Professional athletes and stress- how do they cope?

Everyone around the world is getting sport fever. Live sports is back on TV after the COVID hiatus and we are counting down to the Olympics! Here at DNAfit we’ve done a little investigation into what role stress plays in athletic performance during the Olympics, and how the world’s top athletes deal with pressure to still go for the gold in their quest to be the best. We’ve drawn from a variety of theories to paint you a comprehensive picture of the complicated relationship between athletic performance and stress and the different ways in which it manifests.

Can stress affect Olympians? 

Julia Mancuso I don't know | DNAfit Blog

Dealing with the role that stress plays during times of major sporting events has cases for both a negative and positive effect. Biologically, the effects of stress on the brain are known. In the argument dealing with the negative role that stress can play relates to the stress hormones such as cortisol, which have the ability to cross the blood-brain barrier and impair 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. Stress can also lead to lack of sleep, which, in turn, increases how fatigued athletes may feel. All of this contributes to lower performance levels. Although sports skills are automatic and done without conscious effort when stress or pressure increases your ability to stay focused on only the sport decreases. This can be highlighted as attention, memory and decision-making. They’re important when an athlete is aiming to perform optimally and when their concentration levels are lowered because they’re spending time trying too hard, having to think about what they’re doing, they actually slow down and will reduce performance quite significantly.

Genetics 

Because we at DNAfit are in the business of genetics, a study has shown that there’s also proof that the COMT gene is associated with coping with dopamine released during periods of stress. The gene comes in two variants: either slow or fast removal of dopamine. Under calm circumstances, when stress is not pumping dopamine into the brain, the slow variant keeps dopamine levels up; and people with this variant function better than those with the fast variety. But when the going gets tough, under stress, when the brain is flooded with dopamine, those who can remove it quickly, the “warriors”, or people who have the fast variant, naturally deal with stress better than “worriers”, who can’t remove dopamine as quickly. As you may know, your genes will never change but you can use them in relation to your environment in order to condition better results. An athlete taking a genetic test to find out if they are a “warrior” or a “worrier” could potentially serve to help them understand why they react to pressure and stress in different ways and then find solutions on how to solve any predetermined issues and adequately acclimatise to properly managing their response to stress and pressure.

Gold, Silver and Bronze Olympic medals | DNAfit Blog

Managing stress

We spoke to former Olympian Craig Pickering who gave us some insight from an athlete’s perspective. He explained that “one way to get better at handling stress is to be exposed to it more - so for athletes this will be competing at high level competitions and in front of big crowds. You can also set up your training sessions to prepare you to handle stress, by competing with others during training, or setting performance goals that need to be met to avoid some sort of forfeit, for example.

If handling pressure is something that the athlete isn’t good at, they can work with a sports psychologist, which can be useful. Sometimes, it’s as simple as reframing the feeling of pressure (which people think is negative) into something positive - for example. Craig goes on to explain that “it’s good to feel nervous, because it means the competition is important, and being nervous means I will compete at my best”. They can also teach us techniques used to calm us down, if required.

The biggest thing for me was to treat the Olympics as “just another competition”. If you go there and try and make everything perfect, you’ll likely be more stressed. If you just treat it like another race, and enjoy the experience, hanging out with your friends, you’ll be more relaxed, and also likely compete better.”

Download our Guide to Stress, Mindfulness & Meditation. We have tips to help you manage stress from our wellness team. 

Learn healthy stress management techniques with our Guide to Stress, Mindfulness & Meditation

So it goes to show that it’s not only about stress preventing us from achieving our goals. The stress of performing at the highest level is always going to be there but in truth it’s all about the big game temperament and using the pressure as a motivator to succeed that counts. You need to trust in your abilities and visualise yourself competing at the highest level, doing what you need to do to win. Being an athlete will always mean dealing with stress, and the Olympics is one of the biggest competitions of them all. If you can use your stress to compete at an even higher level then you will have a big advantage over your fellow competitors, as well.

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