Adversity in personal lives helps athletes thrive under pressure, study shows

Athletes who have experienced adverse events in their personal lives – such as parental divorce, financial problems or a serious accident – perform significantly better under pressure, new research suggests.

Brushes with adversity may help athletes deal with stressful situations in sport
Brushes with adversity may help athletes deal with stressful situations in sport

A study, involving a sport psychologist at Nottingham Trent University, found that those who had encountered a moderate to high number of adverse life events were far better adapted to dealing with a competitive sport situation.

The research team – also from the University of Gloucestershire, University of South Wales and University of Essex – asked 100 athletes to take part in a pressurised dart-throwing task as part of the study.

They found that those who had experienced between three and 13 adverse life events significantly outperformed those who had encountered a lower or higher number of events.

In addition, the researchers found that exposure to a moderate number of negative life events – between four and seven – appeared to influence participants’ cardiovascular responses during the pressurised sporting task.

This increase in cardiac activity, the researchers argue, helps to prepare individuals for performing under pressure by creating greater blood flow to the brain and muscles.

While this helped to foster a ‘challenge’ state, others – who had encountered a lower or higher number of adverse life events – entered into more of a ‘threat’ state, inhibiting the dilation of blood vessels, reducing cardiac activity and blood flow.

For the study, participants reported the number of adverse life events they had experienced before their baseline cardiovascular data was recorded.

Participants reported a wide range of adverse events, which also included death of a family member, experience of discrimination, or being attacked or assaulted.

They then received instructions about the dart-throwing task designed to elevate pressure. These instructions informed participants that they would be entered into a competition, with the top five performers awarded prizes and the bottom five interviewed about their poor performance.

Participants were also instructed that scores would be displayed on a leaderboard and videos of their performance may be used in presentations to their peers.

Cardiovascular data was recorded again while participants reflected on the instructions and the task ahead. They then completed a questionnaire designed to assess how demanding they felt the task would be and how they felt they would cope with it.

The researchers believe that previous adverse life experiences may help participants view the task ahead as less demanding, or that they feel they possess greater ability to cope giving their prior adversities.

However, a particularly high number of adverse events could be problematic in terms of performance, as this could be linked to negative consequences such as psychological or behavioural problems.

The researchers say that coaches and practitioners should consider prior brushes with adversity when identifying athletes who are likely to excel in high-pressure situations.

“Contrary to the view that adverse life events increase the risk of psychological problems, this work suggests that exposure to some negative personal events may have a ‘silver lining’,” said Dr Mustafa Sarkar, a sport psychologist at Nottingham Trent University’s School of Science and Technology.

He said: “These individuals may reap the rewards in future pressurised situations, perhaps viewing such situations as less demanding, or believing more in their ability to cope given their prior brushes with adversity.”

“While not encouraging the experience of adverse events, coaches and practitioners should avoid sheltering athletes and instead appropriately and progressively optimise the challenges they encounter.”

“It could be the difference between success and failure in a sporting context.”

Dr Lee Moore a Lecturer in Sport and Exercise Psychology at the University of Gloucestershire said: “Our results suggest athletes should change their mind set towards the adversities they experience outside of sport, viewing them as opportunities for growth that might help them thrive in stressful sporting competition in the future.”

The research team also included Tom Young of the University of South Wales and Dr Paul Freeman of the University of Essex.

The study was funded via a research grant awarded to Dr Lee Moore and Dr Mustafa Sarkar by the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP) and is published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports.

  • Notes for editors

    Press enquiries please contact Dave Rogers, Media Relations Manager, on telephone +44 (0)115 848 8782, or via email; or Kirsty Green, Media Relations Manager, on telephone +44 (0)115 848 8799, or via email.

    The study is part of a programme of research led by NTU’s Dr Mustafa Sarkar on the role of adversity-related experiences in sporting success:

    Nottingham Trent University (NTU) has been awarded the highest, gold, rating in the Government’s Teaching Excellence Framework for its outstanding teaching and learning.

    NTU is one of the largest UK universities with nearly 28,000 students and more than 3,500 staff across four campuses, contributing £496m to the UK economy every year. It is one of the most environmentally-friendly universities, containing some of the country’s most inspiring and efficient award-winning buildings.

    The University is passionate about creating opportunities and its extensive outreach programme is designed to enable Nottingham Trent to be a vehicle for social mobility. NTU is the sixth biggest recruiter of students from disadvantaged backgrounds in the country and 95.6% of the its graduates go on to employment or further education within six months of leaving.

    NTU is home to world-class research, winning The Queen’s Anniversary Prize in 2015 - the highest national honour for a UK university. It recognised the University’s pioneering projects to improve weapons and explosives detection in luggage, enable safer production of powdered infant formula and combat food fraud.

    With an international student population of approximately 2,600 from around 100 countries, the University prides itself on its global outlook.

    Press enquiries please contact Dave Rogers, Media Relations Manager, on telephone +44 (0)115 848 8782 or via email, or Kirsty Green, Media Relations Manager, on telephone +44 (0)115 848 8799 or via email

Adversity in personal lives helps athletes thrive under pressure, study shows

Published on 24 July 2017
  • Subject area(s): Sciences including sport sciences
  • Category(s): Research
  • Category(s): Press office ; School of Science and Technology

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