How to Manage Stress in Sports

Stress in Sport

The Mental Aspect of any Sport is just as Critical as the Physical Component

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If you've ever been around a pro body-builder in the weeks preceding an important competition, you know that stress is pretty much the backdrop to everything in his or her life. By stress, I don't mean just mental stress. I mean physical and emotional stress as well.

The ravages of stress on an athlete increase exponentially according to the level of play or competition. Even an amateur has to go through the same steps as a professional to prepare himself for the "big day." In bodybuilding that means training, dieting, tanning, creating a posing routine, and for some, drug use. Naturally the bar is much higher for a pro in terms of stress because competing against his fellow behemoths takes a great deal more effort than for an amateur to stand beside mostly in-complete physiques that came into creation within that same year. Training, preparation and competition are highly stressful events, even if the athlete engages in them by choice.

On the other hand, a certain amount of stress in one's life can be a healthful addition to a mainly flat-line existence. Competition stress can be a highly motivating factor in performance and outcome. If you're not under enough stress, you'll either get bored or have difficulty putting on a performance worthy of a respectable placing. Too much stress may cause you to choke with the result you do not present yourself as well as you are capable of. However, optimum levels of stress offer challenge, maximum concentration and alertness and can aid competition. Although you may not have fully realized the fact at the time, stress may have helped you to win in the past.

If stress were found only on one side of a coin and always associated with positive results, we wouldn't need to worry about it. In its worst expression stress can be debilitating and cause many physical or mental health problems. It can also choke the life out of an athlete's competitive career. What' more, disproportionate levels of stress damage his very enjoyment of a sport. Where once he enjoyed training with weights and delighted in the healthy feeling, he now feel the same activity is a drudgery. Not a good outcome.

Self-imposed stress via self-criticism is usually greatest among those who participate in individual sports rather than team sports. When you're asking of yourself achievement beyond your abilities, stress will be high. Virtually every bodybuilder I know - both pro and novice - faces this problem. That's why you need to avoid stress by employing appropriate goal-setting techniques. Time constraints can also hamper an otherwise easygoing nature and push the stakes of stress much higher.

For bodybuilders, being judged on physical merit alone is daunting. Moreover, you must stand on a stage, for everyone to see, in very skimpy attire. The combination, at least at first, is difficult to cope with. This might be particularly true for athletes with a history of food or fat issues. A lot of bodybuilders - both men and women - have battled eating disorders and other demons in their past, and competing causes all those unresolved issues to rise to the top like cream in milk. When that happens, stress increases and the vicious cycle of obsession and overexertion plus mental and emotional stress rears its ugly head. If you don't have the tools to start combating it, you aren't likely going to feel any better - just more aware that you're a basket case!

Techniques to Reduce and Overcome Stress

External and Environment-related Methods

Reduce the Importance of the Event:

» No competition is so important that you must tear your hair out over it or make yourself ill. Put it in perspective. Unless the event is the Olympia or the Arnold Classic, most people aren't going to remember who won what within a week or two, or whether you were even there!

» Rather than put all your eggs in one basket for qualification or otherwise, enter more than one competition once you have dieted down. You'll have a greater chance of eventually getting the place you want, and you'll put less emphasis on that one big one.

Minimize Uncertainty:

» Have a daily plan about what contests you'll compete in and how you'll prepare. Take the guesswork out and half the stress disappears.

» Before leaving home for a competition, pack everything you'll need, including two or three pairs of posing trunks, two or three music tapes or CDs, sports drinks, towels, rubber bands for pumping, etc. Don't just throw yourself together the morning of the event and expect to feel relaxed and ready.

Listen to Music or Relaxation Tapes

» A lot of bodybuilders scoff at this idea, but learning techniques like motivation or listening to positive-reinforcement tapes is a great way to ensure you'll be confident and relaxed.

» Engage in a hobby or go to a yoga class. You'll improve flexibility and learn techniques to keep you mentally and emotionally together.

Physical Techniques: (Effective when stress is caused by hormones adrenaline or aldosterone.)

» Relax each muscle group from the toes up. Visualize being loose and relaxed as you do so.

Breathing Control

» Learn how to control breathing and calm heart rate. This technique will ease your levels of adrenaline and physique-destroying aldosterone.

Mental Techniques: (When psychological elements are causing stress)

» When you're waiting backstage, picture yourself relaxing on a beach somewhere with your eyes closed. Or just focus on a pleasant memory. You can also practice watching yourself perform a perfect routine or accepting a first-place trophy. Think positively! Expecting the worst does no good. Keep in perspective the fact that you can not control the outcome of the event.

» Let go of details. Focus on your number one priority of keeping calm and relaxed. Think about workouts, performances or achievements in the past that made you feel great about yourself.


» Stress gets in the way of judgment and fine motor control.

» It causes you to see competition as a threat, not a challenge.

» It destroys the positive state of mind needed for effective competition by cultivating negative thinking, damaging confidence, shortening focus or attention span, and disrupting natural flow.

» It consumes mental energy in the form of preoccupation, obsession and worry - energy you could have channeled into technique and concentration.

» Stress can become systemic within the body and cause illness or weakened immune system.

The Bottom Line

Stress can pervade all your personal relationships and destroy the foundation of what might otherwise be sound unions. This happens a lot with bodybuilders. I think it happens to all of us at one time or another. Sure, competing is important, and getting to the top takes a lot more focus than working 9 to 5 and coming home to normal food each night for dinner. Keep in mind, though, that family, friendships and support systems are most important in your life. You can be the best bodybuilder in the world, but if you've alienated people who could potentially sup-port you, you have bigger problems than not taking first place at a competition!

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