Athletes, Communication, Stress, Success

The Stress and Emotional Turmoil on Elite Athletes: The Psychological Effect in Sports



It is exciting to see young children having desires to become someone great when they grow up. They have their sports idols and hero’s, and they want to be like them someday. It is a dream for young children, and although most grow out of that dream as they age, many others stick with it and have an opportunity to reach that dream. And how exciting it is to achieve a childhood dream. However, there are many consequences when someone reaches success. Many of these consequences are positive and exciting, but there are others that are negative and can be devastating.

For an athlete to reach the highest levels in their sport, training and commitment becomes very intense. Not only is it a great commitment on part of the athlete, but for the coaches as well. The psychological effects can be intense and can last throughout their career.

When a high-level status is achieved, the athlete should feel a great sense of success. It has usually taken many years of hard work to reach that status and only a very few ever get that far in their career. But what is hidden from the public in many cases is the untold stories of how these athletes achieved their success.

lacrosse-winner     We see great athletes perform at the highest levels, such as professional sports and the Olympic Games. We see their triumphs and excitement when success is achieved, and we also see the disappointments when success is not achieved. It truly is an emotional roller coaster for the athletes.

Reaching the pinnacle of success has its challenges and they can come from many different sources. We see it not only in athletics, but in other industries as well – entertainment and business for example.  No matter the industry, all people in the pursuit of success and achievement will have barriers to cross and stress to overcome.  Each individual has developed their own means of dealing with this stress, and it is imperative it is dealt with in a positive way as to eliminate or control its effect (Stress in Sports).

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When success is achieved, there becomes a high level of expectancy to maintain that success. It may come from the parent, coach, friend, media and more. This expectancy increases stress levels that can have lifelong effects.  An athlete will not always win and the emotional effects when the “win” does not occur can be difficult for some to manage, especially if there are extreme external pressures to succeed.

There is much talk in the sports industry recently about how athletes are treated in their training environments. The United States Olympic Committee and related Sports Governing Bodies have increased their awareness and policies for Athlete Safety. This pertains to both physical and emotional issues. Coaches are being held accountable, now more than ever, for the mistreatment of athletes.

While there is a program in place to regulate coach’s behavior in amateur sports, there is not one in place for many of the youth sporting leagues. This may include youth football, baseball, soccer, and more. Many of the coaches volunteer their services and are often a parent of a participant. While there are some basic rules and guidelines, there are no consequences in the event of poor treatment of the students (Respect in Sports). In these environments, the parent plays a key role in whether the atmosphere in training and competition is positive or negative.

Failure Depression pic       I have not only heard of tragic stories of abuse but have seen it occur throughout my years as a competitive athlete. Emotional abuse is the most common and has the longest lasting effect. There are many athletes who have developed serious eating disorders due to the demands and abuse by coaches. Many gyms have their students weigh-in each day and are required to maintain a particular weight (in my opinion, this should be eliminated in all programs). I’ve heard stories of coaches calling students “fat” among other negative comments. These athletes are typically young, and these comments and style of treatment are devastating!! Other comments I have heard are “worthless”, “loser”, and “lazy”. This is all bad!!  Not only does this behavior destroy a young person’s self-esteem, but it may become a horrible memory their entire life.

Another factor that has been notorious in crushing the emotions of athletes is the media. The media is certainly a “double-edged sword”. It is needed and extremely instrumental in building awareness and assisting in the successful development of athletes. It is the media that catapults a person to national and international recognition. It has made many people wealthy due to this recognition. In many cases, people and companies depend on the media for success.

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However, it is unbelievable how these reporters can be so cruel at times. We have seen how the media will depict an athlete or team for success and raise their status to guaranteed success – all prior to a scheduled event. This is great for the athlete or team in building support, but at the same time, increases stress for public expectations.

We have seen Olympic athletes promoted by the media prior to the competitive event as a sure “Win”. They put the athlete on a pedestal for expected success. Then, if the athlete does not meet those expectations the tables turn and then viewed as a great disappointment by the media and other social outlets. It is clear that many in the media world do not completely understand all the factors that go into play when considering ultimate success. And it is also clear that the media (in many cases) does not care about a person’s emotional state or consequences.

I have personally experienced great support from the media and I am truly grateful for that support. However, even though it has rarely happened, I have also experienced negative support from the media. Negative circumstances in one’s life has a much stronger and longer impact than positive circumstances.

This is why there is such a strong movement in the sports arena to improve the environment that athletes participate and grow in. Success is very difficult to achieve, and the pressures are extreme. Each athlete is aware of these pressures and most are self-inflicted and motivated. It is the external pressures that we need to consider and approach in a sensitive manner.

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I have always believed that champions can be created in a fun, positive, and exciting environment. I know, I lived it. It breaks my heart to hear the tragic stories of those who suffered many years in poor controlled and negative environments. Just one example of many is the recent story published about Katelyn Ohashi.  A true champion that was able to find her own path but not without years of turmoil as a young athlete.

It is our job as coaches, parents, and friends to support and nurture our students and children as they pursue their dreams and goals. For when they succeed, we also succeed. And when they fail we need to be there to pick them up and help regain their confidence.

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