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8 ways to cope with change in sport

8 ways to cope with change in sport

4 min read
  • Sport psychology

Sport is unpredictable and changes can occur all the time. Whether that’s getting a different coach, moving training clubs or getting injured, all changes take time to get used to and it can be difficult to cope with change. Some may be easier to deal with than others, but athletes must learn how to be flexible and deal with these changes as they progress through their career.

Within sport, these changes are sometimes called “transitional periods“, which are described as an event or non-event that results in an athlete’s assumptions about themselves and the world changing, and as a result requires a change in their behaviour and relationships.

So, what happens during a big change and how can you cope with it better? We have tips straight from sport psychology research help you cope with change…

The 4 transitional phases an athlete experiences

Athletic career

This is the collection of transitions that athletes face in their athletic development. These include their initiation into sport, the transition to more training and becoming more dedicated, reaching the highest level of performance, as well as injuries and retirement.

Psychological development

This reflects the developmental stages and transitions occurring at psychological level. For example, this can be moving from adolescence into adulthood, and recreational play to competition.

Social development

This represents the social changes that can occur in the athlete’s career, such as adapting to a new coach or new teammates.

Educative and professional development

This reflects the stages and transitions at academic and vocational level, for example moving from novice to professional, college to university, and the transition into a professional occupation.

    Throughout these transitional stages, it is down to individual differences between athletes to determine how they view these changes and cope with the problems that arise. For example, one player may adapt well to a new coach, whereas another may struggle with the change.

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    The 5 stages we experience with change

    There are thought to be five stages we go through when facing a change. As we go through these stages, it is suggested that we progressively adapt to the change.

    The five stages consist of:

    1. Denial – This refers to the initial fight against the new proposal of change.
    2. Anger – Feeling insecure and frustrated because of the new change.
    3. Dejection – The depressed state an individual feels when recognising that a change is going to occur.
    4. Acceptance – Knowing the change is going to happen and preparing for it.
    5. Learning – Reflecting on the idea that change may be beneficial on performance.

    How can athletes cope with change better?

    Research has found that poor awareness and lack of ability to cope and adapt may cause feelings of anxiety and discomfort, which are not beneficial for performing at your best. This is why it is vital for athletes to be able to adapt and cope with change.

    Thankfully, this is something athletes can work on.

    Get information

    Research has found that by understanding and gathering information about the change, you will be better able to interpret environmental cues to reduce stress, uncertainty and ambiguity. Understanding the situation will help you pick up on the information that is most important.

    Dip your toes in the water

    Exposing yourself to a situation that might be surrounded by doubt and worry, can help you to slowly adjust to the requirements of the task at hand. Familiarise yourself with the situation to help you prepare for what is to come and rationalise any unhelpful thoughts.

    Ask for help

    Asking for help is a sign of strength and mental toughness. Research on students has found that those who look for advice often develop more complex coping strategies by learning from the experiences of others, whereas those who don’t limit their personal development. Good people to ask for help include trusted family members and friends.

    Be patient

    When we make changes to important parts of our lives, it takes time to adapt to those differences. Be patient and trust the process you’ve embarked on, because you might not see differences overnight. After all, the best things worth achieving often take time and perseverance.

    Believe in yourself

    In line with a growth mindset, those who believe they can develop their skills are more likely to cope better with change. Change should be seen as an opportunity to learn from past mistakes and develop a new set of skills.

    Challenge yourself

    Research has shown that pushing yourself out of your comfort zone socially and creatively will produce the most beneficial learning outcomes. Be optimistic and see change as a new challenge and opportunity to achieve.

    Keep a sense of perspective

    By understanding what is important, we can identify what really matters. Find what is important to you and make that as personalised as possible. Take time to understand yourself and remember that however big the change, there is always a way you can take back control.

    Remember your goal

    When we have targets and goals, it is sometimes easy to forget what the bigger picture is. Remembering where you want to be and what you are aiming for in your sport can increase your motivation to succeed.

    Final thoughts

    Sport is full of ups and downs and change is inevitable.

    Knowing how to deal with this and become flexible in your approach is crucial to becoming an even better athlete. By learning how to adapt more effectively, we can develop our resilience and see change as a positive. These top tips will help you in sport, but also in your life in general, so make sure to take them on board next time a big change occurs.


    About the editor

    Bradley Busch

    Bradley Busch

    Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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