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Supportive interpersonal relationships: a key component to high-performance sport
  1. Lauren Burns1,
  2. Juanita Ruth Weissensteiner2,
  3. Marc Cohen1
  1. 1 School of Health and Biomedical Sciences, RMIT University, Bundoora, Victoria, Australia
  2. 2 NSW Office of Sport, Sydney Olympic Park, Sydney, NSW, Australia
  1. Correspondence to Lauren Burns, School of Health and Biomedical Sciences, RMIT University, Bundoora, VIC 3083, Australia; laurenburns8{at}

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Social health determinants, including human social connections, are critical to sustain health and well-being1 and are central to elite sporting performance. Athletes live in high-pressure environments, and supportive relationships with coaches, support staff and/or others are vital to both athletic performance and well-being. Our study of World, Olympic and Paralympic champions revealed that while interpersonal relationships are a key contributor to high performance, they are not easily prescribed.2

Quality relationships can induce positive physiological changes that improve adaption to stress and enhance performance.3 The ability of relationships to mitigate stressful experiences is highlighted by Coan et al who found that access to social resources altered physiological and neuronal responses to a threat or stress.3 This study, which used functional MRI scans to document neuronal responses of women confronted with the threat of electrical shock, found that high-quality relationships reduced threat-related brain activation. This is consistent with research that suggests quality relationships attenuate physiological responses such as cardiovascular arousal, cortisol and glucocorticoid levels, reduce threat-related brain activity and enhance general health and longevity.1 4

Social scaffolds support athletes

An athlete’s progression and transition from novice to expert is greatly influenced by their social environment including peer interaction and culture.5 Like the general population, athletes have innate needs when it comes to building relationships, and interpersonal relationships can shape developmental experiences and perspectives for either better or worse. The stress associated with the highs and lows of competition, negative chance events (ie, injury, illness and so on), and the typical demands of high-performance sport (travel, funding, juggling a dual-career,6 non-selection, self-perceived poor performance, losses, relegation and the impact of social media) can be alleviated by a strong social scaffold. In contrast, non-accidental violence and maltreatment in sport, which includes psychological (bullying, harassment and ostracism), sexual and physical violence, is more prevalent in elite athletes and …

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  • Contributors LB: conception of the manuscript. All authors contributed to the drafting, writing and reviewing of the manuscript.

  • Funding LB is supported by a PhD scholarship jointly provided by The Jacka Foundation and RMIT University.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • Collaborators Deidre Anderson.

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