II. Threats to psychosocial health

High-level athletes’ road to success is anything but smooth. In Section II, I address several commonly encountered threats in the sport environment that may not only prevent athletes from achieving their goals but undermine their psychosocial health in the process. Chapter 4 focuses on the psychosocial health consequences of prolonged exposure to the many environmental, personal, and leadership issues—collectively known as organizational stressors—that athletes must negotiate. In Chapter 5, I delve more deeply into one particular organizational stressor- performance pressure, and make a case that an overemphasis on winning and being “the best” is often a major contributor to psychosocial health concerns such as anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and disordered eating.

When winning takes precedence, and coaches, athletes, and sport administrators work as part of a hierarchy of power, athletes are at risk of being emotionally and sexually abused, which is the subject of Chapter 6. Within Chapter 6 I discuss the conditions which enable abusive behavior to occur, and the resulting psychosocial health concerns for athletes. Injury is the subject of Chapter 7, as I draw from the vast research on psychosocial antecedents and consequences of sport injury. Central nervous system injuries are highlighted as uniquely capable of impacting athletes’ emotional, cognitive, and social health. Finally, in Chapter 8,1 discuss the complexity of transitions for high-level athletes. Whereas in one sense, many transitions are welcomed, and represent the fulfillment of years of work, unexpected transitions can trigger crises. I conclude each chapter with suggestions for advancing knowledge related to that threat.

Organizational stress

Calli is a sophomore playing university lacrosse. After a year of learning as a walk-on, she is excited about the opportunity to compete for a place in the starting lineup and a partial scholarship. Unfortunately things have not gone as she planned. A new coaching staff seems enamored with another player at Calli's same position, and from Calli's perspective, she has been lost in the shuffle. She works hard to get the coaches' attention, but feedback is minimal. Perhaps more important than the playing time itself is the scholarship. Calli currently works on campus part-time in addition to being a full-time student. The scholarship would free her of some of this financial burden. The whole situation has Calli feeling sad, frustrated, and lost.

As Callie’s experience suggests, not unlike employees working for a small business or large corporation, when high-level athletes compete as part of a team and/or governing body, conflicts related to organizational functioning, and athletes’ place within it, are certain to occur. In fact, in high-level sport, stress associated with aspects of the sport organization may be even more pervasive and wide-reaching than competitive stress (Hanton & Fletcher, 2005). First noted by scholars in industrial-organizational and general psychology, organizational stress (aka, occupational stress, job stress, job strain, or workplace stress) refers to any stress related to individuals’ job or occupation (Rowney & Cahoon, 1984). Others have adopted a definition rooted in Lazarus’ (1966) definition of stress, such that organizational stress refers to a discrepancy between workplace demands and workers’ perceived resources (Ongori & Agolla, 2008). When individuals, including athletes, (a) perceive that the demands placed on them by their team or organization pose a threat to their performance and satisfaction, and (b) perceive little control over their situation, distress is likely to occur (Colligan & Higgins, 2006). Karasek’s (1979) model of job strain supports the preceding definition, as it posits that high strain jobs are those combining high demands with low decision latitude (i.e., autonomy).

Depending on factors such as geography, gender, and the nature of the job, organizational stress can arise from a variety of sources, including frequent infighting, excessive workloads, feelings of isolation, role conflict and ambiguity, lack of autonomy, and harassment (Colligan & Higgins, 2006). The latest prevalence estimates suggest that approximately one-third of workers in the U.S. and European Union experience organizational stress, which can result in a variety of deleterious cognitive, emotional, and social health consequences (Colligan & Higgins, 2006; Naghieh, Montgomery, Bonell, Thompson, & Aber, 2015; NIOSH, 1999).

In this chapter, I present an overview of organizational stress as it applies to high-level athletes. First, I briefly discuss the common models used to explain organizational stress that are most relevant to high-level sport. Second, I review research and theory specific to organizational stress in high-level sport. Finally, I discuss the consequences of organizational stress for high-level athletes’ psychosocial health.

Psychological models of organizational stress

Although several models of organizational stress have been proposed, the following are those most germane to the high-level sport environment. Consistent with an interactional view of stress and coping, all of the models recognize organizational stress as an interactive process between individuals and their environment.

Person-environment fit model

One of the earliest models of organizational stress was proposed by Pervin (1968), who suggested that incongruence between individuals’ personal characteristics and their work environment is the primary cause of stress in the workplace. Person-environment incongruence can occur in one of two ways: (a) a misfit between individuals’ knowledge, skills, and abilities, and task requirements, or (b) a misfit between individuals’ needs and the resources provided by the organization. Within high-level sport, misfit may occur when a player is frequently asked to perform unlearned skills in high-pressure situations, or when an athlete desires access to specific training equipment that the organization does not have.

Job demands-resources model

In response to other models of organizational stress focused on a limited number of factors that may not be relevant for all occupations, Demerouti, Bakker,

Nachreiner, and Schaufeli (2001) suggested the Job Demands-Resources Model (JD-R) as an alternative. Demerouti et al. posit that organizational stress arises out of an imbalance between the demands of a task (e.g., aspects of the job requiring expenditure of time and effort) and the resources provided to complete the task (e.g., availability of social support, provision choice in decisionmaking). Stress results when organizational demands exceed organizational resources. Further, resources may buffer the influence of demands, such that the relationship between demands and negative affect is lessened in the presence of resources (Balducci, Schaufeli, & Fraccaroli, 2011). One situation in which the JD-R model may explain organizational stress in high-level sport is when training frequency and duration is high, but financial support is low, causing athletes to work a job in addition to their sport training.

Effort-reward imbalance model

Another more recent model of organizational stress was proposed by Siegrist (1996), who attributed such stress to an imbalance between individuals’ perceptions of effort given and rewards received. According to the Effort-Reward Imbalance (ERI) Model, organizational stress will result when (a) effort, manifesting in extrinsic factors such as task demands and intrinsic factors such as a high need for control, are high, and (b) perceptions of rewards in the form of money, esteem, and prospects for advancement, are low. This model seems particularly relevant for high-level sport, in which rewards are readily, and often disproportionately, rewarded. For example, the U.S. women’s national soccer team (USWNT), despite playing more games, winning more games (including the 2015 World Cup), and generating more revenue than the U.S. men’s national soccer team (USMNT) in 2015, between 2008 and 2015 the top 50 highest paid women were paid one quarter the amount of the top 50 highest paid men (Das, 2016).

Cybernetic theory

The preceding example of pay discrepancy between the USWNT and the USMNT also provides a useful backdrop for the Cybernetic Theory of organizational stress proposed by Edwards (1992). Drawing from the field of cybernetics, which emphasizes systems as functioning through a negative feedback loop, Edwards suggests that organizational stress and associated psychosocial health decrements arise when individuals perceive a discrepancy between their actual state within the organization, and their desired state. Such a discrepancy may prompt individuals to cope by either changing their desired state or their actual state. In the case of the USWNT, organizational stress was prompted by a discrepancy between their total pay (actual state) to that of the USMNT (desired state). The players coped by filing a complaint of wage discrimination against U.S. Soccer in an attempt to alter their actual state.

Organizational stress in high-level sport

Much of the work on organizational stress in sport has been produced by Fletcher and colleagues (e.g., Fletcher & Hanton, 2003; Hanton & Fletcher, 2005; Didymus & Fletcher, 2017). However, the first investigation of organizational stress in high-level sport was conducted by Woodman and Hardy (2001), who interviewed 16 international-level performers (those with World Championship and/or Olympic Games experience) from the same United Kingdom national team regarding stress caused by their organization. Athletes noted environmental issues related to team selection, finances, training, and travel accommodations, personal issues centering on nutrition, injury, and expectations, leadership issues related to problems with their coach, and team issues in the form of poor communication, role conflict, and an unsatisfactory team atmosphere. The findings were replicated in a similar study by Fletcher and Hanton (2003), thus prompting a call for sport psychology practitioners to recognize and address organizational stress as part of the consulting process, rather than reduce all stress-related issues to the level of individual athletes.

More recently, Lazarus and Folkman’s (1984) transactional model of stress and coping has been employed to understand the appraisal and coping of high-level athletes in response to organizational stress. The many and varied sources of organizational stress in the sport environment prompt diverse, and sometimes co-occurring, coping strategies. Not surprisingly, social support seeking is a common strategy used by athletes to manage organizational stressors such as coach issues, demanding travel, and concerns with the competitive environment (Kristiansen & Roberts, 2010; Kristiansen, Murphy, & Roberts, 2012). For example, an athlete experiencing conflict with her coach is likely to seek emotional support in the form of understanding and validation from family and teammates, and coaches themselves are expected to offer informational support in the event of a last-minute scheduling change at a competition. Athletes also rely heavily on problem-focused coping strategies (e.g., establishment of a routine, cognitive reframing, effective use of distractions) to modify the circumstances and/or thought processes underlying organizational stress (Kristiansen et al., 2012). Such a head-on approach to coping is often carefully balanced with avoidance, in which athletes choose to withdraw from a situation both physically and mentally. Avoidance may be a wise coping strategy, when, for example, an athlete is unhappy with team dynamics, but needs to focus on preparing himself for an upcoming match.

Citing a need to better understand the links between organizational stressors, appraisals, coping, perceived coping effectiveness, and performance satisfaction, Didymus and Fletcher (2017) interviewed ten elite female field hockey players. The players noted numerous organizational stressors, including team culture issues, logistical issues, and personal issues, each of which were defined by one or more situational properties (e.g., degree of ambiguity, novelty, timing, uncertainty). In support of coping with organizational stress as a complex and individual process, several stressors were reported as leading to more than one type of cognitive appraisal across athletes (e.g., dietary stressors were linked to both challenge and threat appraisals), and depending on the athlete, the same coping strategy was reported as either leading to performance satisfaction or performance dissatisfaction.

Taken together, almost two decades of research on organizational stress in high-level athletes reveals some consistency regarding sources of organizational stress (e.g., coaches, team culture, logistical challenges), as well as ways of coping (e.g., social support, problem-focused methods) used by athletes. Didymus and Fletcher (2017) highlight the complexity of the coping process and underscore the importance of appraisals in determining athletes’ performance satisfaction. Interestingly, sport researchers have failed to consider common theoretical frameworks of organizational stress when studying the construct in athletes. Furthermore, the psychosocial health implications of organizational stressors for athletes remain unclear. In the following section I rely on both general and sport literature to highlight the implications of organizational stress for athletes’ psychosocial health.

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