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Stress and Athletic Performance

Picture yourself in this scenario: you are playing in one of the most important games of your athletic career and you just can’t seem to do anything right. Your footwork is sluggish, your body is tense, and your focus is fading. Each mistake is merely fueling your frustration. Stress, regardless of where it stems from, can have a direct impact on how an athlete performs on the field. More importantly, it can interfere with our ability to perform routine tasks such as interacting with others, focusing in school or at work, sleeping, eating, and maintaining overall health.

Stress and injuries

A Huffington Post article by Roger Covin notes that, “one of the most common physical symptoms of stress is increased muscle tension, which can obviously interfere with motor functions.” If the athlete is stiff or having trouble performing simple movements while playing their sport, they could put themselves at a higher risk of injury. Additionally “recovery from injuries, including minor muscle tears, can be slowed by stress’ negative impact on the body,” according to the article.

A delicate balance

According to Patrick Cohn in How Stress Can Affect Sports Performance, stress is often viewed as a limitation, but in reality it can also be beneficial, helping to motivate the athlete. Cohn explains, “in the right amount, stress helps you prepare, focus, and perform at your optimal level. Conversely, too much stress, or bad stress, can cause performance anxiety, which hurts your health and does not allow you to play relaxed, confident, and focused in competition.” When you’re dealing with mental obstacles like apprehension or anxiety, your body follows suit by physically tightening up, and as a result this can lead to complications with athletic performance. To perform at your best, stress levels must be both effective and manageable.

Coping with stress

Performance Enhancement & Rehab Specialist, Kelsey Griffith, MS, believes it is crucial for athletes to maintain their overall health with proper rest, recovery, and relaxation. She explains that we strive to keep our athletes healthy, both physically and mentally. And yet, sport injury statistics are rising. These changes are indicative of the need for athletes and health practitioners to be fully aware of the processes needed to maintain holistic well-being. As off-season months for most sports continue to grow smaller in number, further knowledge is needed to avoid the negative consequences of training fatigue and distress, as well as potential injury.

Researchers have identified psychological signs of over-training prior to the presentation of physical symptoms. According to them, the mental status of an athlete is ideal when fatigue and vigor are in opposition; ideally, athletes should report a high level of vigor during their training. When athletes experience an imbalance of training and rest, however, vigor and fatigue shift inversely, with fatigue rising and vigor decreasing. The question is, how do we implement recovery into training so as to avoid the negative effects of overworking our athletes? Monitoring changes in mood over a training season could potentially aid in maintaining the health of athletes both physically and psychologically. When athletes feel good, their minds are clear, and they are better able to focus on the task at hand.

As an athlete, it can be quite challenging to meet the standard for each category of health (a satisfactory sleep cycle, proper diet, sufficient recovery time, etc.) all of the time, which is why it is so important to find individualized methods to relieve stress. There is no one right answer to help someone relax, and the solution will vary from one person to the next. A few common approaches to tackling tension include: going for a walk, meditation, yoga, reading a book, writing in a journal, taking a nap, or talking it out with a friend or family member.

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