Stress and performance

      Sport as area of performance is indispensably connected to stress. That does not necessarily mean that everyone has to feel stress, nor that it is a negative thing if an athlete does feel stress. There are several different types of stress and levels of stress, with their particular ways of display. High level of stress is harmful in some situations, while in others certain level of stress actually helps the body and mind to prepare for upcoming performance.   The way how we experience stress and our sensibility to stress is different for everyone. Therefore, it is important to approach each person, athlete or coach, individually.
Stress is natural response of our body to triggers of physical or mental load. We know two basic types of stress: positive stress (eustress) and negative stress (distress). Eustress helps the body to prepare for higher load and to be able to achieve certain physical or mental performance. For example, when a hockey player is warming up before a game, he is at the same time slowly adopting competitive mood and state of mind. The body of the player is in this situation entering state of stress and prepares itself for maximum performance. Distress, on the other hand, is counterproductive. Its common displays are high nervousness before a competition, as a result of which athletes loose concentration, their stomach is shaking and they are worried about the result of the game, etc. This may finally negatively influence their performance and overall experience from the sport event.
      Sometimes stress is helpful and at other occasions it may be harmful, but it should never be our enemy. The best and most valuable sport performances would not be achieved without stress. It is essential that we develop our ability to work with stress and we practice how to cope with it. So, what is the exact link between stress and performance? We all need certain type of stress to push our body and mind to give their best. Stress will make sure adrenaline flows into the blood, more blood flows into the muscles, enhancing their physical performance. On the other hand, less blood will flow into digestive system and digestive processes will be reduced, to save large amount of energy which can be then used for other bodily systems. Activity and concentration of all bodily senses will improve, most importantly of those ones necessary for the sport we are practicing. The body and nervous system are preparing to be able to deliver good performance. Graph 1 represents the link between stress and performance.

Graph 1: The level of stress and performance.

 Ref.: Kuračka, Kuračková, 2018
      In some cases the level of stress exceeds its optimal value. Athletes are too nervous and feel under pressure, they are afraid of underperformance and bad results. As a result they may lose composure and equilibrium. Their movements become less coordinated and they may lose control over them. Further physical displays of elevated stress may appear, such as shaking, sweating, more frequent need to go to the toilet or tunnel vision. If increased stress appears several hours before the start of the competition, athletes will not be capable of eating. Their mind is usually full of worries and busy with negative scenarios, as a result of which they are not able to concentrate. Any level of stress higher that the optimal stress level may lead to lower performance and unpleasant feelings before and during the competition. In such case athletes are not capable of achieving performance at the borderline of their possibilities; neither can they get any positive emotional experience from the competition.  Graph 2 shows the correlation of stress and the capability of achieving maximum performance.

Graph 2: Positive and negative stress vs. performance.

Ref.: Kuračka, Kuračková, 2018

      However, the goal of mental preparation is not to eliminate stress completely. The aim of athletes as well as their collaboration with sport psychologists shall focus on finding the individual optimal level of stress and learning to achieve it effectively. This optimal stress level is called the Zone. If an athlete finds him/herself in the Zone, the probability that they will reach their personal performance peak increases. The overall performance and result depends on several factors, however it is essential that athletes perform according to their best capabilities in every given moment. For example, if a runner on 100m can get him/herself in the Zone, that does not necessarily mean that he/she will be able to exceed their personal record every day. Their resulting final time will depend on their physical fitness, load in the past days, nutritional habits before the race, quality of the running course, meteorological conditions, etc. Graph 3 shows the optimal levels of activation (stress).

Graph 3: Optimal level of stress

Ref.: Kuračka, Kuračková, 2018
      Stress actually represents the level of activation of our body. If the level of activation is too low, it is very unlikely that we will be able to reach our maximum performance. Very low activation means such state of lethargy, boredom or lack of interest, when we do not care about anything at all. People usually experience very low activation during their holidays, lying on the beach and sunbathing. On the other hand, extremely high stress means that our body and mind are activated too much. It can be quite simply represented on a revolution counter in a car: If activation is low, revolutions are at low level, and the engine can not accelerate and reach its maximum performance. On the other hand, if the revolutions are too high, the car can accelerate, however the engine will not be able to keep up for long time and we might “roast” it. Let’s see this visually in Graph 4.

Graph 4: Activation in sport

Ref.: Kuračka, Kuračková, 2018
      It is essential for everyone to know our ideal level of “revolutions”. At the same time it is important to know how it really looks like when we find ourselves in the Zone. More in detail, it is key to know how compete or play, what we concentrate on, what we think about, or if we think about anything at all. This is very individual and depends on the personality of each athlete as well as the type of sport. In the end everyone needs and likes something else and each sport discipline may require different level of “revolutions”, for example, our mind works on different “revolutions” in shooting or archery and in box or wrestling. 
      If you would like improve in this area, in the first place you need to search for your optimal level of “revolutions”. Think about how it looks when you achieve them. The Exercise num. 1 will help you in your search. Next try to have your body and mind adopt the level of optimal activation (optimal revolutions). The current issue of our eMagazine offers several techniques and suggestions for the training of optimal activation. If you would like to learn more about this topic, we will be happy to help you personally.