Stress and Competing


By Richard Bennett – Surf Psychologist
& Dr Peter Kremer – Sport Psychologist

Poster presentation at the “ISSP 11th World Congress in Sport Psychology” 
Sydney, Australia, August 2005

Between August 2001 and December 2002 eighty-one athletes were surveyed to investigate the level of stress they may experience through competing on the World Surf League (WSL – formerly ASP World Tour).

Participants were male and female ranging from 17 to 35 years of age and included athletes from Australia, America, Hawaii, Europe, South Africa, Brazil and New Zealand. Competition experience ranged from first year WQS to elite 14 year WCT athletes and included National, WQS and Hawaiian Triple Crown Champions as well as Junior and WCT World Champions.

Athletes completed a questionnaire that presented 107 situations/experiences they often encounter, across the following eight Common Experience Areas:

Mental Challenges
For example, maintaining focus, motivation, confidence and a positive attitude, overcoming a slump in performance, managing general stress levels, achieving genuine satisfaction and fulfillment…

Professional Experiences
For example, finding a sponsor, sponsor negotiations and commitments, achieving competitive goals such as winning an event, qualifying for the WCT, earning enough money, planning what to do after their professional surfing career…

For example, long flights, missed connections, checking in with many boards, maintaining usual nutrition and training routines, missing home…

For example, preparation for heats, surfing during heats, opponents, competing in big waves, small waves and perfect waves, backing up a win, losing a heat or a few heats in a row…

For example, getting good boards and accessories, choosing the right board for the conditions, damaging or breaking boards…

For example, dealing with administration and judging, the level of prize money, waiting through event “waiting periods”, decision making of when to surf, athlete services and facilities…

Personal Experiences
For example, maintaining good relationships with partner, family and friends, occupying self between events, physical illness/injury and recovery, personal hardship, conflict and distractions…

The Tour
For example, interacting with peers, administration and judges outside competition, making friends, partying, groupies, public/media attention and managing fame in general…

Athletes rated each situation/experience on a scale from “0” (Little or No Stress) to “10” (Extremely Stressful) to indicate the level of stress the situation/experience usually causes them.

Understanding Stress

Stress is a broad term used to describe the response our body makes to any demand placed upon it. Stress can be caused by good or bad experiences and may have a positive/beneficial or negative/detrimental effect on surfing performance. An individuals personality type will also influence the level of stress they feel in response to any given situation or experience.

This study aimed to identify what causes the greatest amount of stress for athletes competing on the ASP World Tour. Therefore, when giving a stress rating we asked athletes to indicate:

The level of challenge, demand or concern you feel in response to a particular situation/experience

Major Findings

The table below presents overall mean stress ratings for each Common Experience Area, for the whole sample of 81 athletes:

Common Experience Area Mean Stress Rating
Mental Challenges 4.70
Professional Experiences 4.53
Travel 3.95
Competing 3.93
Equipment 3.93
Events 3.17 
Personal Experiences 2.85 
The Tour 1.95 

Please Note: Standard Deviations are presented in brackets below each Mean Stress Rating

As shown above, Mental Challenges was rated the most stressful common experience area encountered by athletes competing on the ASP World Tour. This was also found for all male athletes, all female athletes, all WCT males, all WQS athletes and across all levels of competition experience. The mean stress rating of 4.70 out of 10 suggests mental challenges to be moderately stressful for athletes.

The most stressful mental challenge situations/experiences, beginning with the highest stress rated item (whole sample), were:

1. “Overcoming a slump in performance/event results”
2. “Maintaining confidence and self belief”
3. “Coping with unforseen hardship/crisis”
4. “Keeping relaxed”
5. “Maintaining focus”
6. “Maintaining motivation and desire”
7. “Managing general stress levels”
8. “Maintaining a positive attitude”

The most stressful situations/experiences from the next six common experience areas, beginning with the highest stress rated item in each area (whole sample), were:

Professional Experiences

1. “Qualifying for the WCT”
2. “Maintaining your spot on the WCT”
3. “Achieving your goals during your pro surfing career”
4. “Sponsor negotiations”
5. “Winning an event on your current tour”
6. “Improving on your rating or seeding from last year”


1. “Missing baggage”
2. “Missed flights or connections”
3. “Checking in with excess baggage – many boards”
4. “Long flights”


1. “Losing a few heats or more in a row”
2. “Losing a heat”
3. “Surfing during a heat”
4. “Competing in unclean/polluted water”
5. “Preparing for your heats”
6. “Competing in poor surf conditions”


1. “Getting good boards”
2. “Damaged boards from airlines or other misfortune”
3. “Choosing the right board for the conditions”


1. “Discussing scores/decisions with judges”
2. “The judging”
3. “Waiting through the ‘waiting period’ for surf”

Personal Experiences

1. “Physical injury and recovery”
2. “Personal hardship/crisis (past or present)”
3. “Managing personal distraction/s”

All mean stress ratings for specific situations/experiences from THE TOUR were less than 3 out of 10 and so this common experience area was considered minimally stressful for athletes.


Elite competitive surfer’s indicated Mental Challenges to be their greatest challenge, demand or concern. The next most stressful common experience areas were Professional Experiences, Travel, Competing, Equipment and Events, while Personal Experiences and The Tour were found to be minimally stressful. Specific situations/experiences found to be most stressful were also identified.

These findings demonstrate the crucial need for surfers to develop and refine their mental approach for optimal competitive, professional and personal success. Specific areas of an athlete’s mental approach and overall tour campaign essential to build and consolidate are also identified. These include:

1. Goal setting
To plan the path to competitive, professional and personal success, maintain motivation and desire and stay focused on priorities through performance slumps/losses, personal and other distractions

2. Solid preparation
To improve competitive consistency, minimize performance slumps and losses, know the conditions well, find/choose the best equipment and have fun/stimulating activities to do during waiting periods and between heats. Travel preparation is also important to minimize hassles and holdups, ensure boards are packed carefully and to streamline your overall trip

3. Specific mental strategies
To remain confident, focused and relaxed in the moment during heats as well as in general throughout your tour campaign. Also to effectively evaluate and review performance wins/losses for key learning and future direction

4. General coping ability
To manage the inevitable ups and downs of competition, deal with personal hardship and promote fast, complete recovery from illness and injury

5. Communication skills
For clear, objective, respectful and assertive communication with judges, sponsors, the media and the general public

This study identified the situations and experiences that cause athletes the greatest stress while competing on the WSL. The findings also give clear direction for aspiring athletes to prepare for and overcome the many specific demands – particularly the mental challenges – and fulfil their competitive, professional and personal potentials on tour.

The authors wish to thank ASP International, ASP Regional Offices and Event Sponsors/Adminstrators worldwide for their assistance, as well as all the participating athletes who generously gave their time

Aloha & Mahalo