The Impact of Stress on Athletes
Updated: Apr 24, 2021
Stress is a factor in life that impacts every one, but when it comes to athletes, there are added stressors required to balance practice, games, schoolwork, family pressures, and everyday life. Stress is a stimulus resulting in a positive or negative response to a specific situation and can produce physical or psychological effects (Graham-Jones & Hardy, 1990). Depending on whether the obstacle is faced as a challenge or as a threat, the result will be increased motivation and performance or increased worry and poor performance, respectively. The relationship between arousal, stress, and sporting performance has been investigated in the attempts to maximize consistency under pressure.
Signs of Stress in Athletes
There are many signs of stress in athletes and they can be divided into cognitive and physical symptoms (Leguizano et al., 2021).
Cognitive signs of stress in athletes include:
Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
Negative thoughts and worry
Difficulty remembering and recalling information
Anger or irritability
Sadness or depression
Physical signs of stress include:
Exhaustion and fatigue
Increased injury risk
Declines in academics or sport performance
Poor self esteem
Sources of Stress for Athletes
Graham-Jones and Hardy (1990) proposed that there are four main reasons for competitive stress response before competition which include:
Assumption that the athletes mental set prior to competition can affect subsequent performance.
Assumption that the athlete has some control over his or her mental preparation during the pre-contemplation period.
At a practical level, this period is much more accessible to researchers than the period of competition itself.
If pre-competition anxiety is a negative source of performance variance than the clinician can assist in developing an appropriate pre-competition state (Graham-Jones & Hardy, 1990).
Knight (2018) explains that, “On an aesthetic level, there is an unspoken requirement that figure skaters need to present a fantasy on the ice; the perfectly packaged poised performer that everyone wants.” Knight (2018) continues by unveiling the harsh truth that, “Even if these female athletes are able to complete the challenging technical requirements, many times, the judges will find something “wrong” with their overall packaging and deduct points from the largely subjective program component score.” Between this and the way in which figure skaters are, “Encouraged to fight for sponsorships, and overall attention, fitting into the pre-established box is the way skaters tend to go, even if it leads to lifelong mental struggles with self-esteem, eating disorders, and other mental issues later on in life,” (Knight, 2018). Body image can be a significant source of stress throughout and following one’s athletic career.
Puberty tends to be the unspoken enemy in aesthetic sports. As women’s bodies develop, these changes completely alter weight distribution. Knight (2018) explains that, “Once a woman hits post-pubescence, it becomes more challenging to complete the difficult tricks, as their bodies are increasingly apt to carry more fat and retain more water. Female athletes in aesthetic sports are often in a race against time and nature to retain their pre-puberty shape after these body changes happen,” (Knight, 2018). Unfortunately, many athletes attempt to postpone their body’s natural development through dietary restriction. It is well documented that chronic negative energy balance resulting from training and inadequate energy intake may delay pubertal development in elite athletes (Kapczuk, 2017).
Undernourished and over exercised young bodies are very prone to injury and susceptible to eating disorders. Malnutrition reduces muscle strength and endurance and weakens the bones through the loss of bone density and improper bone function (Mountjoy et al., 2014) It is critically to properly fuel in order to have the strength, endurance and mental focus to train and execute on the highest level of the sport. Plus, higher rates of injury are seen in athletes who do not menstruate regularly; a factor largely related to the way estrogen is a protective factor against bone loss. As such, puberty can be a stressful time in an athletes life. As a coach, it’s important to encourage your athletes to embrace and nourish their growing body. As puberty hits, remind an athlete to be patient with themselves as they allow their muscle memory to catch up. It’s important to recognize that an athlete’s body is supposed to change and as a coach, your job is to help your athlete adjust their technique to fit their more adult body.
According to Mann et al. (2007), “The psychological issues related to injury most frequently discussed with athletes were fear about reinjury, fears about surgery, unwillingness to be patient with recovery and rehabilitation, avoidance of rehabilitation or sport-related activities and concerns that the consequences of the injury will disappoint others.” When it comes to injury occurrence, psychosocial stressors (i.e., personality, life events, athletic identity, self-esteem, significant others) play a role and the same factors can affect injury response, recovery, and subsequent sport performance (Nippert & Smith, 2008). Psychological interventions, like goal setting, positive self-talk, attribution theory, relaxation, and mental imagery, can help mediate the stress of an injury.
According to Zakrajsek et al. (2017), coaches have a role in helping athletes manage injury related stress. As a coach, your role is to build a trusting coach-athlete relationship and to normalize the physical, emotional, and psychological recovery process for your athletes (Zakrajsek et al., 2017). It is important for coaches to recognize injured athletes emotional responses to injury and recovery and encourage athletes to engage in goal setting to facilitate physical, psychological and emotional recovery (Zakrajsek et al. 2017).
According to Leguizamo et al. (2021), “problems derived [from COVID-19] bear some similarities to those suffered by athletes during the different stages of sports injury. Some of these implications are the interruption or limitation of sports activity, loss of autonomy, changes in the sports environment, loss of opportunities to improve sports records individually and collectively, interruption or limitation of non-related sports activities, and changes in personal and family life, including early retirement due to changes in competition schedules.” These radical changes are challenging and have negative impact on one’s mental health (Pété et al., 2021).
It’s well documented that “periods of inactivity, isolation from athletic teams, distance from the athletic community, less qualified interactions with athletic coaches, and lack of social support (e.g., fans, sports organizations, media, etc.) have also been shown to cause emotional distress and psychological disorders in athletes,” (Mehrsafar et al., 2020). As such, the pandemic has major implications for athletes and is causing significant disruption to athletic careers (Pété et al., 2021).
Pété et al. (2021) conducted a study investigating the athletes’ coping profiles in the aims to accordingly lead to the identification of athletes at risk of psychological distress. A total of 526 elite athletes took online questionnaires that yielded distinct coping profiles in terms of anxiety, stress appraisals, social support, and interpersonal coping. According to research, problem solving, cognitive restructuring, distraction, and support seeking are viewed as effective, while avoidance is viewed as ineffective in response to pandemic-related stress (Chew et al., 2020; Dawson & Golijani-Moghaddam, 2020; Pété et al., 2021). Researchers have identified key coping strategies as particularly helpful in fostering the abilities to cope with pandemic-related stressors. These include cognitive restructuring, problem solving, distraction, and support seeking, stress reappraisal and stress mindset interventions (Pété et al., 2021). Stress reappraisal and stress mindset interventions have been identified as particularly helpful during this time by offering cost-effective and successful ways of managing and minimizing stress (Pété et al., 2021).
Additionally, “Previous research emphasized that presence of significant others (e.g., coaches, members of the team, teammates, training partners, parents) can influence coping resources and psychological adjustments in the context of sport and performance (e.g., coach-athlete dyadic coping),” (Pété et al., 2021). Researchers also highlight how social connections may help athletes regulate emotions, remain resilient, and cope with stress; even if the social connection is virtually based. Athletes have reported that being in contact via the internet with their coaches has been helpful in coping with the stress of the pandemic (di Fronso, 2020). Going from training every day together to isolation from your teammates is a deep loss. Setting up a time for your team of athletes to connect with each other virtually can aid in feelings of loneliness. The connection between teammates is unlike any other friendship, so setting aside time for your athletes to get together as a team virtually can be grounding during this time of upheaval; especially for those struggling to reach out for help.
Coaches are not doctors, nutritionists, physical therapists, psychotherapists, or psychiatrists. It's also important to recognize that young athletes don't necessarily have the coping skills and tools to be able to be mentally tough. As a coach, you can:
Help your athletes create craft a training plan.
Set aside time for strength and endurance training, stretching
Incorporate mental strength exercises to help keep athletes sharp and resilient.
Encourage your athletes to connect virtually.
Maintain an open and honest flow of communication
Check in with athletes on how they are feeling and how you can support them
Reassure your athletes that although many factors are unknown, you are figuring it out together and will make modifications to training as the situation evolves.
Set a time aside to virtually watch a movie or clip related to your sport with your athletes. Then, begin a discussion on what you watched. Keeping that connection and collective love for the sport going, despite being isolated from one another, will help athletes stay motivated. It also allows coaches to identify the athletes that may need more support right now and direct them to the help, such as those with an avoidant coping profile.
A coach can also encourage athletes to embrace and nourish their growing body. As puberty hits, help athletes adjust their technique to fit their more adult body and remind them to be patient with themselves as they allow their muscle memory to catch up. If you feel that an athlete is struggling with a physical ailment or mental illness, it is critical to refer the athlete to a licensed professional. There is no harm in referring them to elsewhere as a precaution. It can be helpful to have a list of licensed professionals in your area that specialize in athletes.
Although many are unable to train in person, virtual platforms allow us to connect and learn about each other on a deeper level. It’s important to cultivate an environment that fosters inclusion by learning about each other’s cultural backgrounds, lives, and interests outside skating. Right now coaches have a unique opportunity to facilitate growth in their athletes through virtual meetings. By bringing up topics like the adverse effects of pandemic-related stressors, body image, puberty, discrimination, inclusivity, and pressure, athletes have an a chance to share what they’re feeling. Normally, these conversations are not had. And as always, it is important to show respect through your words and actions by using inclusive, gender-neutral language.
“Public health policies and sanitary measures taken by governments to stem the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic (e.g., lockdown, social distancing) have major implications for athletes. They include career and performance-related goal disruption, qualification process uncertainty, unconventional and limited access to training facilities and training partners, and social isolation,” (Pété et al., 2021). Researchers have identified key coping strategies as particularly helpful in fostering the abilities to cope with pandemic-related stressors (cognitive restructuring, problem solving, distraction, and support seeking, stress reappraisal and stress mindset interventions; Pété et al., 2021). The pandemic has major implication for athletes and is causing significant disruption to athletic careers (Pété et al., 2021).
As a coach, your role is to build a trusting coach-athlete relationship and to normalize how the pandemic has created physical, emotional, and psychological problems for athletes. At this time, coaches have a unique opportunity to truly make a difference in their athlete’s live. In a traditional training setting, conversations about race and discrimination, body image, and puberty are rarely had. Right now, coaches have an opportunity and the time to facilitate growth through conversation. So many athletes are struggling to manage stress in silence. Body image, puberty, injuries and the pandemic are all major stressors to athletes and it’s important to recognize that an athlete’s poor performance may underscore a lack of coping skills. Coaches can truly make a difference in their athletes lives.
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