Many of the athletes I treat at my office first reach out to me because of the stress they are dealing with in their lives. For some, it’s the pressures they experience from parents and coaches with high expectations, while for others it might be the impact sports burnout is having on their motivation and quality of play. Stress in sports is not limited to those examples, of course, as there are countless more stressors athletes have to overcome if they are to reach their full athletic potential.
Big or little stress?
One of the first things we do at the office is determine whether the stress the athlete is experiencing is big (chronic) stress, or relatively minor in comparison (acute) stress. An example of a big stress for athletes would be a long-term (or career-ending?) injury, while a little stress might be getting yelled at by a coach in practice. In both of these examples the athlete experiences stress, but you have probably noticed by now that a long-term injury stress is quite different than a coach getting into a player for a few seconds at a practice.
Interestingly, while you would think most people can easily distinguish the difference between these two examples of stress (and develop different ways to cope with each), for many athletes both experiences get jumbled into the final net output: the athlete is stressed out!
Life moves along very fast at times, and it is easy for all of us to throw all of our stress into one big catch-all web of misery, frustration, anguish, and sometimes hopelessness. The good news, however, is that by taking a few moments to examine our stress sources and the magnitude of each respectively, we can gain greater control of our situation, better clarity, and ultimately much more effective and healthy ways to cope.
The best advice? Spend less time worrying about the small stuff, and more time developing effective coping for the bigger stressors in life.
Control, predictability, & optimism
Whether we are dealing with big stress or little stress, there are mediating variables that determine how effectively we will cope with the challenges we face. First, sport psychology research shows that our level of control plays a big part in stress recovery. Simply put, we should put less energy and thought into the things we don’t control, and roll our sleeves up and dig in to the things we do control. For example, an athlete stressing about playing time should try to limit worrying about the coach’s decision (beyond the athlete’s control), and instead focus on the things he can do to improve his chances for playing time (working harder at practice).
A second variable related to stress response is the level of predictability we have relating to the stressor. When we know stressful events are in front of us (i.e. a wrestler who is trying to make weight), we have a much greater chance of preparing ahead of time so that we can mitigate or eliminate the stressor altogether. The same cannot be said for stressors that are unplanned, like a serious injury that happens as a result of competition.
Finally, our level of optimism impacts how well we respond to stress. When we believe that we have the resources to overcome stress, we gain confidence, cull our human resources, and develop better, more focused stress recovery responses. The good news is that we can all improve our level of optimism, as it is a choice we make when it comes to being optimistic or pessimistic for the future.
- Identify the type of stress. Let the small stuff (acute stress) go quickly, while taking more time to think through the bigger, more challenging stressors.
- Examine what you control. Try to distinguish what you control versus what you don’t control, and put your energy toward the ways in which you can positively impact your situation.
- Prepare for things you know are coming. Think through the more stressful parts of your calendar (i.e. final exams), and prepare ahead of time so that there are no surprises (and less stress).
- Choose your attitude. be optimistic, it’s a choice only you can make and it will lead to better long-term results.
- Be realistic with time frames and expectations. Some stress (dealing with a serious injury) demands a long-term, disciplined plan for recovery, while in other cases it makes more sense to quickly let go of the stress (i.e. the traffic jam you experienced on the way to practice). For the more serious stress, be realistic and set short, mid, and long-term goals to help you stay focused along the way to recovery.
- Learn from the experience and become more resilient. Take note of the stress victories you experience in life, and gain confidence in yourself with each battle won. Confidence is king, and one way to improve confidence is to recognize the the times you overcame hurdles in life.