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Developing Mindsets

Understanding the Stress Model

In this introduction to the Stress Model, the first of three resources on the topic, Megan Little explains key concepts and how the approach to stress management can impact athlete performance

We dedicate significant time and effort to attempting to reduce stress and the accompanying feelings of anxiety. But despite our efforts, we encounter stress regularly, whether at work, in the car, with our family, or in sport. It is fair to say, then, that stress is unavoidable, and as much as we may want to escape it, it’s important to learn how to effectively manage it when it arises in our lives.

The sporting environment can significantly increase stress in two ways:

  1. Physical demands: pushing your body to the physical limits through contact, high intensity and duration.
  2. Mental challenges: increasing the decision-making and cognitive load, in addition to the consequences of actions in practice sessions and competition.

The physical demands and mental challenges in sport are not independent and as such further increase stress on the individual. As a result, it is important for coaches to understand how to manage stress for themselves and the people they coach.

 

Research shows that world-class athletes thrive in stressful conditions, using it to motivate their best performance (Brown et al., 2017). Why is it that some people thrive in these conditions where others can simply survive? What factors do you think influence their ability to deliver?

Stress management to achieve optimum performance is one of the key psychological skills that separates the top athletes from the rest.

So, what is stress?

Stress is commonly thought of as a negative experience or feeling, however it consists of many stages that occur one after the other, creating a whole process (Fletcher & Arnold, 2017). 

Let’s explore the stress model during a competition, typically a stressful time for both athletes and coaches. 

In this situation there could be several different sources of stress (stressors). These could include:

  • arriving late at the venue
  • forgetting an item of kit
  • bad weather conditions
  • feeling muscle tightness/pain during the warm-up. 

To better manage this form of stress, you (or your athlete) would recognise this ‘stressor’ and have an idea of its impact.

Explore the Stress Model

What are stressors? They’re where stress begins, the demand(s) in the environment.

These vary significantly, and can include: 

  • competition: arriving late to the venue; having incorrect equipment; forgotten kit, change of kick off time; disruption to changing and preparation; not wanting to let your coach down
  • unpleasant training environments: unsupportive team culture; poor facilities, domineering training partners; coach who creates a high challenge, low support environment; limited access
  • personal challenges: work/life balance; paying bills/financial troubles; bereavement; family problems.

Stressors also have many dimensions; the frequency that they occur (a one off or something they are faced with often), the intensity (a minor problem or a major setback) and finally, the duration (an issue today or an issue that lasts a number of weeks).

When we are faced with the stressor, we recognise and process it in two stages:

  1. What is going on? How will this affect me?
  2. What can I do about it? Will it be enough?

Some individuals recognise a stressor and think "this is significant, but I can deal with it", whilst another person thinks "this is a big threat, and I won’t be able to cope with it."

Once we have recognised and processed a stressor, we then have an initial reaction to it. These are known as our responses and there are three common types:

  1. Physical: tense muscles; pounding heart; sweaty palms.
  2. Emotional: anger; anxiety; hope.
  3. Behavioural: not turning up to training; avoiding competitions; confrontation, being withdrawn and non-communicative; in extreme cases self-abuse including the use of performance enhancing drugs.

Next comes the coping strategy to deal with the stressor. There are two main reactions to this:

  1. Approach: lean into and embrace the feelings and emotions.
  2. Avoid: remove yourself from the stress or mentally block it. (This can be common in adolescent athletes.)

In the final stage of the stress process, we apply our coping resources and automatically revert our focus back to one of the previous stages.

  1. Stressor = "problem-focused," such as time management; learning from opponents.
  2. Response = "emotion-focused," such as venting; humour; imagery; seeking social support.
  3. Recognition = "evaluation-focused," such as "this is tough but so am I."

Individual differences and outcomes

Understanding the different routes each person can take at each stage of the process enables us to understand why some individuals thrive in stress whilst others do not. This is due to our individual differences!

 

Personal characteristics consists of our personality, which is stable and cannot be changed, and psychological skills which can be learned and developed (such as psychological resilience).

Situational characteristics are the level of control and/or support accessible in the environment.

These characteristics influence each stage of the stress process and ultimately determine the outcome, which can be:

  • useful, such as when the individual harnesses stress to become motivated/engaged, and increase effort and attention
  • less useful, such as when an individual withdraws socially, physically and/or verbally, feels down, becomes burned out, or chokes/freezes during competitions.

More resources on stress

This is the third of three resources on stress developed in partnership with MSc Sport and Exercise Psychology Student at Loughborough University Megan Little.

The other two resources contain further insight into the stress process and how you can help athletes identify and manage stress.

MORE RESOURCES ON STRESS

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