Sports Psychology

Stress and the Athlete -The Myth of “I can handle it”

Stress and the Athlete -The Myth of “I can handle it”

Stress is a fascinating subject area. People talk a lot about “all the stress” they are under or “how stressful” life is. Some people walk around in a perpetual state of being “stressed”.

Stress itself has good and bad properties. Physically – without some stress on the body we become a blubbering piece of flab. It is what gives us strength and bone density for instance. Mentally – we know boredom is on one side of the spectrum and bouncing off walls stressed out is on the other side. It is somewhere in between that we thrive. It is also true that everyone needs some reprieve from stress – recovery time. Consistent high stress wears us down.

Some athletes believe that stress outside their sport is separate from their sport and that they “can handle” it. Stress knows no bounds. It will spill over from “life” if you do not learn to handle it.

Here’s the really funny – cool thing. Stress is only what we do to ourselves! It is subjective (what is stressful to one person isn’t to another.). It is also unique to the individual (we each suffer stress symptoms differently, uniquely).

It is folly to believe that the stress we experience in life is somehow separate from athletic performance. If you get yourself “stressed out” in life, you will inevitably feel it in your athletic performance. You will break down. You will increase your likelihood of injuries and illness (ya, tons of research on this). That is because the physical stress reaction to our mental interpretation of events yields tension in muscles and a compromised immune system.

I know everyone is “wired” differently. High strung people have a harder time with this than more laid back individuals. But, the bottom-line is that we control what goes on in our heads.

  • Nobody makes us stressed.
  • Nobody gets us angry.
  • Interpretations happen in our minds.
  • We are only influenced – not controlled – by all these outside events.



Learning how to control your stress reactions starts in your mind. If you can master your stress reaction (aka stress management) in life in general then you will be able to do so in the athletic world as well. If you cannot handle life-stress, the odds of you magically handling it in the face of race anxiety is doubtful.

  1. The first step is recognition of your reactions. If you don’t know the situations that trigger your thoughts and you cannot recognize when you’re thinking in “one of those ways” you cannot change it.
  2. Once you can do that you need to regroup – take a deep breath and realize you are doing this to yourself and you can stop.
  3. Stress usually revolves around lamenting the past, mind reading and anticipating the future. Refocus on what you control. You control YOU. You control YOU in the PRESENT.
  4. This is called using the 3-Rs: Recognize, Regroup, Refocus. Use this in life and in sports. This is one of the basic skills I teach all my mental game clients. This must be mastered.



Have you ever been so totally absorbed with something that time just went by; that all else disappeared into the background? It is because you were completely associated with the here and now. It is that kind of focus that is required to stop your stress response. Get absorbed (focused) in something other than your stress trigger!

With practice you can do this. It doesn’t happen without practice though. You have a choice – continue to be stressed out and allow it to run your life and compromise your athletic performance; or take control back and not be a victim to old reactions and thoughts to those triggers.


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This post was written by:

- who has written 19 posts on Trail Running Club.


Owner of Mindset for Performance - a peak performance consulting service for athletes and business people alike. But here's what I actually do! As a certified mental games coaching professional I apply techniques and teach strategies from sports psychology - the psychology of peak performance - to everyone I can. I have worked with athletes from: tennis, golf, running, triathlons, duathlons, cycling, baseball, basketball, soccer, MMA fighting, and professional tiddlywinkers (ok I'm kidding about the last one.

I have a passion for sharing knowledge and see myself more as an educator. I love working with youth and really love seeing the difference the skills I teach make a difference in sports, school and home.

My work totally rocks!

Oh some other boring stuff about me:
• M.Ed. in Higher Education Administration (THE U of A) with post graduate work in sports psychology
• BS in Rehabilitation for the Deaf (Yes I know sign language)
• AA in nursing (early career)
• MGCP - Certified Mental Games Coaching Professional
• Certified running coach USATF Level I
• Certified track and field official USATF National Level


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