Youth swimmers coping with pressures of competition: understanding psychological characteristics and mental skills use
Howland, James Michael
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Thirty youth competitive swimmers in four training groups (ages thirteen-eighteen) from a large swimming team were studied to examine the frequency of coping skills in practice and competition. The researcher used the Test of Performance Strategies (TOPSv.3, 2007) by Thomas et al. (1999), a self-report instrument that measures the frequency of activation, relaxation, imagery, goal setting, self-talk, emotional control, attention control, negative thinking, and automaticity. Swimmers competed at local, regional, and YMCA National Championships. Group 1, the most experienced swimmers, competed at nationals, whereas the other three groups participated at the regional championships. Group 2 came close to national qualification times. Group 3 trained with the others, but at a lesser intensity, and group 4 included the youngest swimmers. The more experienced swimmers reported automaticity, self-talk, activation, and goal setting as the top strategies used in practice in the sometimes range. No strong differences emerged in the frequency of coping strategies for any of the groups throughout the duration of the study. However, three significant differences surfaced between groups 2 and 4 on the competition sub-scales. Swimmers in group 4 reported higher frequency of activation and emotional control and a lower occurrence of negative thinking. Most swimmers described a slightly higher use of psychological coping strategies in competition compared to practice. Nevertheless, TOPSv.3 scores remained relatively stable through the season. The research hypothesis, stating that swimmers will show a greater frequency of coping strategy use in competition compared to practice, is therefore not supported. More experienced swimmers did not use coping strategies more frequently than others. Another instrument may examine changes in coping strategies more effectively. Twenty-seven swimmers also participated in post-season interviews. Swimmers' best and worst race comparisons highlight avoidant-focused and emotion-focused coping. Swimmers utilized emotion-focused, problem-focused, and avoidant-focused coping to varying degrees before, during, and after competition. Imagery and self talk were reported most, while relaxation and goal-setting were used the least. The swimmers' assessment of best and worst races was based solely on results; thus, future qualitative research examining the connection between quality of effort and use of coping skills is recommended.
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