hassles, involving issues of personal control and interactions with family and peers, and 10 hassles related to figure skating. Daily hassles have been reported to be stronger predictors of psychological and somatic symptoms than life events in adults (Kanner, Coyne, Schaefer, & Lazarus, 1981) and children (Wagner, Compas, & Howell, 1988). The daily hassles were chosen from the more commonly experienced items in the Life Events and Coping Inventory, a validated instrument for assessing stress in children (Dise-Lewis, 1988). The skating stressors were provided by one of the authors (KW), who completed the Junior Freestyle, 6th Figure, and Gold Dance tests in figure skating, coached and judged figure skating, and is familiar with common skating stressors. School stressors were excluded from the survey because the study was completed during the summer vacation. Subjects were instructed to indicate which situations they experienced during the past week and to rate how those situations made them feel (perceived stress) on a 7-point Likert scale, anchored at -3 (very bad) and +3 (very good). Stress scores were computed for daily and skating stressors by summing the scores for all negatively rated items in each domain. Total stress was computed as the sum of daily and skating stress. The use of these indices of stress is supported by findings that undesirable events are associated with psychological and somatic distress, whereas desirable events are not (Ross & Mirowsky, 1979; Suls & Mullen, 1981; Vinokur & Selzer, 1975).

Skating performance was assessed by each student's coach using a rating form designed by the author (KW) with skating experience. The form consisted of 8 items that assessed technical and aesthetic components of skating. The judges were instructed to rate skaters on each item for the past week using a 7-point Likert scale, in which higher scores indicated greater performance problems. Ratings were not made on an absolute basis across skaters; rather, each skater was judged according to her ability, as perceived by her coach. This type of evaluation is typical during training sessions and provides an assessment of performance that accounts for individual differences. Ratings for the 8 items were summed to provide an index of performance problems each week.


The school ran daily for 4 weeks. Each day, subjects practiced freestyle skating for about one hour with 10-20 other skaters on the ice, and received at least 15 minutes of freestyle instruction. Each Friday, subjects completed surveys and judges completed evaluation forms to provide measures of stress and skating performance during the past week. Judges were not aware of subjects' stress scores.

Data analysis

To compensate for the small number of subjects and the expected violations of assumptions required for parametric analyses, relationships between stress and skating performance were tested with the Kruskal-Wallis Test, a powerful nonparametric analog of the one-way analysis of variance test. Weekly stress and performance scores were averaged across the study to reduce variability and to eliminate pairing within and between groups, as appropriate for the Kruska-Wallis Test. If a subject had missing data for one or more variables during a week, the subject's data for that week were deleted. Subjects who did not have complete data for at least two weeks were removed from the study. Subjects were dichotomized into low and high stress groups using median splits on daily, skating, and total stress measures.


Thirteen skaters met the criterion for inclusion in the analysis. Mean scores and rankings for stress and performance for subjects in the low (n=6) and high (n = 7) daily, skating, and total stress groups are shown in Table 1. The Kruskal-Wallis Test computed significance levels based on the rankings of the mean scores. The data show that higher daily stress, skating stress, and total stress were each associated with poorer performance (all ps|is less than~.05). The similarity across groups in mean and rank performance measures was obtained because rankings were nearly identical across all domains of stress.



As expected, we found that perceived stress from daily hassles and skating stressors related to increased performance problems in figure skating. This was consistent with findings in many studies outside of athletics (Bhagat, 1983; Collins et al., 1983; DeMeuse, 1985). The findings of this study are very limited; because of the small sample size it was not possible to evaluate mediators or moderators of stress as originally planned, and we can only hypothesize about how stress may have impaired performance in figure skating. However, the findings do provide a bit of empirical support to back up a strong theoretical basis for investigating the relationships between lite stress and performance in athletics.

The arousal associated with both life stress (Spielberger, 1989) and sport-specific anxiety (Martens et al., 1990) is composed of cognitive and somatic components. Cognitive anxiety is proposed to impair performance by using cognitive capacity for task-irrelevant activity such as worry, which would have the greatest impact for complex tasks (Eysenck, 1982). Similarly, Wine (1980) provided considerable evidence that anxiety impairs performance by disrupting attentional processes. The view of cognitive anxiety in sport is similar; negative expectations about performance and negative self-evaluation lead to worry (Martens et al., 1990). Somatic anxiety, both within and without sport is associated with autonomic arousal, rapid heart rate, and tense muscles. Consistent with these views, we suggest that in the present study, cognitive anxiety from both daily stress and figure skating stress could have interfered with the attentional processes required for good figure skating performance. Somatic anxiety from both sources may have affected performance by causing tight muscles and energy depletion. Furthermore, these effects may not have been limited to evaluated performances; they could have occurred repeatedly during training, resulting in unsatisfactory progress, itself a sport-specific stressor. This would have left the skater less prepared physically and mentally for evaluated performances.

This work differed from studies of sport-specific anxiety and performance not only because different measures of stress were used, but also because the performances were not evaluated during competitive situations. However, our approach is not incompatible with the usual approach of sports psychologists. It is theoretically reasonable to expect that both sport-specific competitive anxiety and the stress of everyday life would have effects on performance in many sports. If both life stress and competitive anxiety were measured, a number of issues could be addressed: How strongly would each relate to performance? Would their effects be independent or interactive? Could life stress sensitize athletes to sport-specific anxiety? With sensitive instruments available for assessing life stress, competitive anxiety, stress mediators and moderators, and athletic performance, researchers could seek a more thorough understanding of stress-performance relationships in sports.


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I wish to thank, Dr. Jean-Pierre Blondin of the University of Montreal and Dr. Louise Lemyre of the University of Ottawa for the French translations of the original and revised abstracts, respectively.
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Author:Felsten, Gary; Wilcox, Kathy
Publication:Journal of Sport Behavior
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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