Coaching under Pressure: Part Two – Stress in Elite Sports Coaching

Coaching can be stressful. While coaching manuals often talk about the different roles that coaches take on, this doesn’t really cover the complexity of the coaching role. At the end of the day, coaches are performers1.

They perform in very different ways to their athletes, but they still have to prepare meticulously for training and competition, execute plans in pressurised competition settings, and handle pressure from the media, often with funding, and the future of their sports programmes (i.e., their jobs) on the line. So yes, coaching can be stressful.

In part one, I wondered how many coaches read the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology on the off-chance that there might be a useful article on coaching psychology in there?Williams and Kendall (2007) suggested that research findings need to be made available in a manner that will actually reach coaches. So, I thought it about time that I wrote up some of my research findings for this blog, in the hope that they might just reach a wider audience.

I’ve divided this blog post on Coaching under Pressure into three different parts. Part one explored the very notion of stress. Here, in part two, I’ll be summarising some of my research into stress in elite sports coaching. What are the stressors that coaches have to deal with in the world of elite sport? How do they respond to those stressors, and how do they try to manage them?

Part Two: Stress in Elite Sports Coaching

For the first part of our research2.3, we interviewed 12 coaches considered to be “world-class” (i.e., had coached at an Olympics, World Championships, World Cup, and/or Commonwealth Games) to find out about their experiences of stress. These coaches, who were from a variety of different sports, described a wide range of stressors that seemed to stem not only from the competitive environment itself, but also from more organisational sources.

For example, while pressure and expectation, having to prepare for competition, and just managing the often hectic competition environment were all discussed, coaches talked more about conflict and a lack of cohesion within the organisation than any other stressors.

study 1 themes

Major stressor themes that emerged from the interviews with elite coaches.

In research conducted with athletes, the athletes will always say that coaches are a major stressor for them1.4.  Well, I’m sorry athletes, but it turns out you can be a major pain for your coaches too. The elite coaches we interviewed suggested that their athletes not performing well, or even simple things like their athletes turning up late for training or not acting professionally, could be stressors.

Stress Responses

So what about responses to stressors then? How did these elite coaches react to the stressors they experienced?

There were really two different categories of response:

  1. Immediate reactions. These immediate reactions to stressors included a variety of physical (e.g., increased heart rate) emotional (e.g., anger, frustration, upset), and behavioural (e.g., pacing up and down) responses.
  2. Longer term effects.  The longer-term effects that coaches described were very similar to symptoms associated with the syndrome of burnout, and included being physically and emotionally exhausted, not enjoying what they were doing, a lack of motivation, and in some cases, wanting to withdraw from the sport altogether. Coaches also said that their confidence could be affected by stress and were very aware that the ways they were responding to stressors had a negative impact upon the athletes they coached.
While athletes will always say that coaches are stressors for them, it turns out that the relationship is mutually stressful!

While athletes will always say that coaches are stressors for them, it turns out that the relationship is mutually stressful!

Managing Stress

In terms of the ways coaches attempted to manage their stress, our findings suggested that coaches’ use of psychological skills as coping strategies was perhaps limited (only one of our 12 coaches reported using any kind of relaxation technique).

Coaches more often discussed trying to avoid or distract themselves from the stressors with things like watching television, or going for a walk.  Unfortunately, this isn’t good news as research has shown that just avoiding stressors can actually lead to negative mood states and greater levels of anxiety5.

So, we know that coaching can be stressful and that coaches are performers in their own right. We know that coaches can experience a range of stressors that come from both the competition environment and, perhaps, the organisational culture they operate in.

Perhaps coaches could benefit from engaging with sport psychology, not necessarily as a tool to help them manage their athletes, but as a way of helping them to manage themselves in what can be a stressful environment. Part three will summarise research conducted with a set of highly successful world-class coaches, and explore some of the ways that sport psychology might help coaches to coach effectively under pressure.


  • 1Frey, M. (2007). College coaches’ experiences with stress – “problem solvers” have problems too. The Sport Psychologist, 21, 38-57.
  • 2Olusoga, P., Butt, J., Hays, K., & Maynard, I. W. (2009). Stress in elite sports coaching: Identifying stressors. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 21(4), 442-459.
  • 3Olusoga, P., Butt, J., Maynard, I. W., & Hays, K. (2010). Stress and coping: A study of world-class coaches. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 22(3), 274-293.
  • 4Giacobbi, P.R.J., Foore, B., & Weinberg, R.S. (2004). Broken clubs and expletives: The sources of stress and coping responses of skilled and moderately skilled golfers. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 16, 166-182.
  • 5Ntoumanis, N. & Biddle, S. J. H. (2000). Relationship of intensity and direction of competitive anxiety with coping strategies. The Sport Psychologist, 14, 360-371.

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