The effects of stress on athletic performance

6 Feb 2015 – Stress is a reaction by the body and brain to some challenge or threat, good or bad experiences. When you are stressed by something, your body reacts by releasing chemicals into your blood. There are two types of stress, one is positive and the other is negative and can directly affect your performance.

When you can manage your stress effectively, you will experience positive stress that will 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.

Nothing separates the positive and negative stress. When the level of stress increases the level of performance also increases, but when it reaches a point of excessive stress, it becomes negative to the body and thus, the level of performance will instantly decrease and the athlete will start feeling fatigue and may end up exhausted. It may also cause illness or breakdown. The athlete won’t feel the enthusiasm and his productivity will decline.

Stress hormones such as cortisol have the ability to cross the blood-brain barrier and impair these important cognitive processes. Consequently, high levels of stress can negatively affect most aspects of human cognition; the key ones being attention, memory and decision-making.

There are two types of attention, the internal and external one. If you’re devoting 80 per cent outwardly and 20 per cent inwardly, your conversation with somebody should be fine. But if most of your attention is directed inwardly, you’re not going to be a pleasant person to talk with. Communication is key in team sports.

External attention is really important for visual perception, thus it is very important for sports that need high perception.

Stress can also affect the working memory, or decision-making. We can then experience many errors in decision-making, so it is preferable to take important decisions when we are stress free. In sports, most of the times we use our previous experiences to better deal with the upcoming ones. So our memory should work efficiently for us to better manage the situation.

Furthermore, stress can increase the impulsivity of a person, thus decreasing his capability of being patient and increasing his anger.

Stress can directly affect our physiology by increasing the muscle tension. It can also interfere with both sleep quality and quantity. Muscle tension combined with troubled sleep will conduct to fatigue and injuries.

It also affects the immune system, making athletes more susceptible to illness, and can also have a negative effect on tissue repair. Recovering from injuries can then be slower and take more time than usually.

If you entered a phase of excessive stress, and you are not able to manage it, it is preferably to discuss it with your coach or consult a psychologist.