If you want to improve mental toughness and play your best, it is important that you learn about the science of stress, including responding to stress in healthy and effective ways. When stress overwhelms us, we lose focus, patience, and emotional intelligence, resulting in performances below our capabilities. For example, if you lose your temper in a game and struggle to regain composure, instead of focusing on the next play you will likely focus on the last play. This seemingly small distinction actually makes all the difference in performance level — getting caught up in the last play prevents the needed focus on the next play (the only play that matters).
Good stress and bad stress
Did you know that stress can be experienced during good times similar to how we experience stress during tough times? Eustress, or “good” stress, occurs when new pressures develop when trying to lead a team, keep up a positive streak, or carry out off-field expectations that feel overwhelming. Regardless of whether you deal with negative stress (known as distress) or good stress, what is most important is that you identify the stressor and develop healthy ways to cope.
Interestingly, some of my most “stressed” athletes over the years have been quite successful, yet still felt the burdens of time management, communication, conflict resolution, and multi-tasking. The point is that all stress, whether it’s breaking a bad hitting streak or keeping up with the expectations of being a role model, can lead to shifts in focus and behaviors that directly impact performance, for better or for worse.
4 tips to help
- Focus on what you control. Psychologists have found that control plays a big part in how we respond to stress. Simply, when we feel in control of things we experience less stress, but when we feel things are out of control we deal with more stress.
- Develop a game plan. Pick something that is stressing you and write down a list of the things you control that impact the stress, then write a second list of the things you don’t control. For example, if you are trying to secure a starting position, your “control” list might include getting in great shape, mastering your skills, and keeping a positive attitude. Your “no control” list might include the coach actually starting you, as you can’t make him or her put you in the lineup.
- Prepare. Look over both your control and no control lists and develop strategic ways to manage the stress. For example, if you need to get in better shape it would be wise to write out specific, measurable goals to help you improve. For things you don’t control, like the coach putting you in the game, think about how you will control negative emotions and instead keep a patient, positive attitude.
- Build from your success. Take note of the ways you beat stress and find ways to use your new discoveries for other stressors in your life. Remember, the better you respond to stress, the more likely you will reach your full human potential.
For more help on how to use stress for success check out our popular e-book The Athletes Guide to Mental Toughness here.