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Guest blog: Three stress management techniques to enhance sport performance (infographic)

Have you noticed professional athletes who wear their emotions on their sleeve during competition? They are experiencing stress because the consequences of failure are important to them. Stress occurs when there is an imbalance between demand and the person’s capacity or abilities (8). It fluctuates based on our individual differences and our environment, which is especially relevant to athletes. Stress is linked with negative emotions, undesirable behaviors, dissatisfaction, overtraining, poor psychological health, low well-being, burnout, and underperformance (4, 15). How can a coach help athletes whose emotional investment is negatively impacting their personal performance? Players still need some form of demand to function best, but too high can be detrimental to their well-being, health and performance (18, 1).  

This is where stress management comes in. Generally, a variety of stress management interventions are linked with an optimized stress experience and enhanced performance (12). Stress management is the utilization of tools to reduce stress when levels of arousal are too high (13). It is made up of treatment techniques, which have the ability to “reduce stressors, modify cognitive appraisals, reduce affect states, increase positive affect states and facilitate effective coping behaviors” (12, p.185). According to a 2014 review, 96% of interventions positively effected athletes’ stress experience and 54% showed positive performance effects. These strategies were most effective for collegiate athletes. Moreover, by combining treatments in the same intervention, more positive results were discovered. These are called multimodal interventions. A total of 77% of reviewed multimodal interventions showed positive effects on performance. There were three main treatment techniques that warranted the most encouraging outcomes: self-talk, relaxation techniques and imagery (12). 

How can a coach implement these stress management techniques with their team?

  1. Self-talk

Self-talk is defined as an athlete’s thoughts and statements voiced internally or out loud and have been shown to enhance sport performance (22, 16). It involves cue words used strategically to enhance performance, raise confidence and increase motivation. It is most effective when implemented on its own or when combined with imagery. On its own, it is the most effective technique for reducing state anxiety (12). Begin by introducing the concept of self-talk and how it can help the athletes and let them choose their own statements. They can choose motivational (e.g., “I am strong”), instructional (e.g., “eye on the ball”), or a combination of both. It is recommended to practice two cues in a drill first. Then instruct them to practice two different cues in the next drill. Once they have had time to exercise and adjust these different cues, allow them to choose which ones work best for them. Cues must feel right, be simple, and be easy to remember. Once they have chosen the four cues, they can post the list in their lockers or on their equipment as a daily reminder (16).

This can be developed alongside imagery by having athlete’s practice their chosen cues in real time during their visualization just as they would in a competition. They should still be introduced and explained separately in order to focus properly on each skill. You could also choose to make them entirely separate and encourage them to use both techniques independently during training and competition. You can see what works best for your team or leave it up to the athletes to decide what works for them individually. 

  1. Relaxation Techniques

Relaxation techniques are the voluntary reduction in psychological and muscle tension (10). It “reduces muscle tension, heart rate and blood pressure” (3, p. 182). Relaxation techniques effectively reduce state anxiety on their own or combined with imagery (12). They can be used to help athletes recover during small windows of time (e.g., half-time), accumulate energy, avoid overstimulation, and assist cool-down. It could be a great addition to your warm-up routine if completed in the locker-room or on the playing surface before beginning an event or competition. You can have the players get in a comfortable position and close their eyes. Instruct them to relax their muscles, pay attention to the present moment, listen to their body and relax their breathing (10). Make sure they are performing abdominal breathing instead of chest breathing. This should allow rhythmic, deep breaths with a longer exhale than inhale. You can have athletes place a hand on their abdomen and feel it rise and fall with their breaths to ensure they are executing it correctly. They can use imagery of a serene setting to assist. Encourage them to focus on slowly relaxing each muscle (10). This technique can be performed for as long or as short of a time period as you and your players desire.

  1.  Imagery

“Imagery is the mental creation or re-creation of sensory experiences that appear to the person imagining them to be similar to the actual event” (9). Motor imagery is a type of imagery often used in sport contexts. Instead of using imagery as entirely separate from physical practice, motor imagery views it as a continuum on which it is closer to physical practice (17). The PETTLEP model of motor imagery has been found to be as effective as physical practice and positively associated with performance (19, 20). This is a beneficial alternative for injuries, weather/travel inconveniences, and fatigue. The model is made up of seven components (17):

  • Physical: Focus on making it as physical as possible. Performing this while wearing their uniform or holding their equipment would enhance results.
  • Environment: Execute this technique in the same environment in which the team will be performing. For example, leading them while on the pitch before their warm-up. Their eyes can be open or closed, whichever they prefer. You can use video-assisted imagery as well; teams can watch game film or highlights while visualizing themselves executing the action.
  • Task: Ensure the content is unique to the athletes’ preferences and their skill levels. Have them focus on the aspects most relevant and crucial for themselves and the skill or action they are visualizing.
  • Timing: Emphasize the imagery happening at a real time pace.
  • Learning: Encourage athletes to adjust/update imagery as they become more skilled. If they learn something new, have them apply it to visualization. This is also a good way to reinforce memory of plays you have introduced to the team. 
  • Emotion: Performers should apply the same emotions from competition to imagery. They should mentally recreate the event. Emotions make this form of visualization more vivid and therefore more effective. According to Holmes and Collins’ (2001) PETTLEP model, imagery is slightly more effective when applied at a different time as relaxation, but you can choose what works best for your team and your time limitations.
  • Perspective: Use the viewpoint of the performer for the most part. Athletes can use an external viewpoint for certain actions, but the majority should be perceived from an internal viewpoint.

Imagery has the most positive effects when combined with relaxation, self-talk or both (12). You can implement this technique during the pre-game routine, warm-ups, after mistakes as an alternative to punishment, before the start of a drill, before subbing on and at half time.

These may be familiar terms, but implementing these concepts can be challenging. These are skills just like throwing or shooting, which must be practiced over and over to master. Therefore, they should be practiced during and outside of training as much as possible before utilizing them in high-pressure competitions. It is advantageous to have a coach implement the intervention because of their athletes’ held respect and their ability to incorporate it into the team’s normal regimen (11). Based on the literature, this is the best way to facilitate development of mental skills (21). Implement your intervention for at least a season or a year in order to allow athletes to reach sustainable behavior change. Coaches who understand these concepts can tailor their intervention in a way that best fits their style and their team’s needs to create significant impact on their performance and get an edge on their competition (11).

3 stress management techniques to enhance sport performance

Stephanie Garrett, Sport and Exercise Psychology Post-Graduate, Loughborough University

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