Professionals they may be, but even the best rugby players in the world worry about messing up.
Three worries--injury, mental errors and physical mistakes during play--accounted for 44 per cent of the stressors players from the United Kingdom and Ireland felt over the course of a study conducted in part by the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada.
Since rugby union in the UK and Ireland became a professional sport in 1996, demands have mounted on players. Injuries for example, doubled between 1993 and 1998. "By determining what worries players most and how they cope with these stressors, we may be able to find ways to help them maintain their high levels of performance," said Dr. Nick Holt, a professor in the University of Alberta Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation. Little is known about this group of athletes in terms of stress and coping, he added.
Holt and colleagues from Leeds Metropolitan University and the University of Hull studied the 28-day diaries of eight first-class professional union rugby players, where the men were encouraged to list the stressors they experienced and to record how they coped.
The month-long competition period included practices, home and away matches and pool matches. The study appears in the September 2006 issue of Sport Psychologist.
Fear of injury topped the list, with 35 daily diary mentions by the players, followed closely by mental errors (28 mentions) and physical errors (22 mentions). Performance and game outcome were listed as worries 19 times, and criticism from players and coaches was cited 10 times. The players worried least about disappointing their families and teammates, being substituted, team mistakes and thoughts of press conferences (all one mention each).
The players, aged 21 to 28, also reported feeling most stressed during important games, in this case, two Heineken Cup matches (the top level of European competiton). "Sport psychologists could be particularly effective during important competitive periods," Holt noted.
These worries tended to ease as the season progressed, "which may be because the players got used to having to deal with stressors by becoming more efficient at deploying coping strategies," said Dr. Adam Nicholls, the lead researcher and a research fellow with the Carnegie Research Institute, Leeds Metropolitan University.
To cope with stressors, the players said they most often increased their concentration while on the field, followed by blocking negative thoughts, trying harder, and positive self-talk. But of all those strategies used, the study subjects rated only increasing their efforts during play as being really effective.
Players should be encouraged by their advisers to use the coping strategies they find most useful more often to deal with stress, and given that a small number of stressors recur over time, to use three or four coping strategies that they find effective. Holt suggested that "working hard to solve problems is a good place to start, but players also need to find several different types of coping strategies that work for them."
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