Coaching under Pressure: Part One – What Exactly is Stress?

Twitter is great. I mean, at first I thought it was an outlet for the self-indulgent, a way for people to let strangers know what they had for breakfast, or that they were annoyed at something on the TV. I kinda still think that’s what it is, but I’ve also started to realise how useful it is as a tool for sharing information. I’m constantly being directed to interesting articles that I otherwise wouldn’t normally come across or have time to look for myself.

For example, the other day I saw a tweet linking to a BBC news story about elite coaching (here), and how the England Rugby coaches handle the pressure of competition. Now, I wrote my PhD thesis on stress in elite sports coaching. I spent four and half years studying this subject. Three of the four studies have been published in peer-reviewed journals and the fourth is about to be submitted… but how many coaches know about that research? 

How many coaches read the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology on the off-chance that there might be an article on coaching in there? Some, but not many, I would imagine. Williams and Kendall (2007) suggested that research findings need to be made available in a manner that will actually reach coaches. True enough.

What’s the point in doing research if that research doesn’t reach the people who might (or might not!) benefit from it. So, I thought it about time that I wrote up some of my research findings for this blog, and then post it on twitter in a fit of self-indulgent, self-promotio…. uh…. an attempt to broadcast research to a wider audience.

I’ve divided this blog post on coaching under pressure into three different parts. This first part will look at the phenomenon of stress. Part two will explore elite coaches experiences of stress, including how they react to and try to cope with it, and part three will summarise research into what successful world-class coaches do to help them coach more effectively in highly pressurised environments.

Part One: What Exactly is Stress?

We hear people talk about stress a lot. Like, A LOT.

“I was really stressed out the other day.” 

“That presentation was really stressful.”  

“Oh, yeah, she’s a real stress head.”

… I’ve never actually heard anyone say that last one, but the point is that we talk about stress in a lot of different ways. Is stress something in the environment that causes a reaction? Or is stress the reaction itself?

Trying to work out what these people are for is quite stressful.
Trying to work out what these people are for is quite stressful.

Research suggests that stress is a process that people go through when interacting with their environments. Think of it like a see-saw. One one side of the see saw, we have all of the environmental demands (stressors) that life throws at us on a daily basis.

These demands might be big things like holidays or moving house, or they could be small things like losing your keys or the phone constantly ringing with people trying to sell you double-glazing or take part in a quick survey. In the case of a sports coach, stressors might include athletes not performing well, expectations from governing bodies, or even athletes’ parents demanding to have a say on how the team should be run.


On the other side of the see-saw are our coping resources. These could include friends and family that we can talk to about our day, or relaxation skills that we’ve developed. Again, for the sports coach, coping resources might include support staff (although I suppose they could be stressors too!), or just having a flexible approach to their coaching style.

When the demands that we encounter outweigh our coping resources (the demands are too large or there are too many of them), the see-saw tips, and this tipping of the see-saw is the stress process. The result? We experience what psychologists call strain. 

Psychological Strain

Strain can include psychological responses like anxiety, nerves, and worry, or more physical responses like sweating or an increased heart rate. It can even affect the way that we behave. But the see-saw can also tip in the other direction. When there aren’t enough environmental demands to stimulate us, that can be a stressful experience too (think about how annoying and frustrating it can be to be completely and utterly bored).

So because stress is really an interaction between the environment (stressors) and individual (coping resources), no one event is universally stressful. People will react to different events in different ways.

So one coach might find the Olympic Games an extremely stressful experience, whereas another might not. They might both find it equally stressful, yet one coach will crumble under the pressure while the other thrives. Furthermore, the nerves and anxiety that an under 13s Football coach experiences before his team’s Sunday League Cup Final could be no more or less intense than the Olympic coach’s nerves.

So what are your stressors and how do you react?

Part two will summarise my research into stress in elite sports coaching. In particular, we will explore the stressors that elite coaches reported in their roles coaching world-class athletes, as well as how those stressors impacted upon them and how they attempted to cope with those stressors.


  • Lazarus, R. S. & Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, Appraisal, and Coping. New York: Springer.
  • Williams, S. J. & Kendall, L. (2007). Perceptions of elite coaches and sports scientists of the research needs for elite coaching practice. Journal of Sports Sciences, 25(14), 1577-1586.

  4 comments for “Coaching under Pressure: Part One – What Exactly is Stress?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: