Stress and Sporting Performance: Considerations for Athletes.

Stress has become one of the more undermined pathologies of our time, it is common to hear a friend or colleague say that they have had “just a stressful day at work” or is feeling “a little bit stressed out” and that the problem of feeling stressed can easily be fixed with a nice cup of tea or some downtime watching television or reading a book.

While the implications of stress can be overlooked by the general population without any grave consequences the same cannot be said for athletic populations. The science behind stress and its effects on the body is something that sports coaches are very much already aware of, especially those involved in the Strength & Conditioning. However the variables involved in stress and the management of these variables can only be controlled by the athlete and not the coach, this is why athletes should have more awareness of stress in relation to sporting performance so they can take the necessary precautions to minimise its negative impacts.

Discovery of stress.

The discovery of stress is attributed to endocrinologist Hans Selye (1956) who proposed that there was non specific responses of the body to damage of any kind. This proposal was initially rejected by his peers due to the fact that treating symptoms that were not specific to the disease/ illness that the patient was suffering with seemed pointless. They focussed on the symptoms specific to the disease in order to be able to identify and treat it, in their mind the non specific symptoms were of no use to them diagnostically.

Selye however was more fascinated with the non specific symptoms of the disease, he noticed that many diseases such as measles, scarlet fever and the flu shared symptoms that in their very early stages were indistinguishable from each other. While other physicians focussed on the specific symptoms of diseases to identify them, Selye was focussed on the “syndrome of just being sick.” Selye’s fascination with this “syndrome of just being sick” led him to discover that there were changes in the structure and chemical composition of the body to damage of any kind. He named the process of these changes the General Adaptation Syndrome.

The General Adaptation Syndrome is classified into three stages: the alarm reaction stage, the stage of resistance and the stage of exhaustion (Figure 1).

The alarm stage is characterised by an increase in glucocorticoids such as cortisol, the shrinkage of glands and lymph nodes, the depletion of hormones and degeneration in other markers of the body like decrease in body weight and higher blood pressure. Should the body be repeatedly exposed to the stressor in the alarm phase and not given a chance to move on to the stage of resistance then the characteristics of the alarm phase will continue and the organism will deteriorate.

The stage of resistance phase is where the “adaptation” part of General Adaptation Syndrome comes from. This phase is the exact opposite of the alarm stage, the glands that shrunk the the alarm stage return to their normal size along with an abundance of hormones that were otherwise depleted before and blood pressure and body weight return to normal.

The stage of exhaustion is where the body returns to its normal state but not before showing similar signs to that of that alarm stage. Selye described this stage as being a sort of premature aging due to the wear and tear of stress which is why it appears to mimic the characteristics of the alarm stage.

Figure 1 — General Adaptation Syndrome

Stress and occupation.

Selye’s initial discovery of stress focussed a lot on the physiological responses that occur when the body tries to adapt to physiological stress. However since his work back in 1956 the investigation into stress and the variables involved in stress has skyrocketed. In the early 70’s the investigation into stress took a new direction with many authors taking a holistic approach to stress. Cooper and Marshall (1976) proposed that the most effective way to investigate physiological stress responses in relation to occupation was by investigating the sociological, psychological and physiological stress on the body and their various outcomes. A 2005 study by Johnson et al., compared the experiences of various job occupations (U.K) with 3 different stress variables: Physical health, psychological well being and job satisfaction. In terms of physical health some jobs in the public sector (firefighter) scored below average, but scored higher in terms of psychological well being. The physical health and psychological of nursing jobs however scored below average, this correlates with Harrington’s (2001) findings of the health of shift workers with many physiological aspects of shift workers being problematic such as; distributed sleep patterns, fatigue, poor digestive health etc.

Other factors involving stress.

When it comes to environmental factors of stress one of the more well studied areas is the health of urban and rural populations. Levine and Scotch (1970) found that people living in urban areas had a higher prevalence of high blood pressure than those in rural area, they explained that this could be due to the factors that are associated with city living (e.g., overcrowding, noise pollution, pollution, traffic jams). However they also proposed that the same health risks could also be found in rural areas due to isolation and lack of social interaction.There are other variables involved in stress that are less quantifiable for example social aspects of stress, certain relationships can become more strenuous than others depending on the individual which can lead to mental health issues such as anxiety or depression especially if the individual is already genetically predisposed to these mental health issues.

Considerations for athletes.

The science behind stress and its health implications for the general population has been well researched and documented for the last 60 years. However when it comes to sport, athletes have to take a different view on the subject of stress, not to concern themselves too much with the health implications of stress on the general population but more on the performance implications of stress upon themselves, the athletic population.

Different types of stress don’t not exist within a vacuum. It isn’t possible to box emotional stress, physical stress and mental stress from one another and keep their effects separate from one another. The effects that stress has on the body is all encompassing and cannot be compartmentalised.

For sport coaches and those involved in the strength and conditioning sector not all stress is bad. Training is a stress on the body, however it is a stress that is methodically planned and controlled in order for the athlete adapt and improve sporting performance, it is stress with a purpose.

However the stress of life can have negative effects on the athlete, the increase in cortisol will negatively affect the immune system as well as suppress testosterone which is a key hormone involved in sporting performance. Lower testosterone and a higher prevalence to illness due to a weaker immune system are not optimal for any athlete trying to adapt to the training stresses place upon them by their coaches.

The following figure from Zatsiorsky and Kraemer (2006) Science and Practice Of Strength Training shows the pattern of biochemical substances during the One-Factor Theory (Theory of Supercompensation). The One-Factor Theory resembles much of Selye’s General Adaptation Syndrome (figure 1). The vertical axis of One-Factor Theory (figure 2) resembles the athletes preparedness for training based on the biochemical substances response to the stress of training, the horizontal axis represents the timing of the training stressor placed upon the body. Axis (a) shows that when the rest intervals are too short between training stressors the athlete’s preparedness will deteriorate, considering that we know that all forms of stress have a similar effect on the body’s physiology, the current figure best represents how repeated exposure of stress can negatively effect sporting performance.

(Figure 2 — Zatsiorsky and Kraemer, 2006)

In order to put themselves in the best possible position to succeed athletes have to do their best to mitigate all the stressors in their lives in order to ensure they are eliminating all potential barriers to an optimal training environment. Many coaches or officials within a sport may advise athletes not to work in order to be able to train multiple times a day or recover optimally between training sessions, unless the sport in question has the necessary funding to provide athletes with a living then this is not possible as the stress of unemployment and financial insecurity is just a bad as the stresses of employment and being overworked. In this regard athletes may chose to take lesser paid jobs that they are over-qualified for in order to have the hours needed for multiple training sessions per day and the recovery time needed in-between those training sessions throughout a training week.

As well as carefully selecting employment based on their needs as an athlete, they may choose to live closer to their training environment rather than move a big city where the majority of their friends or family live. The ability to be closer to their training environment and their coach is much more advantageous than having to drive 40 minutes to the training environment and be subjected to the stressors of traffic jams and urban environments (Bellet et al, 1969).

It is the athlete and the athlete alone who can control the stressors in their lives outside of training, coaches can observe and inform the athlete of the various signs that show decrease in sport performance but it is the athlete that has full autonomy over their relationships, their living environment and their employment or lack thereof. It is our hope that the considerations put forward in this article can best inform the athlete of these considerations and their applications for optimal sporting performance.

  • Cooper, CL., Marshall, J.(1976). Occupational sources of stress. A review of literature relating to coronary heart disease and mental ill health. Journal of Occupational Psychology. 49:11 – 28.
  • Bellet, S., Roman, L., Koshs, J. (1969). The effect of automobile driving on catecholamine and adrenocortical excretion. Am J Cardiol 24:365 – 368.
  • Harrington, JM. (2001). Health effects of shift work and extended hours of work. Occ Enviorn Med. 58:68 – 72.
  • Johnson, S., Cooper, C., Cartwright., Taylor, P., Donald, I., Millet, C.(2005). The experience of work-related stress across occupations.
  • Levine, S., Scotch, N.A. (1970) Social stress. Itasca, Illinois: Aldine Publishing company.
  • Selye, H., (1956). The Stress Of Life, 2nd Edition, McGraw Hill publications.

Zatsiorsky, V.M., Kraemer, W.J. (2006). Science and practice of strength training. 2nd edition.

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