Stress is a reaction by the body and brain, generally instigated by an external stimulus. It may be some challenge, threat or experience, either good or bad. When you are stressed by something, your body reacts by releasing chemicals (Cortisol, adrenaline, norepinephrine) into your blood. How you perceive stress will either lead to a positive or negative experience. Think of Stress as nothing more than energy. The same feeling we get when we’re super excited, is actually the same process (chemical reaction) in our body that makes us nervous and anxious before a public speaking event, for example. The only difference is how we perceive and respond to the stressor.
When you can manage your stress effectively, you actually experience positive stress (energy) that can increase your performance. Stressors such as pressure can facilitate better stress response and thus, higher levels of performance. This pressure can motivate and encourage the athlete to do better.
The ‘Inverted U-Graph below shows the relationship between pressure (stress) and performance.
(Image from mindtools.com)
The Inverted-U Graph
Looking at the left side of the graph, you will notice that low pressure or low levels of stress results to a person’s stress response as “boredom” or unchallenging. Even if the task is of great importance, in the absence of an appropriate level of pressure, attention and concentration to perform the task are significantly low.
On the other hand, extreme levels of pressure doesn’t mean high performance levels either; Super high or mismanaged stress will lead to decreased performance and/or unhappiness.
However, there’s an “area of best performance”. In this zone, moderate pressure resulting to optimum stress or stress that is totally manageable leads to the highest level of performance. This level will be different for each individual, depending upon their ability to deal with the pressure (stress). This is where you will see seasoned athletes thrive on the pressure, while other crumble.
What athletes should aim for is an ability to control their state/ the stressors. Get Sympathetic (think excited, energetic, ‘flight or fight’) and use the energy to their advantage, THEN, get back to parasympathetic (relaxed, mindful, present, recovery state) after the event.
Some tips that may be useful when in a high pressure/stress environment are;
If you perceive pressure as negative, you will associate it with negative thought processes such as self-doubt, however, if you perceive pressure as positive, feeling its signs could improve your performance. Recognizing that nerves and pressure can facilitate good performance is an important step in reframing your approach to them. Think of the ‘adrenaline’ as useful to make you faster, stronger and feel better.
Have a positive internal dialogue.
You might say something like “I’m excited, i perform well when I’m excited.” A positive attitude goes a long way to improved performance
Be confident in your ability. Earned confidence is built by putting in the work necessary day in and day out. If you have out in the work, you will be confident in your ability to perform the task.
Focus on what you can control.
Do not worry about other people or anything else out of your control. Focused on only the aspects of the event/environment that are directly in your control.
Be present, be mindful, be aware. Bring your attention to your breathing. focus on controlled, diphragm breathing.
A great athlete/performer takes the same sensations that everyone else is feeling (anxiety, tension, butterflies, etc.) and coverts that into a heightened state where they have more energy, better concentration and increased confidence. Thus, they experience these feelings as good stress.