You may have wondered why I put these three things together in the title. Well, in this article I talk about stress because in April takes place the stress awareness month to make people aware about its causes and effects. And if you keep reading you can see an awesome exercise to manage stress by taking a helicopter view…
We all feel stress differently, what for one person may be exciting it may be frustrating for another. For this reason and because stress is related to physical (e.g., insomnia) and mental health (e.g., anxiety and depression), it is important to know how to manage it.
The negative effects of stress can affect:
• Behavior (e.g., isolation from others, demotivation).
• Cognition (e.g., difficulty concentrating, and making decisions).
• Emotions (e.g., irritability, frustration).
• Physical health (e.g., indigestion, or hypertension).
It is often said that someone is stressed when is having a negative experience if for instance, a person feels that s/he has too many professional or personal demands and “cannot handle everything”. However, what is actually meant is that s/he is experiencing the type of negative stress also called: distress.
Stress is the reaction (physiological, cognitive and emotional) to a change in a person’s environment. There are two types of stress: distress, which is negative stress and is shown by displaying symptoms like feeling overwhelmed, or irritable; and eustress, which is positive stress and causes pleasant experiences such as excitement.
The difference between experiencing distress or eustress lies in the nature of the stressor, the concept we have about the stressor and our perceived abilities. If, when evaluating a change, we see that we have enough resources and options, for example: relevant skills and social support to overcome the new situation, it is most likely that we will perceive the situation with eustress. On the other hand, if in the evaluation we see that the situation itself is important to us, and that we do not have enough resources to cope, we will most likely experience distress.
Some examples of negative stressors can be losing contact with loved ones, suffering an injury, or having interpersonal conflicts. Positive stressors can be starting a new role on the team, receiving a promotion at work, or being on vacation.
Although these examples are from external events, distress can also be caused internally by our thoughts and feelings. For example, when we worry about waiting for a doctor’s note, or when we set perfectionistic expectations, or when we fear failure. Even our behaviors can lead us to suffer distress in situations when we do not plan tasks well in advance, or if we commit to doing too many activities, or when we do not communicate assertively.
One way to manage distress is to try to put the situation in perspective. To do this, imagine that you board on a helicopter.
1. From the helicopter high up in the air, observe the situation and see the larger picture.
2. Now reflect on the situation: What is happening, with whom, how? What does this situation mean to you? What does this situation mean for the other people in the situation? How important is this situation going to be in 5 days, in 5 months, in 10 years, and in 20 years?
Another way to manage distress is to do a breathing exercise like the following:
1. Breathe in through your nose for 4 seconds.
2. Hold the air for 4 seconds.
3. Exhale through the nose for 4 seconds.
4. Wait 4 seconds before breathing in again.
Finally, some other ways to relieve distress include:
• Acknowledging the feelings of distress and its bodily sensations.
• Practicing self-compassion, showing empathy with oneself.
• Accepting that there are things that are out of our control.
• Practicing mindfulness.
• Finding ways to experience positive emotions such as: exercising, laughing with friends, practicing gratitude, listening to music, or enjoying nature.
After making an error, or after a setback some athletes get very angry and then they yell at others, damage sport equipment, or repeatedly ruminate about the mistake. By losing their temper, they would lose their focus of attention to the task at hand, their muscles get tense, and performance suffers. In addition, others may start avoiding them because of their aggressivity displays.
Reacting is instinctual, done automatically and without thinking. It happens when the emotions are in control. In addition, reactions are usually out of proportion. When individuals are enraged, the ‘fight or flight’ reaction of the sympathetic nervous system gets activated by the amygdala leading to a series of cardiovascular, gastrointestinal and hormonal changes in the body. Consequently, fast and shallow breathing, increased heart rate and tunnel vision is experienced.
Blaming others is common for those prone to react because they do not realise that it is their thoughts and their interpretation of the situation that makes them loose their cool and not others or the situation itself.
The reactive ‘fight or flight’ mechanism is useful for emergency situations, and the mind is primed for fear, aggression, and to avoid threat. However, it is not that useful when it gets activated unnecessarily. The ‘fight or flight’ reaction over a long period of time leads among other changes to a weakened immune system, anxiety and irritability. So, it is important to learn how to respond (rather than react) more often to avoid these negative performance, physical and mental effects.
On the other hand, when athletes respond, they do so in a calmer manner. If they experience negative emotions, they acknowledge them, and let them go. While responding, they take the time to consider a constructive action bearing in mind long-term consequences. When they are at rest, the parasympathetic nervous system – also called ‘rest and digest’ – is activated. This other branch of the autonomic nervous system is in charge of functions like digestion and lowering blood pressure and the breathing rate. The mind in this state predispose us to feelings of safety and kindness to others.
Learning to respond rather than react should definitely be an aspect to train because optimal performance cannot happen without emotional control. Even athletes with great physical, technical and tactical abilities cannot perform at their best unless they control their mental game.
To learn to respond rather than react, there are various aspects to work on, for instance:
The thoughts about the triggering situations, to interpret the situation in a different way, or accepting it.
Relaxation techniques in order to activate the ‘rest and digest’ response.
Preparing for success, by rehearsing constructive and kind responses to ourselves, others and the environment.
Ten top tips to respond rather than react:
Reflect about the triggers of reactions before a bad mood.
Ask yourself whether you are trying to control aspects that are beyond your control or whether there is anything about the situation that you are not accepting.
Reflect about whether you can think about the situation in a different way.
See if you notice any physical sensations prior to bad moods.
Practice relaxation activities you enjoy, whether is listening to your favourite music, having a bath, going for a walk, doing colouring books, or even reminding yourself about the last time you laughed out loud!
Relax your face, including: the forehead, the eyelids, the jaw, the lips, and the tongue.
Make sure there is enough rest and sleep in your schedule as stress and fatigue make everyone more likely to react.
Allocate time to recover, scheduling some ‘me-time’ during the week.
Note down how could you respond to those situations in a more helpful way.
Imagine yourself responding in a helpful and constructive way.
Remind yourself that you could pause for few minutes if necessary, to take some time to gain control.
Try ‘easier’ instead of trying ‘harder’. When working on something that is important to us we often think that we have to work hard and be serious, but this may put more pressure on us and make us more tense. We can smile instead of being serious and try to relax more so we are not worried about making a mistake. The idea is to focus on the process rather than the result.
Celebrate success. Yes, you may have made a mistake, but you have made great achievements along the way too! So, reflect on those achievements. Perhaps it may be helpful to get encouragement from motivational quotes.
There is a beautiful Cherokee tale, which I remember when I get angry if something does not go as I expected or wanted and I feel like a victim of that situation. Well, the story is about a grandfather who is talking to his grandson because he is sad and angry that someone has stolen a knife he had just bought from his hard work helping his father selling the fur they had collected. The grandfather tells the grandson that he does not like injustices either, but by feeling hatred we harm ourselves. He then tells him a story about a fight of two wolves going on inside him. One of the wolves is angry, arrogant, greedy, and has resentment. The other wolf is cheerful, humble, generous, and kind.
The grandfather concludes that the same struggle occurs in each and every one of us; and then the grandson asks him: “And… who is the wolf that wins?”
To which the Cherokee grandfather responds: “The one you feed.”
From this little story we can draw many lessons, for example about different values. For me, one of the lessons I like the most is that it teaches us that we can always choose our attitude on the situations happening to us that we do not like; Although sometimes we don’t realize it and prefer to complain or blame someone about how we feel. So, in the end, what we feel depends on how we think about our circumstances.
In sport, from time to time we are going to find ourselves in difficult situations (e.g., injuries, losing games, not being chosen for the team), but to perform exceptionally we have to take responsibility for our actions maintaining a positive attitude.
It is up to us to choose which wolf we feed. If we feed the arrogant wolf, it will make us feel victims of the situations, and it will take away that ability to choose our attitude. On the other hand, if we feed the serene, kind and confident wolf, we will become stronger.
One of the techniques from sports psychology consists in using self-talk to predispose us to perform better. It is normal from time to time for negative phrases to arise when we are tired, or when we feel pressure. Long distance runners, for instance, use different sentences or keywords to manage their negative self-dialogue and favor better performance at different stages of the race:
• At the beginning they use phrases to motivate themselves not to go too fast, to be able to save energy for the rest of the race and strengthen their confidence.
• During the middle of the race their self-dialogue communicates an encouragement to move forward and stay focused.
• Finally, for the last kilometers they use keywords to control their intensity and give their maximum effort.
The phrases you could use are very personal so it is more effective to choose the ones that really make you feel comfortable. You can also try different ways to formulate the sentences. Many athletes use the second person to distance themselves from the situation and have more clarity, for example: ‘you can’, although others prefer the first person, e.g., ‘I can’. There are even runners who prefer to mentally sing a song to maintain a specific rhythm or to manage distractions.
In the following table I show examples of phrases for the different stages of the race:
Before the race
After the race
I am ready
You are going really good
Light and fast
You have done really well
I am going to make it
I love running
Well done runner
I have done all the training so that is why I know I am capable
If you are going to run the famous San Silvestre race, apart from training physically do not forget to take care of your mental preparation. Here are five tips from sports psychology for you to enjoy more:
Maintain a dignified posture: especially if you have the need to walk. Remember that is absolutely fine to walk, and if you need to do it display confidence in yourself and keep your head up. Try not to look down because looking at the ground can distract you with negative self-talk and may make you notice the discomfort more. If you find yourself in this situation, you can change to a more optimistic and more confident way by correcting your posture. Keep your head up, make use of the peripheral vision and smile. Even if you don’t feel very confident at that moment, if you display confidence, you will start feeling more confident. In addition, the act of smiling is relaxing and it will help you stay more positive during the performance.
Take care of your self-talk: Our internal dialogue is key to predispose us to perform better. That is why it is important that we have constructive language, for example, encouraging us and motivating us. In long-distance races, some runners find it useful to prepare phrases for the different stages: beginning, middle and end. At the beginning they use words to go slowly and to not waste energy. During the middle they use words to keep going. In the last kilometers they use phrases not to give up. Reflect on the phrases or words that can help you in the sections of the race (e.g., ‘slowly’, ‘you’re doing great’, ‘you can’). Also pay attention to the way you build sentences, so they are positive. For example, instead of saying: ‘I still have 10 kilometres left’, it’s more constructive to say: ‘I only have 10 kilometres left.’
Flow: Many runners experience that pleasant sensation when they run in which they feel completely in control, can continue running without much effort and are focused on the here and now. When we are in flow, our performance is usually optimal because we are focused on the process of the activity and do not waste effort worrying about the result or ruminate in errors. In order to get into flow the activity has to be challenging but also possible to achieve. The activity also has to have a structure and feedback to inform if the goal is being met. Before going out to train, make a plan with the expectations of the session (e.g., the distance you will cover, the route and the approximate time you will employ). Having this information will give structure to your running and provide you with something to compare the feedback you will get with your running objetives.
Set a realistic goal: If you have not written your goal in your diary yet, then do it! Writing the goal you want to achieve will help you commit to it. Do not forget to write down the objectives, that is, the steps that you have to accomplish to reach the goal, and the daily and weekly actions that you have to take to achieve those objectives. Another important aspect when setting your goal is to monitor if you are meeting your objectives or if you need to adjust them. To do this, try to write down what you have achieved after each session, including the date to see the progress over time.
Celebrate what you have achieved so far. Whether or not you have completed the race, having dedicated your time and effort to participate is an achievement in itself. Reflect on everything you have accomplished and learned during the training and the day of the event (e.g., setting a challenging goal, having trust to achieve it, persevering in training). You can also reflect about what to do differently next time.
Finally, why not think about the next challenge? After all, the beauty of the San Silvestre’s run is to finish the year running and motivate us to challenge ourselves through sport.
Do you feel in control before the race starts? Or do you get easily distracted by the crowd or intimidated by the opponent? Are you not really sure on how to get focused before taking that shot, or do a serve? If so, perhaps you can make use of the pre-performance routines for these types of scenarios.
A pre-performance routine is a sequence of behaviors aimed to make the athletes optimally ready for executing self-paced acts, by making them feel in control and preparing their neuromuscular system. This sport psychology technique helps making the performance more effective and can be used both during skill acquisition and in competitions. Without practicing a pre-performance routine the athlete may not pay attention to the relevant stimuli and may not be able to keep thoughts or emotions in control.
Some of the situations where athletes can benefit from pre-performance routines are those in which they have the time to get ready to perform like:
Shots (e.g., archery, golf)
Throws(e.g., basketball free throws, penalties in football)
Serves (e.g., table tennis, tennis, badminton)
Starts (e.g., BMX racing, sprints, swimming)
Vaults (e.g., gymnastics)
Unexpected events! (e.g., false starts)
Pre-performance routines sometimes are confused with either superstitious rituals or those routines some athletes engage in to calm their pre-competition anxiety, by for instance tying their shoes in a particular order, or making themselves look good to feel confident. Those using superstitious rituals like entering the field with the right foot, or wearing lucky socks do so because they think that if they do not do them then their luck may be altered in some way.
Pre-performance routines instead are those for JUST the moment before the actual skill is going to be executed. They are a sequence of steps in which athletes prepare physically (e.g., with the appropriate posture for the skill), and psychologically (e.g., controlling arousal levels) to perform at their best.
When developing the sequence of behaviors for a pre-performance routine, the athlete’s preference needs to be taken into account, as it is very personal and what works for one athlete may not work for another. Here is an example of steps that can be included:
–Prepare: adjusting to the appropriate posture embodying calmness and firmness, smiling if that helps, preparing the specific pre-movements of the action (e.g., bouncing the ball several times, grabbing the bicycle handlebar grips, adjusting feet on the pedals).
–Create a quiet mind: by breathing to the preferred rhythm. Controlling the breath is the easiest way to calm down. A pattern could be the 7-11 by inspiring through the nose counting mentally until 7 and letting the air out through the nose for longer, counting mentally until 11. Positive key words to encourage confidence can also be useful.
–Imagine: not just by visualising the [realistic] successful achievement of the skill in as much detail as possible but by including all the senses and environmental and emotional information (e.g., seeing the trajectory of the ball and where does it need to go, or feeling successful while going through the different stages of the route, recreating the touch of the racket, exploding when the start signal comes up).
–Focus: on the relevant visual field to block potential distractors. For instance not paying attention to the audience when about to do a serve, as the external and wide focus of attention is not what is needed.
–Do not overthink: the action needs to flow automatically, if the athlete thinks about all the steps while doing the task, then the performance is not going to be optimal and a breakdown may follow because the process of thinking about the task slows or interferes with the task.
–Get feedback: from the performance to make adjustments next time (if possible). If the performance did not go well, there is no point to dwell on it, it is best to stay in the present moment and try again, Dwelling or criticize oneself is a waste of effort. If the performance goes well then it can be celebrated which in turn increases confidence.
-Practice, practice, practice! Like with any other skill, the more they are practiced the better you get, and the same happens for pre-performance routines. Self-paced skills can definitely be improved by this technique.
-For unexpected events like false starts: athletes can prepare a similar pre-performance routine for these kind of scenarios so they can try again with confidence, and are able to direct their attention after being distracted by something unexpected.
Traveling to international competitions requires good physical, mental and logistic preparation, otherwise our performance will be affected. Although we will be excited about the competition, changing our routine like any other small or large change is going to be a source of stress, and stress makes us tired.
Several months before the trip you have to prepare the logistic aspects, especially if you have sport equipment to transport separately. If possible it is better to travel with all our things so we do not have to worry about whether our luggage has arrived, and we will not suffer separation anxiety for our belongings.
If we can choose the plane tickets we have to choose those in which we travel during the day, in order to sleep in the hotel at night. We must also consider how many days before the competition we need to arrive to be able to train since it can be difficult and frustrating not having enough days to practice. If we want family or friends to see us compete then we have to prepare the tickets as soon as possible to avoid worrying that they will not be able to arrive in time to see us.
The following may be useful to help us rest during the trip: a travel pillow, earplugs, and a foam roller like the one used to make Pilates, to massage the muscles.
Prepare your body in advance so that you get used to changing the schedule and recover from the fatigue of the trip. Do not underestimate the adaptation to the new environment in terms of available food, weather, humidity, allergens and pollution.
Sleeping well is essential to recover from the trip and to have your mind and body rested, make sure you sleep well before the trip. On long-haul flights when we go through time changes, our biorhythms and sleep cycles will be altered. We can suffer from ‘jet lag’ which is when our internal clock and external time do not match. People who suffer from ‘jet lag’ may have lack of appetite, headache, fatigue, and disrupted concentration. The body takes about three days to adjust to the new area.
You can adjust your schedule four or five days before the trip with that of the city you are going to visit by getting up between one and half an hour earlier than usual if you travel east, or going to bed later than usual if you go westward. Of course, hydrate well and do not forget to drink water during the trip.
On training days just before the trip it is not advisable to introduce new exercises or try to learn something new. High intensity training sessions need to be done well before the trip.
It is common for athletes and coaches to be emotionally affected from the trip, so be patient with yourself, your coach and your teammates. With the new environment we can feel a little overwhelmed with such stimulation, especially if it is a country and culture that we do not know. Information about the event on the internet, newspapers and television will also be exposed and this can also cause over-stimulation.
The key to being rested is to minimize our exposure to distractions. Take into account that being in our hotel room using the laptop or mobile phone tires us mentally.
Regarding the opening ceremony – especially if we are not going to have time to recover from it – It may be better not to attend or attend only at the beginning of the ceremony.
If our performance is better during training sessions compared to competition it could be due to not having mental control when feeling under pressure. Whether you are an athlete or a coach, you can reflect on the differences between training and competition.
During training sessions:
It is where we learn and practice new skills. There is not usually as much pressure and sometimes we find the sessions boring because they may be repetitive. It is normal to make mistakes, and we also have more opportunities to practice specific techniques (e.g., passes, penalty shoots, correct our posture).
The focus is not on the result rather we focus on the technical aspects, strategy or skill that we are trying to master. This is why it is easier to experience ‘flow’, the joyful experience happening when we are immersed in a challenging task.
Since we do not feel so much pressure, we do not have to think on the specific movements or the posture and our skills do not come out ‘forced’, so our performance unfolds automatically.
Athletes play in different contexts less familiar than the training sessions. They get out of their comfort zone for instance while playing with the rival team or from feeling exposed to the public.
There are moments when the skills need to be executed right the first time, and situations like these may make the difference between classifying to a final game or not. This is one of the reasons why many athletes focus on the results instead of the process or the action they are doing at that time.
Athletes can feel pressure due to internal factors (e.g., fear of failure, thinking on outcomes if they do not win), or external (e.g., competing on a really hot day).
How can we train mentally for competition?
Reflect about the importance of training. If you commit to train it is going to be reflected on the competition day and you will feel more confident about yourself. Make every session count, so you get a learning experience from every session, whether it is about the skill you are practicing or about yourself. Reflect on the types of mistakes you make, e.g., whether you do not anticipate to the rival on time or you are too quick, whether you pass too strong on the right side or too gently on the left side, whether your performance is better when you are over-aroused than under-aroused.
If you are a coach, ensure that you cover in every session the following aspects: technical, tactical, physiological and psychological; Establish challenging and achievable goals and check their progress to consider whether they need modification.
Simulate the training as much as possible to the event day to reduce the difference between the training sessions and the competition. For instance: get familiar with the venue or the route where it is going to take place. If you cannot go beforehand you can check out the place through maps on the internet. Practice training with the same stimuli, for example: playing through background noise and cheering audience. This is so you get used to concentrate on the task at hand even if there are distractions.
Practice controlling your emotions, for instance on how you react when you make a mistake, or when you are faced with an obstacle. If you ruminate about the mistake or you blame yourself about the way you have done something, then you will be wasting your effort and you will be losing your attention from the task at hand. Instead, focus on the present and be positive. Practice ways to respond to those difficult situations in which emotional control is key (e.g., when you do not agree with the referee, or a journalist asks you an uncomfortable question, or you are getting angry because you are losing).
Finally, here is a quote to reflect about the importance of mental training:
‘In training everyone focuses on 90 percent physical and 10 percent mental, but in the races it’s 90 percent mental because there’s very little that separates us physically at the elite level.’ – Elka Graham, Olympic swimmer.