Stress and Athletes
Jul 26th, 2020 | 6 min read

"Stress".  The word alone has such an affect on so many people.  In the world of athletics, the influence of stress on athletic performance is a legitimate concern for most athletes.  Throughout a season an athlete experiences many negative emotional reactions that are often caused by stress.  A college athlete has the additional pressure of having to perform in the classroom as well as in their particular sport. 

         Negative stress can have an obvious damaging affect on an athlete, not only does their performance suffer, but so does their emotional well-being.  A sharp drop in performance can be caused by the mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion most commonly known as burnout. Persistent problems with playing time, being away from home, conflicts with the coaching staff, and personal relationships outside of athletics are just a few factors that can lead to depression, hopelessness, and emotional exhaustion.  However, positive stress and an athlete's understanding on how to combat the harmful effect stress have on athletic performance.  Elite athletes have just as many nervous reactions to stress as any other type of performer.  However, elite athletes often interpret these reactions as being more positive and beneficial than do other athletes.  It has been found that high levels of stress make an athlete elevate his or her ability to think clearly in difficult pressure situations.  Once an athlete achieves the ability to respond to the stress of a tense moment in competition, they must constantly practice what they are going to do and how they are going to respond in pressure packed situations. Competition, especially contact sports, can push the body's stress response to new heights physically.  This response is commonly known as the fight or flight response, allows athletes to do superhuman feats.  Under stress the body produces adrenaline, which provides a powerful quick burst of energy sometimes resulting in superhuman feats. The perception that no stress is good stress for an athlete is totally false.  There are a number of stresses, which are good.  For example, being elevated to the starting team brings additional stress that most athletes would enjoy.  Another example of positive stress is physical and mental training. All athletes are under stress when, during training, they push themselves to the edge so that their body will adapt and get stronger.  The resistance stage can also elevate an individual athlete or team.  This is phase two, the resistance stage of stress response.  Heart rate increases, blood is diverted to your skeletal muscles, and you are ready to fight the challenge.  The athlete's temperature, blood pressure, and respiration remain high, and there is a sudden outpouring of hormones.  Due to the short-term exposure to this type of stress there is relatively no danger of long-term physical exhaustion.  However, throughout competition, an athlete's performance and physical well-being must be monitored to ensure that there is prevention taken to avoid collapse and even death in an athlete.  Positive stress such as winning a championship or making a game winning play can fuel and prolong the positive stress. 

Under stress, athletes often revert back to their most well-learned behavior.  In stressful situations, athletes often reach back and find behaviors they are familiar and comfortable with.  A coach can play a vital role in this capacity by teaching stress response behavior and physical techniques to help an athlete cope with such a situation. Coaches can bring a sense of order when the difficult situation arises.  For instance, simulating crowd noise for a football team to see how players respond to a hostile environment or putting a player on the free throw line to make a crucial shot in the late stages of a basketball game.  The coach can prepare players, but the athlete has to cope with the pressure and their most trusted, well-learned behavior.

            Another approach that athletes use to channel positive energy to the stress of their particular sport is writing down goals not only before the season, but during the season finding ways to cope with the pressure of maintaining a starting position of keeping your performance level consistent.  If an athlete writes down goals that are realistic, they will feel a sense of accomplishment, which will build that person's passion for their sport.  Some goals could be given maximum effort at practice and work hard on individual skills, working on a combination of strengths and weaknesses before going home from practice.  Some examples are a basketball player making a certain amount of jump shots, a baseball or softball player taking extra ground balls to work on fielding, or a field goal kicker making a certain number of field goals before leaving practice. An athlete will feel a sense of satisfaction and their attitude will be upbeat.  As long as an athlete's goals are at a realistic level, it is a great way to deal with the stress of a season.  Only a small percentage ever make it to elite levels, but the athlete must understand to keep their current goals at a level they can achieve. Setting unrealistic expectations and failing to meet goals can cause an athlete to feel failure and depression. Some elite athletes feel the need for achievement and their feelings sometimes may not diminish.  Some of these athletes feel that they have to motivate themselves to achieve even more.  This behavior is not only evident in the world of sports but in the entertainment industry, business world, and other competitive environments.  For me personally, as an athlete I achieved all that is possible for a college athlete.  I was named to the All-American team and our team won the National Championship in Women's Softball.  For me, I knew going into the season that it was going to be hard to accomplish goals I set previously, but I tried to be realistic.  Our team before the season had to individually decide on what we could achieve during the upcoming season.  We all decided that we had a desire for significant accomplishments mastering the skills that we already possess and attaining a high standard of performance. The stress that we felt was positive.  It is a good stress, stress that ordinary teams and players do not have to deal with. It has added a sense of challenge, and as previously stated in this blog, sometimes-elite players, when motivated, can rise to an exceptional level.

            It has been found that athletes with high persistence and eagerness for a realistic challenge often achieve more.  They thrive on the stressful situation where unmotivated athletes tend to struggle. In one study of understanding athletes found that all were highly motivated and self disciplined, willing to dedicate hours everyday to the pursuit of their goals.  These superstar achievers were distinguished not so much by their extraordinary natural talent, but by their extraordinary daily discipline. This type of stress is brought on by the athlete's expectations of his or her performance.  Thus, if this method were counter productive the athlete would not put additional pressure on performance and achievements.

            All in all, an athlete's reaction to stress can be interpretive in two ways; negative and positive.  While it is true that negative stress can be detrimental to an athlete.  However, there are stress reactions that athletes use to benefit not only their performance level, but to add an overall sense of well-being to their daily lives.


Tutko, T and Tosi (1976) Sports Psyching: Playing Your Last Game of All.  N.Y. Putnam Publishing.


Vander, A., J.Sherman and D Lucino (2001) Human Physiology. 8th edition.  McGraw Hill:  New York.

This article was written by Lisa Martin .
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