Competition psychology: up for a challenge or under threat?

Dr Adam Nicholls explores research on the way athletes interpret stressful situations, and the resulting impact on performance and psychological well-being

Research over the last 25 years in sports psychology has widely documented that participating in sporting events can be very stressful, which often leads to athletes experiencing problems in their performance and psychological well-being. However, the different ways in which athletes respond to stress could be due to the way stress is interpreted. When researchers from the University of California studied this topic, they concluded that this explains why some athletes thrive under pressure, whereas others crack is due to the way they perceive the situation(1). Athletes can perceive stressful situations as a challenge or a threat.

Challenge states

According to researchers from the University of Staffordshire athletes can be classified as being in a challenge state when they respond to any stress positively(2). In other words, athletes who focus on what can be gained from a potential stressful situation, and believe that they have the resources to cope with any stress have a ‘challenge’ mentality.

Researchers from the University of Hull3 explored both challenge and threat states among a sample of professional rugby union players, many of whom had played international rugby. Indeed, the following quote comes from a British and Irish Lions player, who was referring to a World Cup quarter final match: “We were playing good rugby and we approached things differently. We were more confident with one another and accepted our role as underdogs and went out there to enjoy it, so you manage the stress, ‘If I can be the best I possibly can be, we are in with a good shout, because everybody else seems confident what they are going to be doing.’ If I am on the ball I can do that, then I will ask another question of myself.”

In this quote the player is evaluating the stress positively, by focusing on the positive aspects of what could happen within the World Cup quarter final match. You can generate challenge states in future competitions by adopting a positive mindset and focus on what you want to happen like this player did.

Threat states

Alternatively, researchers from the University of Exeter have suggested that athletes who believe they do not have the resources to cope with any stressful encounters in sports events and focus on what could potentially go wrong, are considered to have a ‘threat’ mentality(4,5).

The researchers from Hull University also explored threat states among the rugby players(3). The following quote reveals the threat states experienced by a player who was making his debut against South Africa: “When I played for Wales my first cap was against South Africa, which is one of the best second rows you are going to play against. That was really nerve racking as I was sat on the bench thinking ‘oh crap, oh god, there are 80 000 people watching you, and live TV cameras.’ I was thinking ‘I am going against these two awesome guys.’ I was bricking it when I went on. I was worried about letting myself down, I did not want to miss a tackle, drop the ball, I did not want to do something stupid knowing that all my friends and family are watching.”

This is indicative of a threat state, in that the player was thinking about what could go wrong when he made his debut, such missing a tackle, dropping the ball, letting himself down, or making an error. As consequence of his worry, this player reported being physically sick whilst sat on the bench. It is important that you do not dwell on negatives consequences that could occur, and instead focus on the positive aspects of situation – ie what could go right – to generate a challenge state.

Physiological implications of states

The way in which a person interprets a stressful situation has physiological implications, given that there are key differences between challenge and threat states(1). In particular, there are two key differences between challenge and threat states, which are: (a) cardiac, and (b) vascular.

Researchers from the University of California found that challenge responses are associated with an increase in sympathetic-adreno-medullary (SAM), epinephrine (see figure 1a), along with less vascular resistance (see figure 1b). Conversely, threat responses are associated with increased levels of SAM, but also cortisol, smaller increases in cardiac activity, and increased vascular resistance.

The increased levels of SAM produce an increased heart rate along with stronger contractions from the left-ventricle, which produce greater cardiac output. Increased SAM causes widening of blood vessels (vasodilatation) and therefore a decrease in vascular resistance. There is also a release of fatty acids that can be used as fuel by the brain and muscles. It is these physiological changes that help initiate a person’s attempts to cope quickly with any stress, because there is increased blood flow to the brain and muscles.

Although there is an increase in cardiac activity when an athlete is experiencing threat, there is often increased vascular resistance, which means that there is likely to be increased blood pressure levels. As such, blood flow to the brain and muscles is NOT increased and any fatty acids are therefore converted over a longer period of time, which is not conducive to coping with stress.

Assessing your own challenge/threat levels

You can assess your own level of challenge and threat states in relating to an upcoming competition, by completing the following questionnaire. The questionnaire has been adapted from an existing questionnaire to be more sport specific(6). It is important that you answer the questions honestly. You can calculate your threat scores by tallying your answers for questions 1, 3, 5, and 7. Your scores for challenge states can be calculated by adding up the scores for questions 2, 4, 6, and 8.

Interpreting your challenge scores

Your score for the challenge questions will range between 4 and 20. Scores ranging between 4 and 9 are indicative of you not really seeing your next competition as a challenge and believe that you might struggle to cope. If you scored between 10 and 14 you have some belief in your ability to cope, whereas if you scored between 15 and 20 you strongly believe in your ability to cope and that you will be handle any stress positively. Regardless of your score, you can improve your level of challenge by engaging in some of the suggestions throughout this article. You can monitor your score at regular time points to assess the effectiveness of these techniques.

Interpreting your threat scores

Your score on the threat questions will range between 4 and 20. Scores ranging between 4 and 9 are indicative of you experiencing little threat in your next competition. If you scored between 10 and 14 you are experiencing moderate amounts of threat, which could suggest that you doubt your ability to cope. If you scored between 15 and 20 you are experiencing high levels of threat, which means that you are very doubtful of your ability to cope with any stress that you may encounter. Similar to the challenge questions, you can complete the questionnaire on a regular basis to monitor if your threat levels change.

Performance relationship between challenge and threat states

Research has found a direct link between sporting performance and these two states. For example, researchers from the University of Exeter conducted a series of experiments within their study(4). They found that challenge states were associated with golfers performing better than those who scored more highly on threat states. Furthermore, these researchers were able to manipulate challenge and threat states and those golfers in the challenge condition putted better than those in the threat condition.

Understanding Determinants of challenge and threat states

The sport psychology literature indicates that there are three psychological constructs that determine whether athletes will experience a challenge or a threat state(1). These are:

  • *Control
  • *Self-efficacy
  • *Achievement goal perspective (see figure 2)

Understanding more about these key determinants is the first step in helping you experience higher levels challenge states, whilst minimizing threat states.

Figure 2: Determinants of challenge and threat states


Researchers from the University of Exeter found that those who experience challenge states have greater attentional control, compared to those who experience threat states(5). That is, athletes are able to maintain their focus on the target better with less flickering of their focus away from their target. It is imperative that the athletes look at the target long enough to experience quiet eye. For example, a footballer taking a free kick should focus his eyes just on the ball and in particular a specific part of the ball (eg any mark on the ball, manufacturer’s logo, a particular stitch etc). The footballer should not take his attentional focus off the specific part of the ball until after the ball has been kicked.


Self-efficacy refers to a person’s belief in his or her ability to be successful. As such, self-efficacy is important, because if a person believes that he or she has the ability to be successful in a particular situation, contributes to whether a person believes he or she will be able to cope with a specific sporting competition(2). In order to increase your levels of self-efficacy, you should focus on past experiences when you have been successful, and think about what helped you achieve that success. Visualise that performance. You can also think about some of the stressors you are likely to encounter and devise a plan to help you cope with any stress. That is, plan what you are going to do.

Achievement goals

Researchers from the University of Birmingham have found that the type of goals an athlete has may determine whether he or she will experience a challenge or a threat state. There are 4 types of goals (see figure 3)(7).

  • Mastery-approach goalsIf an athlete has a mastery-approach goal, he or she will be striving to perform better than his or her previous performance or personal best. As such, achievement is self referenced and the person is focusing on improving.
  • Mastery-avoidance goalsStriving not to do worse than a previous performance, would be an example of mastery-avoidance goal. The goal is still self-referenced, but has a negative connotation in that there is an emphasis on not performing worse than a desired standard.
  • Performance-approach goalsIf an athlete’s main goal is to perform better than his opponents or team mates in training, that goal would be classified as performance-approach goal. This type of goal is negative, in the sense that the athlete is trying to avoid performing worse than a specific standard.
  • Performance-avoidance goalsStriving not be the worst performer within a competition or on a particular team is an example of an athlete who motivated by performance-avoidance goals. In some respects, this is example of a negative goal, because the emphasis is avoiding failure.

Figure 3: Achievement goals in sport

The researchers from Birmingham University found that mastery-approach goals were positively associated with challenge states, whereas mastery-avoidance goals were predictors of threat states(7). Further, performance-approach goals were associated with both challenge and threat. As such, you should create and focus on mastery-approach goals. That is, you should always strive to improve. It does not necessarily mean that you would always be wanting your improve your personal best for every single performance, but you should be looking to improve particular aspects of your performance. For example, a golfer might work on his driving in practice, so the goal for particular rounds might be to hit more fairways than his previous round or hit more greens in regulation. As athletes, we should always be striving to improve aspects of our game and the goals we set ourselves should reflect this.

Dr Adam Nicholls is a Senior lecturer in the Department of Sport, Health, and Exercise, at the University of Hull. He is a Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) Registered Sport and Exercise Psychologist, who has written more than 50 peer-reviewed journal articles and written three books.


  1. Handbook of approach and avoidance motivation. New York, Psychology Press, 2008
  2. Int Rev Sport Exerc Psychol, 2 (2), 161- 180; 2009
  3. Int J Sport Exerc Psych, 9 (1), 78- 91; 2011
  4. J Sport Exerc Psych, 35, 551- 562; 2013
  5. Psychophys, 49, 1417- 1425; 2012
  6. Stress Medicine, 6, 227- 236; 1990
  7. J Sport Exerc Psych, 30, 302- 322; 2008

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