As human beings we all experience stress, whether it’s dealing with a traffic jam or worrying about an upcoming exam. Athletes, however, deal with a specific type of mental toughness stress that very few people experience that we refer to in the sport psychology literature as burst stress. Unlike most of the stress we typically experience in life, burst stress is the type of stress that is sudden, unexpected, and often quite intense.
While it is true that the type of burst stress athletes face is very different than that of a police officer or paramedic (who often deal with more serious life-death situations), athletes still need to quickly “think on their feet,” while at the same time maintain confidence and composure in pressure-filled situations. Some sport example that can quickly “stress out” athletes include:
- responding to an injury
- dealing with an official who makes a terrible call
- maintaining composure after being replaced by another player because of a coaching decision
- reacting to a hostile crowd
As you can see from the list above there are a number of common themes present – all of these situations are unexpected, emotionally-charging, and immediate. Contrast those features with how you might react to some of the “normal” stressors we face, like preparing to file our taxes or scheduling a dental appointment. In these examples we have time to plan for each event, even if neither is typically enjoyable.
Burst stress, ironically, accounts in large part for many of the ugly things we witness in sports – including parental outbursts, irresponsible coaching, and poor sportsmanship. Just think about how many times we see a parent, coach, or athlete act out immediately following a terrible call on the field – again, this is directly the result of burst stress.
Combating Burst Stress
Probably the best way to address burst stress is to practice in-vivo situations. Coaches can create real-life (in-vivo) situations in practice that mimic things that might actually happen in games – like pulling a starter off the field unexpectedly to prompt the team to quickly adapt to an injury to one of the team’s best players. Another example might be to create a hostile practice situation by making a lot of noise, similar to how a hostile crowd might sound. The more examples you can come up with will help when these things happen in real game situations – this will help your athletes “expect the unexpected” and think about positive, adaptive means for coping when these things happen in the future.
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