Making stress work in your favour
If you’ve been involved in sport long enough, you’ve undoubtedly experienced a moment when the game is there for the taking. The outcome is in your hands.
It could be slotting a penalty goal, taking a crucial catch, or finding the extra gear in a big meet final.
The concept of stress is an interesting one.
It’s interesting for the fact that is subjective, and also interesting for the fact that its presence is not always disadvantageous.
While we may talk about desiring a ‘stress-free’ life, Dr Ashwani Bali notes in his paper Psychological Factors Affecting Sports Performance that the best scenario is somewhere in the middle.
“Low levels of stress result in a person’s experience being that of boredom or feeling unchallenged,” Dr Bali writes.
“Even if the task is of great importance, in the absence of an appropriate level of pressure, attention and concentration to perform the task are significantly low.
“On the other hand, extreme levels of pressure don’t mean high performance levels.”
In between the two ends of the spectrum is a sweet spot, which is referred to as the ‘area of best performance’.
Outside of this – too little stress or too much stress – are the zones where performance levels suffer from the subject feeling either underwhelmed or overwhelmed.
Drawing largely upon the widespread Stress Response Curve, developed in 1979 by practitioner Nixon P, Dr Bali contends that the highest level of performance is achieved at the point where optimum stimulation occurs, but stress is still perceived as manageable.
Some readers may already know this, but there is a term for healthy stress – eustress.
What qualifies as healthy tension and negative tension largely depends upon the subject experiencing them.
Factors for how we process stress include past experiences, developed coping responses and genetics.
“Performance levels increase when stress management is effective,” says Dr Bali.
“Stressors such as pressure and demands can facilitate better stress response and thus, higher levels of performance.
“For instance, the pressure obtained from the audience, a close score and tough opponents may push a basketball player to run faster, shoot a three-pointer and succeed.”
But what can be done to help those who don’t perceive that situation to be healthy?
Not a great deal can be altered external to the person.
The crowd won’t just disappear. The clock will keep counting down. The scores will remain as they are until someone makes a decisive play. The opponents certainly won’t stop trying.
It therefore becomes the perspective of the subject which carries the greatest gravity.
That’s not an easy thing to change, but there are six strategies that Dr Bali advises:
- “When stress comes simply as a stimulus causing distraction, modification of the stimulus itself may be sufficient to reduce stress.”
There are many ways this directive could be employed. If the distracting stimulus is something patterned, like the team always starting slowly or leaving certain individuals trapped and isolated by defence, then training to best avoid those situations can assist. Or if the distraction is something more physical like an individual or an environment, simply altering their presence can eliminate the stress immediately.
- “Stress as a perception of threat would require the athlete to learn to feel that the demands of the situation are not difficult for him/her to meet.”
This is a more long-term change in mindset that can either be brought about by the subject training for specific scenarios and having success in them, or could be through an alteration in learned response. It may be as easy as suggesting the player try a different approach or it could be via education, reading or consultation over a period of time.
- “In situations where stress becomes an illogical perception of a threat, the coach must make efforts to change the athlete’s thinking and ward off illogical fears.”
Again, this is a scenario when enlisting a psychology expert could be helpful, as it’s likely illogical fears would also manifest themselves in multiple areas of the subject’s life. Confidence could be regained by temporarily stepping back a level in competition, where physical requirements and time pressures are not as great, therefore making the subject’s fear more manageable.
- “In cases where stress is about an anticipated negative consequence, the performer needs to overly rehearse the behaviour to the point where success is much more likely to occur.”
One of the great tenets of mental preparation is that the more you train, and specifically the more you train under competition-simulated environments, the lower your chances and expectations are that you will experience failure. For that reason, training takes on far greater importance than muscle recall and motor skill development. You are reinforcing to your mind that you are capable of the task.
- “Where stress occurs as a tension response, deep muscle relaxation technique or biofeedback acts as the best strategy.”
While the majority of the battle in stress is psychological, it cannot be overlooked that there is a very real physical response to the phenomenon. Addressing this may be enough to lower the perception of the stress load from unmanageable to manageable.
- “If stress comes as a negative consequence of something seen as highly-important, the athlete must minimise perception of failure by rationalising their thinking about the level and importance of the competition.”
Similar to the end of a relationship, a defeat in a milestone event can be devastating at the time. Yet, as time and life moves forward, it becomes apparent that many other opportunities for success and happiness still exist. Adding perspective about other priorities in life, and contrasting experiences of success can reduce the pressure felt on subsequent occasions.
Stress is an inevitable part of life, particularly so in endeavours where performance is critical.
The common denominator is that rapid or accentuated change takes place regularly in these environments.
How do you cope with change? What are your stress triggers? And what are your coping mechanisms?
How do you assist others who are experiencing acute, periodic or chronic stress?
We’d love to hear your thoughts on flipping stress into positive outcomes and providing guidance for those who need assistance at times.
You too can become an article contributor for Coach’s Companion. Find out more here.