How Athletes Can Harness the Energy of a Stress Response
The body is equipped with a complex system to protect you from perceived threats in the environment. These threats can be real (getting hit by a ball flying towards your face) or interpreted (questioning yourself after a coach screams at you). In either instance, the body will undergo a physiological change, called the fight or flight response – or stress response. It’s hard to breath, hard to focus, muscles become too tense, and it seems like there is nothing you can do. Unfortunately this 'protective' response can become detrimental to your performance if you don’t manage it effectively.
So what’s the threat?
Mistakes or being yelled at are the two most common triggers for the stress response. At a deeper level these triggers are relaying a message to your brain that you are not good enough or that you are not capable of achieving your goals and dreams. So for those who have a strong identification with being an athlete, it is common for you to view each and every mistake or criticism as a threat.
Knowing the root of threat can help you in two ways: 1) minimize the intensity and duration of the response in the future 2) work through the stress response and effectively harness the energy as you continue to perform. You must learn that although the response is automatic and can’t be stopped in the moment– through a combination of deep breathing training and counseling with a sport psychologist an athlete can train their body and mind to stay calm and overcome fears or doubts.
What you need to do:
In addition to mental skills training and deep breathing outside of the competitive environment, there are several steps to help an athlete manage the stress response in the moment.
1. Be aware of a physiological response when it happens.
Start listening to your body for cues about what is going on in the environment and how it is causing you to feel and react internally.
My heart is pounding, I feel tingly inside, and my mind is racing with thoughts.
2. Determine what the threat is.
Determine what has triggered the stress response and what are you perceiving to be a threat?
My coach just yelled at me and it triggered my fear that I am not good enough to be on this team.
3. Label the emotion(s).
Most athletes are vague in their emotional labeling and try to ignore rather than accept them. It is important to be specific with emotional identification because it will help you gain a better understanding of how your beliefs (automatic thoughts/fears) associate with a particular mix of emotional responses.
Now I feel disappointed, frustrated, embarrassed, and anxious.
4. Use breathing techniques (if possible) to calm down.
Since the physiological response impacts your heart rate and oxygen flow, the absolute best tool you have is to control your breathing. However it is important to note that certain sports are high paced and dynamic which means that it may not be possible to use deep breathing techniques in the moment. By using audio guidance at home the body will learn to effectively recognize the difference between an aroused and calm state, which makes it easier to activate a calming response in the moment. Then, whenever possible, take 1-3 deep breaths if you feel a heightened state of arousal and need to calm down.
Just breath. Calm yourself.
5. Accept the threat and the emotions.
Accepting the threat may mean admitting to something that you are desperately trying to avoid. However you need to know that avoidance can actually exacerbate the stress response and cause it to endure over time. There is no sport environment void of strong emotional experiences– in fact, they are replete with them. So athletes must learn to embrace a strong unwanted emotion in the moment, knowing that the sooner they can feel it, the sooner it will fade away. We are not defined by our emotional states, we just feel them momentarily.
I made a mistake and the coach is not happy about it. Its okay to feel disappointed, frustrated, embarrassed, and anxious. It doesn’t mean that I am a disappointment or not good enough. I have to feel this in order to move past it.
6. Use self-talk or imagery to harness your body’s arousal and use it as fuel to feel determined, confident, and/or aggressive.
It is not uncommon to describe the internal state of excitement as being quite similar to that of nervousness, so then what is the difference? Your core beliefs. With the help of a sport psychologist you can learn to challenge fears and doubts by establishing effective self-talk statements or images. Then, you can use these statements and images in the moment to re-focus and harness the energy produced by a stress response. As a result of your new beliefs, the body will respond with feelings like determination, confidence, aggressiveness, etc.
Stay focused on the game and the next play (determination). I trust that I can help my team win (confidence).
As you can see there is substantial value in understanding the physiology of your body and how it connects with your core beliefs and emotional reactions (psychology). In sport, your body is your most essential instrument to perform. So when a stress response is triggered it is imperative that you manage it effectively and maximize your body’s potential.