From threat to challenge...

Parents can play a supportive role to athletes and young people competing in sport by grasping some of the fundamentals of sport psychology. For example, they can help them to change the way they view threats.

To understand the crucial difference between threat states and challenge states and the effect this can have on an athlete, think about this example:

It is competition day and in the car on the way there your child feels like they can perform well and cope with the competition. You arrive at the venue and your child is clearly excited but also nervous. You remind your child to stay focused on the plan. Off your child goes to warm up and you follow your pre-arranged plan of watching their competition.

Contrast that to a year ago when your child was in the same position, in good form going into the competition. In the car travelling to the competition your child was focusing on playing in front of the crowd and about whether they would be able to perform. As you left your child in the warm up they were focusing on not making mistakes and avoiding losing.

This year your child is approaching the competition in a challenge state, in contrast to the previous year when they approached the competition in a threat state2. Athletes who are in a challenge state are more successful, demonstrating better coping and emotional control compared with athletes who are in a threat state1.

The following quote from the three-time Olympian swimmer, Hannah Miley, demonstrates what an athlete in challenge state sounds like:

"It's about being box clever and racing the situation, giving it my best. I can't control the rest of the field, but the one thing I feel confident about is the training we're doing is working."

If your athlete is in a threat state, you can help them by encouraging them to re-frame their thoughts to a challenge state. Your child can do this by believing they have the resources and ability to be able to cope and perform.


  1. Moore LJ, Vine SJ, Wilson MR, Freeman P. The effect of challenge and threat states on performance : An examination of potential mechanisms. 2012 2012;49:1417–25
  2. Meijen C. Challenge and threat states Challenge and Threat States: Cardiovascular, Affective and Cognitive Responses to a Sports-Related Speech Task. 2011
Date published: 27 June 2023
Date updated: 27 June 2023


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