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Stress management in sport competition

Stress management in competition

Stress: an engine for competition

Many elements are important for the athlete's performance to be as close as possible to his potential: technique, physics, tactical abilities, but also motivation, self-confidence, the ability to manage stress...

We shall now pay attention to the problem of managing stress. In this first paper we try to point out some basic elements which we too often overlook.

"Positive stress"

1/ First of all, it must be remembered that stress, if not too high, is useful and even necessary for the athlete. Stress characterizes the body preparing itself for action: the heart starts beating quickly, muscles contract... these are essential symptoms for the athlete who is about to start physical activity... In this respect, pre-competition stress appears as a quite necessary premise.

2/ However it must be experienced in a positive way. If an athlete experiences stress as a deficiency and says to himself "I'm stressed, I don’t feel all right", he anticipates his competition negatively and risks activating in his mind a scenario that will have an impact on his performance: he keeps this scenario in memory and this is detrimental to performance. Actually he has to think his stress over and needs saying himself something like: "my stress dynamizes me" or "I'm a little stressed, but this will help me to get fully concerned".

3/ Furthermore stress may not be too high.
An athlete has got to remain within "a control zone", where his stress level is just right, not too low, not too high, just "optimum". If his stress level is too low, he will be lacking in determination and energy, if it’s too high, he will "freak out", and lose control of his technique. There are some devices that can help finding this optimal area as will be discussed later. Everyone has his own level of body activation and dynamism. So, Roger Federer has an optimum activation level lower than Nadal’s. Nadal needs more activation to reach his top level.

How to manage stress?

Here are some examples of tracks that make it possible for the athlete to reach the "optimum" stress condition.

1/ First of all, it is important for him to realize whether he is too agitated or too quiet; so some athletes do not realize that they are too nervous. Becoming aware of one’s condition is a first step. Most top athletes, especially the best, have acquired this automatic and almost unconscious ability to keep an eye on their level of dynamism. Others do not possess this skill.

2/ How do they achieve this?

  • Most athletes have acquired rituals and personal behaviours in order to calm down or energize themselves at different points in the competition: as well before as during the game ("downtime"). These personal rituals are very effective. Often, some athletes have already acquired them but forget to use them: it is therefore important to reactivate them and to train them... during the training! This not only activates positive automatisms, but also brings training behaviours closer to those of competition.

Examples of dynamization rituals during the match: jump, breathe in vigorously and then breathe out, tap one’s buttocks, pronounce an encouraging keyword, clench one’s fists etc....
Examples of a relaxation ritual during the game: breathe calmly, walk in a relaxed way, think of a relaxing image for a few seconds and then get concentrated again.
Examples of pre-match rituals: breathe calmly, take a few steps, ritualize your warming-up, go to the toilets, listen to music, talk and joke, remain silent,... everyone has his own effective rituals!

The 1.2,3 practice

A good thing to do is to learn how to become aware of one’s activation level on a regular basis. To achieve this, you can practise (during approximately 15 minutes in several training sessions) the following scheme which will become automatic :

  1. Ask yourself: "How do I feel physically?" If I feel all right, then it’s ok; if I feel too agitated, then I need a relaxation ritual.
  2. Ask yourself: "How do I feel mentally". If I feel all right, then it’s okay, "go." If I feel too stressed, then I need a relaxation ritual.
  3. Come into action

About breathing:

  • if you simply become aware of your breathing and focus on exhalation, your muscular tonus will go down;
  • If you focus on inspiration while breathing, your activation level will increase.

About mental images:

  • if you think of a relaxing image (e.g. a beach), or of a relaxed image of yourself, you will be more relaxed;
  • if you think of an energizing image (e. g. a lion), or of an image of fighting, you will be more dynamic.

Other techniques such as relaxation, sophrology, cognitive and behavioural techniques are used together with the mental trainer.

Article written by Manuel Dupuis, sport psychologist and mental trainer, at Psychosport asbl (Belgium)

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