Lifetime Stressor Exposure, Health, Well-Being, and Performance in Sport Performers
: (Alternative Format Thesis)

  • Ella McLoughlin

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisPhD


The experience of psychological stress is idiosyncratic with the sporting environment, whereby sport performers are exposed to various stressors ranging from mundane daily hassles to major life events. Research has revealed that many of these stressors are associated with performing in a competitive sporting environment (e.g., underperformance), the sporting organisation within which athletes operate (e.g., coach-athlete relationship), and personal non-sporting life events (e.g., death of a relative). Despite this, however, little research has explored the multidimensional and life course perspective of stress, particularly among sport performers. Therefore, the purpose of the PhD programme of research was to better understand how lifetime (non-sport and sport-specific) stressor exposure influences sport performers’ health, well-being, and performance.

This PhD programme of research was underpinned by methodological pluralism (i.e., drawing on both positivism and interpretive epistemologies) as opposed to methodological puritanism (i.e., affinity to a single paradigm). This approach enabled a more comprehensive understanding of the phenomena central to this PhD (i.e., lifetime stress exposure, health, well-being, and performance), whereby the weaknesses of one approach were addressed by the strengths of the other (Johnson & Onwuegbuzie, 2004). Driven by this approach, the underlying theme of this research was pragmatism.

Following an introduction to the thesis, Chapter Two provides a literature review of the key concepts, definitions, and theories relating to stress. This chapter also reviews the stressor-related literature inside and outside of the sporting context, as well as identifying what impact such stressors have on health, well-being, and sporting performance. Finally, this chapter identifies noteworthy gaps in the current literature base.

Chapter Three (Study One) reports a study which: (a) created and validated a life course assessment of sport-related stressors; (b) examined the associations between lifetime (non-sport and sport-specific) stressor exposure and sport performers’ health, well-being, and performance; and (c) investigated whether these relationships were mediated by the general tendency to appraise stressful situations as more of a challenge or a threat. Results revealed that this measurement tool demonstrated good usability and acceptability, good concurrent and predictive validity, and very good test-retest reliability. Furthermore, exposure to stressors that were either chronic (vs. acute) or occurred in adulthood (vs. early life) were particularly harmful to sport performers’ health and well-being. Finally, we found that associations between lifetime (non-sport and sport-specific) stressor severity and health were mediated by trait stress appraisals demonstrating that sport performers who had experienced greater lifetime (non-sport and sport-specific) stressor severity were more likely to appraise stressors as threating (i.e., situational demands exceed personal coping resources), leading to poorer health-related outcomes.

Extending these findings from subjective (e.g., self-report measures) to objective (e.g., heart rate, salivary cortisol) markers of psychological stress, Chapter Four (Study Two) reports a study investigating whether lifetime (non-sport and sport-specific) stressor exposure was associated with psychophysiological reactivity to a novel acute stressor and psychophysiological habituation when repeated. Regression analyses revealed that exposure to a moderate number of lifetime (non-sport and sport-specific) stressors was associated with adaptive cardiovascular reactivity, whereas very low or very high exposure was linked to maladaptive reactivity (e.g., blunted). Experiencing a very low number of lifetime (non-sport) stressors, but not sport-specific stressors, was associated with poorer habituation. Lifetime stressor severity was not related to cardiovascular reactivity. Greater lifetime (non-sport and sport-specific) stressor count was associated with blunted cortisol reactivity and poorer habituation.

To extend prior research and provide a more in-depth understanding of lifetime (non-sport and sport-specific) stressor exposure, Chapter Five (Study Three) reports a study which explored sport performers’ experiences of high lifetime (non-sport and sport-specific) stressor exposure, as well as their perceptions of the factors that influenced their health, well-being, and performance. We used reflexive thematic analysis to develop three overarching themes that illustrated how high lifetime (non-sport and sport-specific) stressor exposure influenced sport performers’ health, well-being, and performance, including psychological (e.g., maladaptive coping strategies), social (e.g., barriers to building relationships), and behavioural (e.g., risky behaviours) factors.

Turning our attention to performance-related outcomes, Chapter Six (Study Four) reports a study which explored elite male athletes’ experiences of lifetime stressor exposure and sports performance, as well as their perceptions of the factors that influenced mental health help-seeking behaviour. Interpretative phenomenological analysis was used to develop group experiential themes. From these themes, we constructed two composite vignettes which addressed each of the research questions, respectively. The first vignette was written using a first-person narrative, allowing the reader to understand a sport performers’ (i.e., Toby’s) internal thoughts and feelings, as well as his experiences with lifetime (non-sport and sport-specific) stressors. The second vignette was written using a third-person omniscient narration (i.e., all-knowing narrator), detailing two sport performers (i.e., James and Mark’s) experiences of seeking help for mental health problems.

Following this final study, Chapter Seven provides a summary of the studies presented in this thesis; a discussion of the theoretical contributions, practical implications, strengths and limitations, and future research directions; and a conclusion.

This programme of PhD research provides a greater understanding of the relationships between lifetime stressor exposure, health, well-being, and performance, as well as potential underlying mechanisms. Collectively, these findings can help practitioners better identify, and intervene accordingly with, sport performers who are at greater risk of developing stress-related problems and may aid the development of effective interventions that are helpful for mitigating negative stress-related effects.
Date of Award22 Feb 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SupervisorLee Moore (Supervisor) & Rachel Arnold (Supervisor)

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