Here you have an infographic with various biases that can occur at different stages of the research process:
Photograph by Jordan McQueen on Unsplash
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.
This infographic shows eight common cognitive distortions.
Photograph by Nihal Demirci on Unsplash
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.
- Smile more!
- Practice mindfulness.
- 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.
Photograph by Ash Goldsborough on Unsplash
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.
Photograph by Filip Mroz on Unsplash
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||Beginning||Middle||End||After the race|
|I am ready||Steady||You are going really good||Light and fast||You have done really well|
|I am going to make it||Calm||I love running||Power legs||Well done runner|
|I have done all the training so that is why I know I am capable||Keep smiling||I love running up the hills||Steady steps||You’ve made it!|
|Come on one more kilometer||You are going as fast as the wind|
|Keep the rhythm||Just a little bit more|
|Come on, keep running||Last bit to go|
|Posture||You can do it|
Photograph by Martins Zemlickis on Unsplash
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.
Photograph by Jules D on Unsplash
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.