Stress can be good or bad for a person engaged in a sporting event. Good stress can improve a performance whereas bad stress can cause them to, in sporting parlance, not be at the races. This article will examine these two types of stress, what causes them, how they affect sports and how they can be combated.
Sport is a fairly general term for a range of activities that require varying mental and physical skills. For example, archery and ice hockey have many skills in common but probably more skills that are disparate. Physical exertion may be more intense in ice hockey than archery but mental pressure and judgement would be more in archery.
The body’s response to stress is to change the bio-chemistry in the blood. The hormones adrenaline and cortisol are pushed into the bloodstream which passes through the body. This gives the body an energy boost. The muscles will become tighter and prepared for some exertion. The senses will become more attuned; pupils will dilate to allow more light to enter the eye and thus improve eyesight. This response is known as the ‘fight or flight’ response. It is triggered when the person, through their nervous system, senses a stressful event about to occur. In this way the body can overcompensate for a stressful event by putting too much adrenaline into the blood stream or not enough.
There seems to be two ways to affect this response. The first is the actual event that is causing the stress. The second is the perceived amount of stress that the person places on the stressful event. They are, obviously, closely related.
In the first instance stress could be caused if the person is new to the sport and does not have the skills or knowledge of the sport. They will feel overwhelmed and worried about things like the rules of the game, what position they should be in, what are their responsibilities or how to do a particular activity. On a physical level, they may not have developed the physique to do certain activities.
In this instance it is important not to take the sport too seriously. If the sport is a form of relaxation or stress relief then this should be clarified each time anything becomes overwhelming. Remember that it is supposed to be fun. Remember, also, that making mistakes is a part of learning. You can only improve by making these mistakes and you will be better for them.
The second way to influence the body’s response to a stressful event is more to do with people that are experienced in the particular sport. In this case, we are talking about fine-tuning a performance. It is often said in professional sport that the difference between two competitors is not their fitness or skills but their mental preparation because the physical skills are virtually identical.
This is true. Many top sportspeople use mind techniques and sports psychologists to give them an edge. Simply put, the mind techniques are a way of putting the right amount of stress on a particular event, in the mind of the sportsperson, so that he or she peaks at the right time.
For example, a stirring speech by the coach can have two results. It could inspire the person to a great performance or it could put too much pressure on the person and limit the performance. This is a highly personal issue for people. Knowing how to mentally agitate the stress responses in the body to peak at the right time is a rare skill or talent. Generally, it comes through knowing the person involved.
Music is also used to ‘calm nerves’. In this, we mean mediate the stress response in the body. The relaxing music can help the person forget about the stressful event. On the other hand, high energy or dance music is often used to motivate and get the ‘blood flowing’. The music is often personal and different music can elicit different responses in people.
Stress is crucial to obtain a peak performance in any sports. Attaining the perfect level of stress for the individual at the right time is often harder than attaining the peak physical condition. From a stress management perspective, knowledge of the persons stress levels and how to alter these levels is the only way improve the individuals performance.