Stress Management in Sport

Stress  management  refers  to  the  environmental, physiological, cognitive, and behavioral techniques employed by an individual to manage the factors and  components  that  underlie  the  stress  process or  experience  of  stress.  A  primary  goal  of  stress management  in  sport  is  to  allow  the  athlete  to effectively  regulate  competition  related  demands to  facilitate  optimal  performance  as  well  as  to enhance  psychological  well-being  (PWB).  There are  numerous  stress  management  techniques  that can be classified into various heuristic categories. Many of these are covered in this entry. However, to  understand  why  these  techniques  are  effective under  specific  conditions,  it  is  important  first  to understand the stress and emotion process.

Contemporary  thinking  in  sport  psychology (SP)  conceptualizes  stress  as  a  complex  dynamic transaction between environmental demands, such as  those  associated  with  high-level  competition, and  the  athlete.  Stress  occurs  when  the  demands tax or exceed the resources, such as skills or support,  that  the  athlete  has  at  his  or  her  disposal. Since  competitive  sport  is  by  nature  demanding, how athletes evaluate and cope with the demands they  encounter  has  a  large  impact  on  the  stress process.  The  environmental  demands,  as  well as  internally  generated  demands  from  personal expectations and goals, are typically called stressors.  Stressors  can  be  acute,  chronic,  or  intermittent, and they can also be expected or unexpected.

The  stress  process  is  highly  influenced  by  how athletes evaluate the personal and social meaning of  stressors.  Such  evaluation,  typically  called  an appraisal  process,  can  be  rapid  and  automatic  or reflective and is shaped by social learning, culture, and  memories.  In  many  cases,  emotional  feelings  and  patterns  of  thought  and  behaviors  are activated,  with  corresponding  physiological  and neurological activation, action impulses, cognitive plans,  and  actions.  Thus,  the  stress  response  can include  changes  in  emotion,  feelings,  cognitions, behavior,  and  autonomic  physiological  systems. Stress responses differ from athlete to athlete, and, for any given athlete, stress responses can take different forms in varying situations. Thus, effective stress management can target the actual demands and/or enhance the athlete’s ability to regulate the factors that are associated with the appraisal, emotion, and cognitive behavioral response.

Stress  management  techniques  in  sport  typically  target  somatic,  behavioral,  and/or  cognitive affective  symptoms  of  stress.  Somatic  responses involve the athlete’s physiological reactions, such as changes in heart rate (HR), respiration (R), sweating,  gastrointestinal  functioning,  muscular  tension and control, pupil dilation, urinary system, and salivation. Behavioral responses are the direct actions taken  because  of  the  stress,  including  engagement or disengagement in certain strategies or activities, as  well  as  distraction.  Finally,  cognitive  affective responses include the thoughts associated with the stress,  including  worries,  beliefs,  apprehensions, and  negative  expectations  about  performance  as well as action plans to manage stress. Distinguishing between and being aware of each of these aspects is important for the athlete, coach, and SP consultant, as this knowledge helps to ensure the appropriate stress management skills are applied.

Effective   stress   management   also   needs   to recognize  the  temporal  aspect  of  the  stress  process.  Stressful  transactions  in  sport  often  involve anticipation,  confrontation  (engagement),  and post-engagement  stages  and  can  result  in  an  athlete feeling overwhelmed. Stress management techniques can target specific stages or combination of stages.

Types of Stress Management Programs and Techniques

There   are   a   number   of   stress   management approaches   in   sport   to   deal   with   various components  of  the  stress  process.  Some  practitioners  advocate  a  multimodal  approach,  which involves using different tactics thought to be more effective  in  combination.  Others  suggest  focusing  on  the  dominant  stressor  with  a  unimodal approach, which uses a singular, focused intervention  strategy.  Multimodal  approaches  tend  to  be favored  because  of  their  effectiveness  on  a  wide range  of  factors  related  to  different  elements  of the  stress  process  (i.e.,  actual  stressor,  emotional feeling,  cognition,  behavior,  and  physiological responses).  However,  there  is  evidence  that  situations dominated by one particular stressor may be more efficiently treated with a unimodal approach. The effectiveness of any type of stress management ranges  depends  on  variables  such  as  the  athlete’s situation,  his  or  her  coping  resources,  and  the appropriateness of the approach for the stressor. It is best to create individualized stress management skills  programs  designed  to  meet  each  athlete’s specific needs. Common stress management interventions  are  briefly  outlined  next,  in  alphabetical  order.  These  approaches  can  been  seen  as  an application  of  theoretical  and  clinical  knowledge to  produce  a  more  practical  approach,  and  each of  the  approaches  has  varied  levels  of  empirical support,  depending  on  important  factors  such  as context and person variables.

Anxiety Management Training

Anxiety   management   training   involves   an athlete’s  learning  to  employ  relaxation  strategies under  stressful  or  arousing  situations,  including  those  producing  emotions  such  as  anger  and anxiety.  During  anxiety  management  training, the  athlete  visualizes  the  stressful  situation  and allows the accompanying physiological arousal to be generated within himself or herself. Relaxation techniques, such as applied relaxation, progressive muscle relaxation, breath control or deep breathing, or meditation (outlined later), are then used by the athlete to reduce the symptoms of physiological  arousal,  such  as  increased  HR,  R,  and  blood pressure (BP). This may also promote management of  behavioral  responses  such  as  loss  of  coordination, acts of aggression or frustration, “choking,” or withdrawing from sport.

Applied Relaxation

The aim of applied relaxation is to learn the skill of  relaxation  and  develop  the  ability  to  apply  it rapidly where needed, in any situation. Connected to  this  approach  are  six  stages.  The  first  stage  is progressive  muscle  relaxation,  a  technique  where muscles are contracted or tensed and subsequently relaxed, which is used to help facilitate relaxation and help the athlete reduce somatic anxiety symptoms.  As  the  athlete  becomes  proficient  in  this skill and moves to stage two, muscle relaxation is promoted by relaxing the muscles without tensing them first. In stage three, the term relax is conditioned  to  bring  on  a  relaxed  state  when  spoken or  thought  by  the  athlete.  A  focus  on  breathing is  also  promoted  in  this  stage,  as  well  as  a  focus on  passive  concentration,  which  is  an  effortless, automatic,  yet  focused  state  of  mind,  similar  to mindfulness.  Stage  four  requires  the  athlete  to learn  to  use  the  skill  in  real-life  settings,  relaxing appropriate  muscles  while  engaging  ones  needed for activity. Stage five focuses on having an athlete relax  while  in  a  naturally  occurring,  nonstressful situation.  Breathing  is  the  trigger  of  relaxation in  this  stage  and  is  practiced  15  to  20  times  per day. The sixth and final stage is called application training. The relaxation technique is implemented in a practice or training session and then in a low-stakes competition. The more frequently and completely  it  is  implemented,  the  easier  it  will  be  for the athlete to use the strategy in a higher level of competition.

Arousal or Energizing Techniques

Some  research  suggests  that  athletes  differ  on the level of activation needed to produce optimal performance.  Various  levels  of  arousal  are  often conducive  to  high  performance,  and  it  is  paramount that the athlete perceives the arousal as beneficial (see Cognitive Control later in this section). While  many  stress  management  approaches  take an  arousal  reduction  focus,  strategies  to  increase arousal include imagery, self-talk, goal setting, and cognitions  or  thoughts  focused  on  heightening stimulation.

Autogenic Training

Autogenic training, first introduced in psychiatry by Johannes Heinrich Schultz, involves a series of  exercises  designed  to  produce  sensations  such as  warmth  or  heaviness,  to  help  promote  relaxation.  The  program  is  based  on  six  stages,  each with  a  separate  goal.  The  stages  are  learned  and practiced  in  the  following  order:  heaviness  in  the extremities,  warmth  in  the  extremities,  regulation  of  cardiac  activity,  regulation  of  breathing, abdominal  warmth,  and  cooling  of  the  forehead. Verbal  cues  to  the  athlete  can  be  used  to  aid  in prompting the sensations.


Biofeedback  training  (BFBT)  can  help  control autonomic  physiological  stress  responses,  such  as increased HR and BP. It also has been used to control anxiety disorders as well as anxiety connected to particular environments or contexts. The premise behind biofeedback (BFB) is for the athlete to become aware of how stress is manifested physiologically, such as changes in BP, HR, breathing, or muscle  tightness,  using  different  modes  of  objective feedback and monitoring. With this increased awareness, athletes are better equipped to control their  actions.  With  training,  athletes  become  less reliant  on  the  feedback,  learning  to  control  their physiological responses on their own.

Breath Control and Deep Breathing

Breath  control  is  a  relaxation  technique  using the  physical  strategy  of  breathing.  It  is  an  effective  and  relatively  easy  stress  management  technique to apply. Irregularities in breathing, such as holding one’s breath, hyperventilating, or random shallow  breaths,  can  affect  performance,  potentially  influencing  coordination,  focus,  or  rhythm, or can cause the athlete to feel unsettled, causing further  stress.  Breath  control  can  be  practiced  by taking  a  slow,  complete  breath.  Often,  the  lungs are conceptualized in three parts to aid in proper instruction of a slow, complete breath. The lower lungs  are  filled  by  pushing  the  diaphragm  down and forcing the abdomen out. The middle portion of  the  lungs  is  then  filled  by  expanding  the  chest cavity, expanding the rib cage. The upper lungs are then  filled  by  raising  the  chest  and  rib  cage.  The breath is held for several seconds, and then a slow exhalation  is  made,  taking  approximately  double the  time  taken  for  the  inhalation  process.  Breath control  is  commonly  used  before  a  competition or during a natural break during the competition, as  it  is  most  practically  applied  during  nonactive times.

Cognitive Affective Stress Management Training

Cognitive  affective  stress  management  training is one of the most comprehensive multimodal stress   management   programs   used   in   sport. Originally  designed  by  Ronald  Smith,  the  program  is  designed  to  teach  the  athlete  relaxation and  cognitive  skills  that  can  aid  in  controlling physiological  reactions  and  cognitive  thought patterns.  Intervention  consists  of  both  cognitive and  physiological  strategies,  including  relaxation skills, cognitive restructuring, and training that is self-instructed and targets the physical and mental reactions to stress. The premise behind the combination of physical and mental coping strategies is the development of an integrated coping response. The program, which has some empirical support, is  educational  rather  than  psychotherapeutic  in nature  and  is  designed  to  help  athletes  increase their self-control.

The   cognitive   affective   stress   management program  consists  of  four  distinct  phases.  In  the first  phase,  the  pretreatment  assessment,   the consultant uses an interview approach as well as questionnaires  to  assess  the  athlete’s  issues  with stress—namely,  what  situations  tend  to  produce stress, how the athlete responds to stress, and how the resultant stress affects performance and other behaviors.  The  athlete’s  cognitive  and  behavioral skills are assessed to determine existing resources. This stage is integral in understanding the unique aspects  and  situation  of  the  particular  athlete  in question,  allowing  for  a  personalized  program to  be  tailored  for  the  athlete.  The  next  phase  is the  treatment  rationale  phase,  the  aim  of  which is  to  help  the  athlete  better  understand  his  or her  stress  responses  through  analysis  of  personal stress  reactions  and  experiences.  Next,  in  the skill  acquisition  phase,  athletes  receive  training in  muscular  relaxation,  cognitive  restructuring, and self-instruction. Muscular relaxation is taught under  the  guidelines  of  progressive  relaxation, described earlier in this section. Cognitive restructuring,  as  described  in  more  detail  later  in  this section,  involves  the  identification  of  irrational and  destructive  thoughts  and  the  subsequent refocusing  into  more  positive  thoughts.  Self-instruction training aims to teach athletes to provide themselves with specific instructions designed to  improve  concentration  and  promote  problem solving.  The  final  stage  is  skill  rehearsal.  In  this stage,  different  levels  of  stress  are  induced  by the  consultant  using  mediums  such  as  videos  or imagery. The athlete is required to apply, and thus practice, the coping skills he or she has learned in the program.

Cognitive Control

Cognitive  control  involves  changes  to  cognitions that trigger, maintain, exacerbate, or reduce the  stress  and  emotion  response  process.  Many cognitive  control  strategies  were  developed  for cognitive  therapy  and  help  athletes  understand how thought processes are involved in the experience  of  stress.  Strategies  to  control  unwanted  or maladaptive  thoughts  include  cognitive  restructuring,  positive  thought  control,  and  attentional refocusing.   Cognitive   restructuring   involves helping  an  athlete  to  recognize  and  challenge irrational  thoughts  and  to  change  these  thoughts so  that  they  become  more  adaptive.  There  are several  steps  in  cognitive  restructuring  including identifying  automatic  thoughts  or  beliefs  that are irrational and negative, challenging or debating  the  rationality  of  these  thoughts,  and  then replacing  these  automatic  thoughts  with  more positive  and  rational  thoughts.  Positive  thought control  involves  self-awareness  to  identify  negative  thoughts  and  replace  them  with  more  adaptive  ones.  Positive  thought  control  involves  three elements:  using  negative  thoughts  in  a  positive way,  controlling  negative  thoughts,  and  training positive  thoughts.  The  aim  is  to  have  the  athlete take  a  more  positive  orientation  regarding  the situation. Attentional refocusing involves shifting attention  or  focus  from  a  stressful  issue  to  one with  fewer  negative  connotations  attached  to  it. Some  athletes  may  become  too  focused  on  their thoughts  and  stress  reactions,  causing  them  to become  more  anxious.  To  a  large  extent,  attention refocusing attempts to shift attention from a self-focus to more of a focus on the features of the sporting environment.


Hypnosis  involves  getting  the  athlete  to  an altered  state  of  consciousness  in  which  he  or she  is  relaxed  and  where  perceptions,  feelings, thoughts, or actions can be changed through suggestion.  Although  still  somewhat  controversial and misunderstood, hypnosis has been employed with  athletes  to  help  reduce  anxiety  and  manage stress, as well as enhance other mental skills, focus  attention,  and  increase  confidence.  Other stress  management  techniques  such  as  relaxation and  imagery  or  visualization  are  often  used  in conjunction with hypnosis, but the athlete is in a hypnotic  state  before  they  are  applied.  Typically, hypnosis is applied in four phases. The induction phase involves putting the athlete in a relaxed state and  then  inducing  hypnosis  using  imagery  and/ or  attention-focusing  techniques.  In  the  hypnotic phase,  athletes  are  given  suggestions  designed  to target the issue at hand, most of which will be carried out once out of hypnosis. The waking phase consists of the athlete coming back to a conscious state,  and  the  posthypnotic  phase  involves  the athlete carrying out the suggestions given to him or  her  while  in  a  hypnotized  state.  Athletes  will benefit from hypnosis only to the extent to which they are able to be influenced on a subconscious level.


Meditation  is  another  method  of  raising  self-awareness,  allowing  an  athlete  to  better  manage stress.  Through  meditation,  the  athlete  becomes more attuned to physical sensations and builds an understanding  of  the  connection  between  physiological  functions  (e.g.,  increased  HR,  nausea) and psychological state (e.g., anxiety, confidence). There  are  a  variety  of  approaches  to  meditation, all directed toward increasing awareness of internal  physical  and  psychological  triggers  that  have potential to prompt certain outcomes. This knowledge  can  help  to  promote  relaxation  or  direct other  stress  management  approaches,  depending on the situation.

Performance and Competition Planning

Preperformance  and  competition  as  well  as performance  and  competition  plans  can  help the  athlete  manage  the  stress  that  is  inherent in  competition.  Such  plans  allow  the  athlete to  take  a  proactive  stance  on  stress,  identifying ahead  of  time  triggers  of  stress,  and  formulating  a  plan  to  counteract  those  issues.  Planning allows  many  athletes  to  feel  more  in  control  of the situation and the self, thereby often decreasing further  experiences  of  stress.  It  also  provides a  structure  for  them  to  incorporate  other  stress management  and  psychological  skills  into  their preperformance   and   performance   routines. Preperformance and performance plans have been suggested to promote proper focus and attention toward task relevant issues and help to attain the proper  level  of  activation  for  performance,  promoting  both  physical  and  mental  readiness  to perform.


Self-compassion  interventions  can  help  prevent athletes  from  becoming  overly  self-critical.  Based on  the  work  of  psychologist  Kristin  Neff,  self-compassion   has three key components. Self-kindness involves being understanding and accepting toward oneself  in  instances  of  adversity  as  opposed  to being overly self-critical. Common humanity is the acknowledgment that one’s experiences are not isolating, as others also have these experiences. Finally, mindfulness involves a balanced perspective, keeping thoughts and feelings in a state of equilibrium, as opposed to over identifying with them. Strategies to promote self-compassion include writing, imagery, and  psychoeducational  components.  Interventions are currently being adapted for sport.

Stress Inoculation Training

Stress  inoculation  training  (SIT),  developed  by Donald Meichenbaum, is based on the idea that if an athlete is exposed to stress and learns to cope or deal with that stress in amounts that increase incrementally,  an  increased  tolerance  to  stress  will  be obtained. It is a multimodal approach using coping skills  that  include  creating  productive  and  adaptive thoughts, images, and self-statements designed to benefit the athlete’s psychological state, as well as  performance.  It  has  been  found  to  be  effective in  reducing  anxiety  and  enhancing  sport  performance. SIT involves three stages. The conceptualization  stage  aims  to  raise  the  athlete’s  awareness on  the  effects  of  positive  and  negative  thoughts, self-talk, and imagery. The rehearsal stage involves the  athlete’s  learning  to  use  a  number  of  specific coping  skills  such  as  arousal  control,  imagery, and self-talk, which creates coping resources. The actual  skills  will  depend  on  the  specific  needs  of the  athlete.  Finally,  the  application  stage  involves the  athlete’s  practicing  the  skills  in  increasingly stressful situations. A key feature of SIT is the gradual exposure to stress such that the athlete becomes “inoculated”  and  is  less  affected.  The  application begins  with  low-stress  situations  and  gradually builds  toward  higher  stress  situations  as  coping skills become more advanced. Specific application procedures involve imagery, role-playing, and simulations of increasing perceived stressfulness.

Other Associated Psychological Skills

There  are  a  number  of  other  psychological skills,  such  as  imagery,  identifying  strengths,  and goal  setting,  that  can  be  incorporated  into  stress management programs. Calming imagery, such as visualizing oneself in a safe, relaxing place, can be used to help reduce cognitive anxiety and arousal and  to  bring  on  physical  relaxation.  Conversely, imagery  can  be  used  to  energize  and  motivate by  visualizing  more  stimulating,  exciting  places or  scenarios.  Imagery  is  often  incorporated  into athletes’  preperformance  and  performance  plans and  routines.  Identifying  strengths  can  help  refocus  athletes’  thought  processes  toward  what  they can  do  rather  than  what  they  cannot  do  and assist  in  developing  competition  plans  that  maximize assets. Goal setting can help the athlete stay focused  on  the  task  at  hand  and  keep  attention on  relevant  issues.  Setting  reasonable  goals— ones  that  are  measureable  and  challenging,  yet attainable—can also help keep stress from becoming  overwhelming.  This  is  most  commonly  incorporated  into  preperformance  and  performance plans and routines.


Stress  management  techniques  can  include  any intervention  that  can  modify  one  or  more  components  of  the  stress  processStress  management techniques need to be directed at individual needs and the issue at hand, as well as take into account the coping resources the athlete has available. As with  the  acquisition  of  any  skill,  application  of stress  management  techniques  requires  training, time, and practice. Knowledge is not sufficient, as it does not guarantee an athlete can apply the necessary skills or program to his or her specific issue. Application and practice are necessary, and effort is needed on the part of the athlete to make gains in stress management ability.


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