The scene is a high school track, just around the corner from my house. It’s early in the morning, the sun peeking up over the fence at the far end. I’m kept company by just one older man who supports his short steps around the hallow oval with a wooden cane. I’m preparing to do my speed workout as part of my training for an upcoming race, stretching my sore muscles and longing for the comfort of my cool sheets on this sticky morning.
I’m dreading this run. I’m even feeling angry that I “have to” do it. Why am I even training for this stupid race anyway?, I think to myself. But, alas, I push myself to start my first mile repeat. My mind and my body are fighting me.
As I begin running, I start to pay attention to my internal monologue. I notice that my mind is filled with thoughts like: I don’t want to be doing this. I’ll never make my times today. My legs are so sore. I’ll never make my goal anyway – why bother?
I begin to wonder why an activity I love – one that usually helps ease my mind and release tension – is suddenly causing me so much anxiety and stress. As I curve around the track and pass the first 200 meter mark, I realize that the stress of the past few weeks is weighing on me. And it’s weighing on my enjoyment of and performance in running.
Sports psychologists, professionals who work with athletes to improve skills and well-being, are beginning to learn more about the impact of stress on athletic performance and just how important it is to regulate stress levels among athletes.
It’s been found that one way in which stress can affect your performance is through the your mind. Stress and anxiety tend to inhibit our ability to concentrate and focus, particularly if we’re concerned about unrelated things like our finances or why our cat threw up this morning. This lack of focus can be a major liability in achieving optimal performance, particularly in activities that require more of it (like, say, archery?).
Other symptoms associated with stress and anxiety, like negative thought patterns and expectations of failure, can also undermine your training. On the day I described above, my times significantly suffered, and I believe that this was due to my negative self-talk. If I’m telling myself how much I hate what I’m doing, how incapable I am, and how I should simply give up… it’s no wonder that my body reacts accordingly. My mind tells my body it feels weak and incapable, my body doesn’t put forth as much effort, and my performance suffers in a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Besides lack of focus and negative thinking, stress also has a major impact on us physically in ways that can make our work-outs suffer. For one, the physical tension that often accompanies stress can negatively impact our coordination, the fluidity of our movement, and our speed. And while a moderate level of physical arousal will aide in performance, chronic stress causes increased blood pressure, a suppressed immune system, and depression (which may make you not want to get out of bed to do your work-out at all!).
So what to do about it?
If your stress level has gotten to a point of causing you significant problems in your day-to-day functioning, it may be time to see a medical professional.
If you want to try some means of managing your stress yourself, there are lots of techniques out there that can be helpful, such as cognitive restructuring, mindfulness training, and muscle relaxation. One of my favorites is using visualization, which is sometimes called by other names to confuse us – like mental rehearsal or guided imagery.
Visualization can be particularly helpful if your stress centers around the sport you’re performing, like if you get anxious about being able to accomplish your goal for that day. You can use visualization to mentally create the outcome that you desire, and the scenarios imagined can have one or more qualities – auditory, visual, tactile, kinesthetic (how your body feels doing something), or emotional. Just as you might practice the sport, you practice the visualization repeatedly. Not only have researchers found that this technique can lower anxiety, but it can improve actual performance as well.
Have you experienced your physical performance be impacted by your stress level? Would you ever give visualization a shot?
Ashley Solomon, Psy.D is the author of Nourishing the Soul, a blog about struggles we have with eating and appreciating our bodies as beautiful, maintaining a balanced lifestyle, and thoughts about recovery and self-improvement. Nourishing the Soul can also be found on twitter and facebook.
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