Stress is a natural emotion and it occurs in all facets of life. It is certainly no fun to deal with stress, especially if the anxiety becomes so extreme that it affects one’s physical ability to function. Stress in sports is a common occurrence and needs to be recognized and controlled as much as possible. In this discussion, I will share my thoughts on the stress athletes may encounter, and ways it can be controlled.
Stress can disrupt a person’s physical and emotional state and can even cause major medical problems. The results of serious stress can create health problems such as high blood pressure, depression, and many other dangerous issues. Today there are a number of medications that can aid in helping to control stress or anxiety, but the better way is to learn to control it without the use of these medications.
While they may be better at hiding it than most of us, athletes will almost assuredly have to deal with varying levels of stress throughout their competitive career. With that said the competitive athlete’s must find a way to deal with stress and anxiety on their own. No matter how remote the reality, competitive athletes today are restricted from using most if not all of these medications due to the possibility of performance enhancement.
In order to reduce or hopefully even eliminate the anxiety we must first determine what’s causing the stress. Is it self inflicted? Meaning that the athlete is putting stress upon themselves to perform at a particular level or accomplish a specific goal? Or is the stress coming from an external source like a coach or parent? If the stress is coming from an external source, this is more difficult to control and could escalate to serious levels.
Self inflicted stress is very common and usually relates to ones emotions concerning their own abilities and performances. It is a normal emotion and most experienced athletes are familiar with it and have their own means of controlling it. When getting ready for a major competition for example, the athlete may have certain rituals established that keep them focused and in control. When I was preparing for a major competition, I would often find time alone to practice imagery, almost like meditation. Often, finding a hobby that can be used to distract the mental emotions of an upcoming competition is a useful tool for control. Self inflicted stress is much easier to overcome because the individual is in control of their own emotions.
External stress is much more difficult to control and in many cases can lead to devastating results. This type of stress can be caused by pressures inflicted from other people such as a coach or parent. I have seen many athletes under extreme stress due to the expectations of their coach or parent. Unwarranted stress like this is unacceptable!!
This form of stress can cause adverse health issues that in many cases will affect the athlete the rest of their live. I have always believed that the individual no matter if they are a recreational student or an elite athlete should be treated with respect in a positive environment. It is for this reason the United States Olympic Committee and each individual Sport’s Governing Body have created what is called “SafeSport”. This program was created to protect the athletes from abuse in all areas: verbal, mental, physical, and sexual. There are now serious consequences for a coach or instructor if they are reported in treating an athlete in such a manner.
A serious problem that has little or no consequences is stress created by a parent (Coaching the Parents). Of course, physical abuse can be reported and consequences will follow, however, verbal and emotional abuse is difficult to manage. When it is apparent the stress is a result of pressure by the parent, the coach may be able to help by discussing the issue with the parent. It could be possible that the parent is not aware of the stress they are inflicting on their child. It is common to see parents coaching their children on the sidelines at little league events. Although they may think this will improve their performance, it many times increases their stress level. Not only does this distract the athlete from focusing on what the coach is trying to accomplish, it may also prevent the athlete from being able to focus on the task at hand.
All athletes will incur stress throughout their careers and each athlete will deal with it in their own way. Stressful situations are common, such as a competition or learning a new skill. The athlete that can control their emotions in these situations will have a much better chance of a positive outcome. There is no doubt that it is stressful for most people to be involved in a competition, the more serious the competition the more extreme the stress.
The most stressful event I experienced in my competitive career was preparing and competing at the 1984 USA Olympic Gymnastics Trials. I have trained many years for this one chance to accomplish my dream. If I would make only one mistake, my dream would not become reality. The pressure was Huge!! I was prepared physically for the Trials, but I had to control my emotions leading up to the event as well as during the event. I am certain most all the competitors had to deal with the same emotions. Leading up to the competition, I would go out to the lake alone and go fishing. This was a relaxing and non-stressful environment that allowed me to clear my mind and focus on only what was important. I must have controlled my stress well as I had a great competition and found a place on the Olympic Team.
Stress can be very unpleasant and will reoccur throughout the athlete’s career. It may take years to control, but the patient athlete will learn how to control it and move forward in their development in a positive manner. When I first started giving motivational speeches to large groups, for example, I was terrified. I even froze up a few times in my first few presentations. I believe most speakers deal with this emotion when starting out their career. After some time and experience, my presentations flowed like clockwork and most of my apprehensions were gone. Through consistency, I was able to control my emotions and feel confident in what I was doing. Of course, having a great support group is certainly a great benefit to assist in building confidence and relieving stress.
Successful athletes have dealt with many stressful issues along their path to achieve their goals. Stress cannot be eliminated and is part of being an athlete. It is how one deals with it that is important, and there are many methods that one can utilize to help keep this emotion under control. Let’s all be the positive support group that helps these special people achieve their dreams and goals.
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