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Changing How You See Stress – See it, Own it, Use it

Introduction

What if we have it all wrong about stress? What if most of the time, it’s good for us?

Well, that’s the view of many sports, business, and performance psychology psychologists.

Researchers Alia and Thomas Crum say, “Stress has many wonderful attributes. It reminds us that we care; it connects us directly with the most challenging and important aspects of our lives.”

That’s not to say that long-term stress or stress that causes us to freeze in our game or exam is what we want – it isn’t. It can be highly damaging.

However, the data suggests that while we are often poor at avoiding and managing stress, we can be highly successful at changing–or reframing–how we see it.

And that’s important because our young athletes experience stress almost daily: a tough training session, worries over relationships, academic challenges, or fears about being dropped from the team.

Basketball legend Kobe Bryant knew a thing or two about overcoming obstacles and challenging pressure. Between 2013 and 2015, he was plagued by injuries and setbacks, but he didn’t let stress get the better of him. He captured his mindset at the time in the following quote:

“Everything negative–pressure, challenges–is all an opportunity for me to rise.’

Over the course of his career, Bryant won five NBA championships. That’s the power of the right mindset.

So, let’s explore what we can do to help our students use their stress to enhance rather than damage their performances.

Digging deeper into stress

“Experiencing stress is unavoidable and often beyond our control,” says sports psychologists Paul Mansell and Katherine Sparks.

And yet, despite being inevitable, we are often told to equate ‘stress’ with ‘distress.’ It assumes that stress always has a negative impact on our lives. For our students, that suggests keeping it at arm’s length by playing safe – avoiding the risk of failure or situations that push performance limits too far.

But let’s not forget, that stress matters in sport – when it gets out of control, it can be damaging. To be mentally healthy, our high school and college athletes need to be able to handle the tough times. If not, stress takes its toll, leading to long-term negative emotions, thoughts, and moods.

And it’s no surprise. When our athletes perceive they can’t cope and have gloomy, defeatist attitudes to stress, it can damage their mental wellness and academic and sporting performance.

 

As Mansell and Sparks say, “the prevalence of poor mental health in athletes is a concern and exploring ways to alleviate the experience of such issues should remain a priority” for coaches, schools – and most importantly, us parents.

Benefits of stress in sports

Ask any expert in sports, and they’ll all agree. The body must be stressed to build muscle and endurance. Physically training our young athletes overloads their bodies, and then they recover and, over time, progress – pushing their limits further every time.

Without training stress, there would be no physical adaptation or growth.

It’s a little different in the short term but equally essential. Those pre-game nerves prepare the body and mind for what is to come – and we can grow from it.

When faced with a stress-inducing situation–perhaps walking out onto the field before the kickoff–the athlete feels the nervous energy. The hypothalamus engages first, sending out stress hormones – the athlete’s heart starts to race, breathing speeds up, and the muscles get ready for action.

While designed to prepare the body for action, this is about the game ahead – being ready to run, throw, kick, catch, and tackle.

As performance experts Brad Stuhlberg and Steve Magness write, “When applied in the right dose, stress does more than stimulate physiological adaptation. It stimulates psychological ones, too.”

For our high school and college athletes, the stress provides a big boost to motivation and attention. The ‘kick’ arrives packaged in several neurotransmitters and hormones, such as epinephrine (adrenalin), norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine. The result is that they are ready and willing to engage, and their focus is sharp.

Building a ‘stress mindset’

While stress is unavoidable – how we experience it varies considerably.

Two factors come into play:

1. Situation appraisal – is a playoff a stressful event or an opportunity to shine?
2. Beliefs about stress – is it considered damaging and should be avoided, or will it energize our performances?

Both factors influence the effect of stress on performance and mental wellness.

Most of us see stress somewhere on a continuum between ‘stress is enhancing’ and ‘stress is debilitating.’

Psychologist and lecturer Jacob Keech at Griffith University, Queensland, Australia, and colleagues recently published a paper highlighting the essential nature of student’s stress mindset. Seeing that stress can be enhancing can boost wellness and achievement, it seems.

The importance of a ‘stress is enhancing mindset’ doesn’t end with the academic setting, says Mansell and Sparks. In Navy Seals and athletes, it leads to greater awareness of their environment and re-interpreting symptoms of anxiety as performance-boosting

But what about when it goes wrong? That’s when we crack under pressure. We become overwhelmed, and our performance suffers. Even worse, if we stay stuck in a stressful mindset for a long time, it can affect our physical and mental well-being, and we will need professional help.

What do we need to consider for a ‘stress is enhancing mindset’?

The factors involved in how athletes respond to stress, form a ‘stress is enhancing mindset,’ and stay psychologically well are complex, yet researchers agree it typically involves:

● Beliefs – the beliefs athletes hold will impact how they see stress – ‘stress-is-debilitating’ versus ‘stress-is-enhancing.’
● Education, coaching, and training – athletes benefit from understanding the differences between the two beliefs and their impact.
● Reappraisal – students can be encouraged to think about stress in different ways.
● Self-compassion – self-kindness has been proven to significantly impact the beliefs that influence how individuals see stress. It is essential to be understanding and accepting rather than self-critical.

Coaching and training can positively shape the athletes’ mindset and how they use the stress they experience.

See it, Own it, Use it

Alia Crum, Associate Professor at Stanford University, knows a great deal about stress.

And she should do. She’s worked with everyone, from top athletes and Navy seals to business leaders.

Crum reminds us that when we stress about something, it’s because we care.

High school and college athletes will care about a great deal of what they are involved in, so they are going to experience stress because they are:

● Under pressure to perform consistently – from themselves, their coaches, team, and parents.
● Balancing the demands of schoolwork versus their sporting commitments.
● Keeping up with their social activities and building and maintaining relationships.
● Concerned regarding injuries, recovery, and training schedules.
● Thinking about potential scholarships, college selection, or the possibility of turning professional.

So, we can’t just say, “Ignore the pressure; it will go away.”

Crum suggests a three-step approach to harnessing the positive aspects of stress while minimizing any negative health impacts.

Step one – begin by ‘Seeing your stress’

The student can’t just pretend the pressure has disappeared – it’s there, and they know it.

So, they begin by labeling it. Then they start seeing it as something positive – rather than to be avoided – because this changes their physical, cognitive, and behavioral response to it.

See it, and label it: “I am stressed because I missed training yesterday.”

Step two – following on with “Owning it”

Before they start to get overwhelmed by stress, they must own it.

Own it: “The training is brutal because I made the first team.”

Step three – let it become an advantage by “Using it”

Their bodies are made for stress – they need to start seeing stress as an opportunity by using the additional focus, energy, motivation, and heightened concentration to boost their performance.

Use it: Become open to the challenge. Use the stress to energize and motivate yourself

Let’s consider an example of ‘see it, own it, use it’ from an elite athlete.

When British rower Emily Craig missed out on a medal at the Tokyo Olympics by 0.01 seconds, she tackled the stress head-on. She placed a photo of her and her teammate Imogen Grant crossing the finish line just outside of medaling on her wall. She looks at it every day.

She has taken the stress of their near miss and turned it into something that’s motivating their Olympic bid in Paris 2024. And it’s working. They’ve been unbeaten since their defeat, winning back-to-back World and European titles and every World Cup they have raced.

It’s not easy, and it will take practice and support. But in time, young athletes can begin to reframe stress as something positive, enabling them to overcome whatever sporting and academic life throws at them.

The takeaway here is important. Stress cannot be avoided – and perhaps we shouldn’t even try.

However, our high school and college student athletes can learn to see stress differently. They can learn to ‘lean in’ and recognize its value for improving performance – even increasing enjoyment of training and competition.

Yet, we shouldn’t forget that when stress becomes overwhelming or forms part of other more significant issues, seeking help to create a healthier outlook is essential.

References

Almazan, S. (2022, December 19). Top Five Kobe Bryant quotes. Lakers Nation. https://lakersnation.com/top-five-kobe-bryant-quotes/#google_vignette

Crum, A., & Crum, T. (2018, February 9). Stress can be a good thing if you know how to use it. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2015/09/stress-can-be-a-good-thing-if-you-know-how-to-use-it

Gunston, J. (2024). British rowers Grant and Craig reframe their mindset after missing out on an Olympic medal by 0.01 seconds. Olympics.com. https://olympics.com/en/news/reframe-mindset-missing-olympic-medal-photo-finish

Keech, J. J., Orbell, S., Hagger, M. S., O’Callaghan, F. V., & Hamilton, K. (2021b). Psychometric properties of the stress control mindset measure in university students from Australia and the UK. Brain and Behavior, 11(2), e01963.

Mansell, P., Sparks, K., Wright, J., Roe, L., Carrington, S., Lock, J., & Slater, M. (2023). “Mindset: performing under pressure” – a multimodal cognitive-behavioral intervention to enhance the well-being and performance of young athletes. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 1–20.

Pietrangelo, A. (2023, March 21). The effects of stress on your body. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/stress/effects-on-body#:~:text=Your%20hypothalamus%2C%20a%20tiny%20control,your%20muscles%20ready%20for%20action.

Stulberg, B., & Magness, S. (2017). Peak performance: Elevate your game, avoid burnout, and thrive with the new science of success. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Books.

Sutton, J. (2024, February 28). The Science of Coping: 10+ strategies & skills. PositivePsychology.com. https://positivepsychology.com/coping-strategies-skills/