Ruminations on sports, training, health, and wellness

How Athletes Deal With Stress


Does she remind you of anyone? Over the past few weeks, I’ve been feeling a lot like her! I’ve had a number of very stressful life events arise — some I could control, and some were completely out of my hands.

Probably the most stressful thing in my life right now is the thing that I’m also the most excited about — in a few days, I’m leaving to spend 2 months at the USA Cycling training center in Sittard, Holland and traveling throughout the continent with various elite road cycling teams. I have worked really hard to make this fantastic opportunity into a reality and I can’t wait to get over there. USA Cycling operates with the riders themselves as its number one priority, as they should be, so staff needs get bumped down the ladder rungs and are dealt with only after all of the riders’ needs are met. This structure gives USAC riders in Europe an outstanding experience, and expects staff members to be flexible and able to jump on a plane with little notice (or have departure dates delayed suddenly). After having my departure date delayed a few days with still no definite travel itinerary, I’m doing my very best to stay cool and prepare for all the things I can without stressing the rest.

Sports psychologists tell us that people who participate in physical activity, and especially people who compete in sports, have different mental toughness and coping skills that help us to deal with stressful situations. Developing those traits can help us to perform better under pressure, both in sports and in life.


Visualization Practices.

Coaches in many sports that put tremendous wear and tear on the body but also require precision and fine motor skills have trended toward refocusing some of the training time that used to be spent repeating movements and routines on visualization exercise. Gymnastics is a notable example, and one of the first sports to adopt visualization and imagery as an important part of training. Athletes who devote time to mindful meditation and mental rehearsal of difficult movements often develop those skills better than athletes who do not practice visualization but instead rely on practice through rote repetition. Of both groups, the athletes who practice quieting their minds and mentally rehearsing the challenging task tend to outperform the athletes who rely solely on physical practice in competition. Many athletes also report a better sense of mental well-being and confidence when they regularly practice visualizing themselves succeed in challenging situations; the imagery of competence seems to transfer throughout all areas of life.


Alan Alda, using Joan Vickers’ gaze-tracking goggles to practice the Quiet Eye technique

Look Out Through Quiet Eyes.

The term “Quiet Eye” comes from Joan Vickers, a kinesiology researcher at the University of Calgary who observed the habits of highly successful professional athletes completing precision tasks under mental pressure, especially putting in golf and shooting free throws in basketball. Vickers used sophisticated eyesight gaze-tracking software and concluded that the most accurate performers focused on a specific point on the target for several seconds prior to to any movement, and continued to concentrate on the same point while performing the task. In a broader sense, we can consider a “quiet eye” attitude to be one of intense focus on our goal while zoning out all the extraneous distractions in our environment. For a triathlete, this may be sighting a buoy to keep his swim tracking straight and efficiently in spite of other swimmers or rough water conditions. For a mountain biker, it might mean letting go of a little bit of control while staying still and focused to let the bike take a fast line through a technical descent. And when encountering a difficult life event, it might mean clearing your mind and allowing yourself to experience and acknowledge your emotions fully, one at at time without distractions.


Stop: Is it Environmental, or Internal?

One of our species’ defining characteristics is our capacity for pattern recognition. We can use it as an amazing tool for scientific discovery, and we can also misuse it drive ourselves crazy in the process. The ancient portion of our brains that governs memory, behavior, and emotion is the limbic system, which comprises several portions of the deep- and mid-brain. When a noxious stimulus enters our environment, the limbic system is responsible for identifying the threat and preparing our bodies for fight-or-flight response, firing up the sympathetic nervous system and releasing a wave of neurotransmitters and hormones to elevate our sensory arousal. If the stimulus is a saber-tooth tiger crouching to attack a paleolithic hunter, then the hunter’s limbic system correctly identifies the tiger as the threat and latches on to all the clues in the environment that could portend a tiger attack in the future. Early humans who did this well survived and passed on these genes for excellent pattern-recognition. Today, however, many of the things that make us anxious aren’t readily identifiable environmental factors, which confuses the limbic system into identifying false threats and anxieties. I can use myself as an example — I get very nervous about flying on airplanes, especially in turbulent conditions. My limbic system recognizes my anxiety but cannot attach it to any specific environmental stimulus, so instead it identifies my internal cues of anxiety as the threat and creates a sympathetic response to those, elevating my anxiety even further. Rapid respiration and heart rate, ringing in my ears, upset stomach, and other physical sensations that I experience when I am anxious are perceived by my limbic system as a threat, which can snowball into full-blown panic if I don’t recognize it and take active steps to break the cycle (mostly highly-rehearsed visualization exercises). Giving a name and a manifestation to our anxieties can be tremendously helpful in minimizing and tackling them, instead of coping with a nebulous cloud of doubt and malaise. Facing stress is challenging, but it makes it a whole lot easier to be able to identify the source of your stress — you may find that a raging torrent downriver is just a trickling spring if you track it all the way back to its source.


A Healthy Release.

Many athletes initially get involved in sports as a way to blow off steam and cope with stress. Sports and physical activity are a wonderful way to manage stress and help to find balance between work and life. Constantly appraise your motivation for participation in all activities — are you personally receiving satisfaction and purpose from them, or are you doing them to please someone else? When your fun, leisure activity becomes another onus instead of enjoyment, then it may be time to reevaluate if your stress-reliever has become a source of stress. It isn’t realistic to expect every day of training and competition to be a great day, but it is good to keep a rough tally of whether the great days outweigh the less great ones. You shouldn’t feel like your sports participation is an obligation, and if you do, it should signal that it’s time to talk to your coach or peers and restructure your participation in the sport. If you continue to compete out of a sense of duty instead of enjoyment, you could easily be headed directly down the road to burnout.


Beneficial Stress.

It’s important to recognize that much of an athlete’s training is to prepare her for enduring stress. This makes the assumption that stress will always be present in some capacity during competition (or, indeed, during life) and that success does not mean minimizing all stressful stimuli, but preparing the body and mind to use stress in a positive way for maximum performance. Think of a master martial artist — when an opponent throws a punch at his body, he doesn’t block the punch with his arm, risking breaking the bone and being thrown backwards as he absorbs its energy. Instead, he is likely to redirect the energy of the punch into a useful movement that throws his opponent off balance and puts him in a better position to anticipate the next move and ultimately prevail. Stress is the same way; if we avoid all stress, we also avoid all opportunities to develop strength, toughness, and strategies for recognizing opportunity in dismal situations. Sports psychologists talk about stress on a continuum from calm to distress. Calm and distress are situated on the far ends of a bell curve, with “eustress,” a term to describe stress used as a motivating factor, at the high point of the bell curve. This is meant to indicate that there exists a healthy degree of stress, and response to stress — it is up to us to condition ourselves to respond to it in a productive manner. We need to reframe stress not as a necessarily negative experience, but a powerful tool in our arsenal for top performance.


As for my own stress, I’m doing my best this week! I still don’t know what day I’m leaving for Europe, so I’m trying to be proactive about having everything I can control ready to go at a moment’s notice (and a big hat’s off to my employers for being so understanding about this!). I’m getting over a bad cold that was probably in part stress-induced; managing stress poorly can lead not only to mental fatigue, but to physical symptoms and even immune suppression. Going forward, this trip is a great exercise for me in preparing for what I can and rolling with the rest — watch this blog for more adventures in stress management soon to come!

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