There is no such thing as a ‘Stressful Situation’

Now before you write me off, let me explain what I mean. Situations in themselves are not stressful; however they have the capacity to trigger a stress response/reaction in us based on:

  1. how we perceive the situation
  2. whether we believe we have the resources/abilities to meet the situation’s demands
  3. how important it is to us that we succeed/how serious we perceive the consequences of failure to be

I’ve been fascinated by the idea of ‘pressure’ or ‘stress’ (particularly in sports) and why two people with very similar abilities can react so so differently when placed in the same situation. What is it that makes some people perform under pressure while others ‘choke’?

What is Stress?

The 4 'Stages'

Stress is part of a 4-step process our minds & bodies go through and it isn’t until we have weighed the demands of a certain situation against our resources & abilities, and tried to predict the outcome/its consequences that we feel stressed (or not).

If our abilities meet or exceed the situations demands, we mentally predict a ‘favorable outcome’ and the stress response is minimal.

e.g. You coach asks you to do 3 cleans at 75% of your 1RM

If, on the other hand, we are unsure of our abilities and/or feel there are serious consequences for failing we are more likely to experience a significant stress response aka “the fight or  response”

e.g. Its your first competition and the other athletes are looking a lot stronger you expected .

Based on the degree of our physical/mental response we typically revert to certain coping mechanisms/behavioral patterns that we have developed as a means of handling stress. These learned coping mechanisms can either be very effective or ineffective (depends on the behavior) but once learned they can be extremely difficult to unlearn or modify.

Psyching Up vs Psyching Out

A&R Memorial - 2nd Clean & Jerk Photo Credit: Travis Haggerstone

Photo Credit: Travis Haggerstone

Everyone is wired a different way, and some people seem to have a natural ability to stay calm and composed even when the odds are against them by keeping things in perspective (or perhaps they’re just better at appearing calm). And the same situation can go both ways for the same person, depending on how they react to it.

By acknowledging a situation for what it is and our best under the circumstances, our chances of success are much higher than if we succumb to self-doubt and worrying about”what ifs” . successful athletes (and people in general) have trained themselves to look at difficult situations as challenges rather than threats and in doing so are able to get psyched up but not psyched out.

As an athlete in any sport it goes almost without saying that at some point we will encounter ‘trigger situations’, especially if we compete. And while we can’t change the fact that these situations might arise (unless we stop caring and/or stop competing) we can learn to control aspects of the stress process and manipulate our response so it works in our favor.

Not all Stress is Bad Stress

In fact too little stress can be just as damaging to our performance as too much because without a certain degree of ‘pressure to perform’  its hard to motivate ourselves and push our limits (Mind Games and Mental Preparation).

Inverted U

The trick is learning what your optimal level of arousal (stress) is and figuring out how to get there. This level can be different for each person…

ever notice how some people need loud music & lots of stimulation to get pumped up, while others prefer to retreat into a corner and prepare quietly?

and it can differ between situations…

Gross motor movements that require little skill can usually be done under higher stress levels; whereas really technical/complicated movements often requires lower levels of stimulation (so we can concentrate)

and the more in-tune we are our mind/bodies and the better we understand what level of stimulation we need (and how to get ourselves there) the more successful we will be as athletes.

So How Do We Control Our Stress Levels?’

1. Expand Our Base of Resources & Abilities

Stress occurs when we feel ill-equipped to deal with a situation, so by making a constant effort to expand our skill base we can decrease the chances of running into a situations where we feel at a complete loss. Obviously we can’t be prepared for everything life throws at us; however the more skills we have under our belt the greater the chance one or more of them will be at least partially transferable. And the more often we challenge ourselves with new sills the easier it becomes to learn new ones on the fly. Learning a new skill is a skill in itself, and the more we practice it, the better at it we will become.

2. Modify our Thought Processes

About our Abilities – Sometimes the biggest improvements in athletic performance (particularly in competition) is the result of a change in mindset rather than improved physical ability. Don’t get me wrong, athletic ability is key; however, a talented athlete can be defeated by a ‘less skilled’ opponent simply if their ability to remain calm under pressure is more dialed in. We need to believe our abilities so that we can focus on the task at hand rather than doubting ourselves.

About How We Approach A Situation – Instead looking at difficult situations as a threat/chance of failure look at it as a challenge to overcome and test your abilities. It’s OK to give 100% and fail because we weren’t up to the challenge, that’s how we learn. We can’t always win, and sometimes the odds are stacked pretty high against us, but there is more to be gained by putting everything on the line and failing than by not trying for fear of failure.

About the Outcome – Losing sucks, especially when we’re really invested in something; however it’s not the end of the world nor is it the end of our ‘career’ as an athlete. It’s important to be passionate about what we do (otherwise we wouldn’t try) but if placing too much importance on never messing up, can in turn teach us to:

  • dread failure
  • never take chances
  • attach our self-worth to our successes.

Which is a pretty big recipe for disaster.

If we win, its something to be proud of but if we lose its not its important to try not to dwell on it. Losing sucks but we can learn from it by figuring out what went wrong and fixing/improving on that for the future.

3. Modify/Relearn Our Coping Mechanisms

Coping mechanisms are our learned thought/behavioural patterns that we have developed to deal with stress and depending they can be very effective or ineffective (depending on what they are). Unfortunately, because we often default to these patterns without realizing it, they can be extremely difficult to unlearn; however, they can be replaced/modified  if necessary. It just takes time and conscious effort.

Next time you are in a situation where you feel ‘stressed’ or ‘under pressure’, pay attention to how you deal with it both emotionally and physically and ask yourself might be a better way to handle it.

Everyone is different, everyone reacts differently to stress and even the same person can have different reactions depending on the situation. What works for one person…

Considering the situation/their resources/the probable outcome and then coming up with how a highly detailed and analytical ‘plan of attack

Listening to some music and disconnecting from their surroundings to get ‘in the zone’

Taking a nap

may not work for another. However, there are certain coping mechanisms that don’t work well for anyone

obsessing over what could go wrong and worrying about what will happen if it does (guilty)

zeroing in on the one part of the task you know you will struggle with and allowing yourself to get psyched up hours in advance

Completely ignoring the situation until by doing whatever you can to distract yourself until you have no choice but to deal with it

If you recognize some of your own behaviors in the of the second group, you’re not a bad person or ineffective athlete, it just means you  (like many of us) have some work to do on your mental game. If the behaviours in the first group sounds more like you, then you’re one step ahead of the competition already; however, being mentally prepared is an ongoing process and I don’t believe anyone ever has it fully dialed in. Everyone has moments of doubt and if we’re not careful it is easy to get caught up in some self-destructive mind games and there will always be something we can improve on.

Quick Recap

The Stress Response is a 4-step process made up of

  1. A Trigger Situation
  2. Our Mental Appraisal
  3. A Physical Response
  4. Coping Mechanisms

and situations are meaningless until we assess them, give them worth and decide whether or not we think we are capable of handling them.

We can’t remove all situations that could potentially cause stress (unless we want to lead a VERY boring life) but we can reduce the amount of stress we experience by

  1. Trying New Things constantly and training our minds/bodies to adapt quickly
  2. Looking at challenging situations, our own abilities and the probable outcomes/consequences in positive manner.
  3. Making a conscious effort to develop & maintain positive coping mechanisms so that we can be effective under pressure instead of being unintentionally self-destructive

And most importantly….Have Fun. The more fun we have (within reason), the better we typically perform, and the better we perform….the more fun we have.

Confederation Cup


1 Comment

Westerns 2016 - Thoughts & Recap · April 8, 2016 at 9:21 am

[…] talking about growth as an athlete, how I mentally approach the competition and how I allow the stress/pressure of competing to affect […]

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