Conference Agenda

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Session Overview
Symposium: Performers’ experiences of severe, contemporary, and lifetime stressors and implications for performance, health, and well-being
Tuesday, 12/July/2022:
2:00pm - 3:30pm

Session Chair: Rachel Arnold
Location: Room 3 - Palazzo del BO

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Performers’ experiences of severe, contemporary, and lifetime stressors and implications for performance, health, and well-being

Chair(s): Rachel Arnold (University of Bath, United Kingdom), Lee Moore (University of Bath, United Kingdom)

Operating in performance domains such as sport, performing arts, and the military can be highly stressful. Indeed, how performers respond to stressors in these contexts has significant implications for outcomes at individual, team, and organizational level. It is not surprising, therefore, that stress continues to be widely researched (Arnold & Fletcher, 2021). The aim of this symposium is to unite and showcase innovative, international research on the stress process (i.e., stressors, appraisals, coping) and its implications for performance, health, and well-being. The first presentation outlines a study which assessed the contribution of stressor severity (and neuroticism) to sport performers’ physical health and psychological well-being. Turning from severe to contemporary stressors, the second presentation discusses a study which explored athletes’ experiences of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games postponement and the challenges and benefits this brought for their mental health. Continuing to examine stressors, coping, and well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic, the third presentation reflects the intersection between sport and broader high-performance domains by synthesizing data from athletes, vocalists, and pianists. Moving from contemporary stressors to those experienced across a lifetime, the fourth presentation outlines an experimental study which investigated the association between lifetime stressor exposure and psychophysiological reactivity and habituation to repeated acute stress. Extending beyond stressors and coping, the final presentation offers a thought-provoking reflection on the research conducted over the past decade on stress appraisals, and the importance of these for pertinent outcomes in sport and other high-performance domains. The symposium concludes with a summary and facilitated interactive discussion.


Presentations of the Symposium


Examining the relationship between organizational stressor dimensions and sport performers’ health and well-being

Rachel Arnold1, Daniel Brown2
1University of Bath, United Kingdom, 2University of Portsmouth, United Kingdom

Whilst research has assessed the multidimensional nature of organizational stressors encountered in sport, a typically overlooked dimension is severity. Given its contribution to illness risk and compromised health and well-being (Slavich et al., 2019), it would be prudent to examine this dimension. Therefore, this study examined the relationship between the severity of organizational stressors encountered by sport performers and physical health and psychological well-being, before examining if stressor severity mediated the relationship between stressor occurrence and the outcomes (whilst controlling for neuroticism). 403 sport performers (186 male; Mage = 21.43 years) completed a questionnaire assessing the study variables. Structural equation modelling was used to analyze the data. The severity of organizational stressors had a significant, negative relationship with physical health (r = -0.374, p < .001), but not well-being. In the mediation analysis, direct effects were found for neuroticism (β = -0.632, p < .001) and stressor frequency (β = -0.226, p = .016) on physical health. Moreover, when adding stressor severity as a mediator, stressor frequency positively predicted stressor severity (β = 1.025, p < .001); however, the indirect effect of stressor frequency on physical health via stressor severity (-0.018, p = .885) and the direct effect between stressor frequency and physical health (β = -0.191, p = .204) were non-significant . The presentation will discuss a potential suppressor situation and the importance of controlling for neuroticism. Furthermore, it will forward theoretical and measurement implications regarding the multidimensional nature of stressors, and make applied recommendations for those tasked with supporting sport performers with their stress and health.


Stress, mental health, and resiliency: What can we learn from Olympic athletes preparing for the Olympic Games in pandemic times

Carolina Lundqvist1, Elsa Kristiansen2
1Linköping University, Sweden, 2University of South-Eastern Norway, Norway

The pandemic situation declared by the World Health Organization (WHO) in March 2020 combined with the postponement of Tokyo 2020 imposed stress and uncertainty for elite athletes preparing for the Olympic Games (Lundqvist et al., 2021). Concerns were expressed for potential negative effects on athletes’ mental health, but some scholars also reported that athletes could experience benefits (e.g., mental and physical recovery; Lundqvist et al., 2020; Oblinger-Peters & Krenn, 2020). This study focused on athletes’ experiences of challenges and benefits as well as risk- and protective factors for their mental health during the year before the Tokyo 2020 Games. Twelve elite athletes from Sweden and Norway (six men, six women) from nine individual sports were interviewed in April to July 2021. Seven athletes had qualified for the Games and five were still trying to qualify. Results showed that athletes experienced several challenges during the year (e.g., great uncertainty, logistic problems/difficulties planning, identity and life questions) but also benefits (recovery, training without breaks for competitions, extended at the senior level). Risk-factors for mental health were expressed (e.g., a narrow athletic identity, lack of long-term goals, economic stress). Athletes used several coping strategies to protect their mental health (e.g., focus on the controllable, self-care behaviors, short-term goals, keeping routines, acceptance of the situation, putting sports in perspective, studies/work). The pandemic year undeniably exposed athletes and everyone involved to several psychological strains; however, the situation provided new insights into how highly stressful and uncertain situations can be managed to build future resilience.


A mixed-methods study of stressors, coping, and wellbeing among athletes, vocalists, and pianists during the Covid-19 pandemic

Katherine Tamminen, Rachel Crook, Darryl Edwards, Bina John
University of Toronto, Canada

This study explored the experiences of high-performers who experienced disruptions in training and performance during the Covid-19 pandemic. Participants included seven vocalists, six pianists, and seven athletes, who completed an online survey at three timepoints consisting of demographic information, the BBC Subjective Well-being Scale (Pontin et al., 2013), the Brief Daily Stressors Tool (Scholten et al., 2020), and the Coping Self-Efficacy Scale (Chesney et al., 2006). Participants also completed individual semi-structured interviews to ask about their stressors, coping strategies, and overall well-being at each timepoint. Inspection of the survey data indicated that athletes rated their global subjective well-being higher across the three timepoints compared to vocalists and pianists. Pianists demonstrated a decrease in well-being over time, along with decreases in quality of social relationships and physical health. Athletes had higher coping self-efficacy, although all three groups of performers reported high confidence in problem-focused coping. Athletes’ scores for confidence to stop unpleasant thoughts and confidence to seek support to cope with stressors were higher than pianists or vocalists. Analysis of the qualitative data indicated similarities in stressors and coping across performers; however, there were differences in the impact of the pandemic on their ability to train and perform. One stressor unique to vocalists and pianists was that they appeared to reflect more on the role of performing arts in society and their identities as musicians during the pandemic. These results shed light on the ways that high-performers in different domains are impacted by disruptions due to the Covid-19 pandemic.


Lifetime stressor exposure and psychophysiological responses to repeated acute stress

Ella McLoughlin1, Lee Moore1, Rachel Arnold1, James Turner1, Paul Freeman2, David Fletcher3, George Slavich4
1University of Bath, United Kingdom, 2University of Essex, United Kingdom, 3Loughborough University, United Kingdom, 4University of California, USA

Greater lifetime stressor exposure is associated with increased risk of health problems (e.g., depression). However, the potential mechanisms underlying this relationship remain unclear. Thus, to help address this issue, this study investigated the association between lifetime (non-sport and sport-specific) stressor exposure and psychophysiological reactivity and habituation (i.e., cognitive appraisals, cardiovascular responses, cortisol activation) to repeated acute stress. We recruited 86 sport performers (45 female; 41 male; Mage = 23.31 years, SD = 4.94) and measured their exposure to a variety of lifetime (non-sport and sport-specific) stressors. Next, participants underwent two consecutive trials of the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST; Kirschbaum et al., 1993) while cognitive appraisals and cardiovascular and salivary cortisol data was recorded. A series of regression analyses revealed that participants who reported high or low lifetime stressor exposure appraised the TSST as more of a threat (i.e., task demands exceed coping resources), and displayed exaggerated cardiovascular reactivity and attenuated habituation, compared to participants who reported moderate exposure. Moreover, participants who reported greater lifetime stressor exposure displayed a blunted cortisol response and attenuated habituation, compared to participants who reported lower exposure. Taken together, these findings suggest that maladaptive psychophysiological responses (e.g., heightened or blunted reactivity, lack of habituation to repeated stressful encounters) might partly explain how lifetime stressor exposure impacts health. Thus, to prevent ill-health among sport performers, applied practitioners could help them to appraise and respond more optimally to potentially stressful situations.


The importance of challenge and threat appraisals for performance, health, and well-being in sport and other high-pressure domains

Lee Moore
University of Bath, United Kingdom

Like individuals working in other high-pressure environments (e.g., medicine, military, aviation), athletes often encounter extremely stressful situations (e.g., sporting competition). Although some athletes successfully navigate these situations and cope effectively, others succumb to the pressure they face and their performance, health, and well-being can suffer. This variability is likely explained, at least in part, by the different ways in which athletes view or appraise potentially stressful situations. While some athletes tend to appraise these situations as a challenge (i.e., personal coping resources match or exceed situational demands), others appraise them as a threat (i.e., situational demands exceed personal coping resources). This presentation will summarise the findings from a range of published and unpublished studies conducted over the last 10 years, highlighting how challenge and threat appraisals are associated with performance under pressure as well as health and well-being. Specifically, after introducing challenge and threat appraisals using relevant theoretical frameworks (e.g., biopsychosocial model of challenge and threat; Blascovich & Tomaka, 1996), research linking task-specific appraisals and performance will be reviewed (e.g., Moore et al., 2012). Next, following a discussion regarding the state- and trait-like properties of challenge and threat appraisals (e.g., Moore et al., 2019), contemporary research will be used to illustrate how these appraisals, when frequently experienced, may impact health and well-being (e.g., McLoughlin et al., 2022). Finally, the presentation will conclude with recommendations for theoretical development, applied practice, and avenues for future research.

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