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Mental Gymnastics: How Does Stress Hurt Your Athletic Performance?

Posted Aug 24 2008 1:49pm
PAUL MONIZ: I'm Paul Moniz. Thanks for joining us today. We are discussing the role of stress in sports. Growing up you might remember that pick-up game of basketball or those endless Little League games that seemed to define summer. Looking back you probably recall how much fun it was. But think harder and you might also remember it was pretty competitive. The reality is that for most of us, especially as we grow older, even recreationally, sports is a proving ground. Sometimes what begins as a way to kick back can quickly turn into a contest. You try to show up friends, co-workers, even out do yourself.

Some amount of stress in sports is healthy, of course, because pressure can improve performance. But when the very sport you've chosen to kick back and escape from stress actually contributes to it, that's when it is time to reevaluate.

Here to discuss the impact stress has on sports and how to prevent it from ruining your game are two clinical psychologists who work together. We have Dr. Fran Massino. Thank you for joining us. And Dr. Willy Wiener. They both work at the Institute for Performance Advancement in Manhattan. They work with stress and anxiety in the workplace and on the playing field.

Why is it that stress can manifest itself so prevalently in sports?

WILLY WIENER, PhD: That's a good question. It seems that for as long as people have been playing sports that it has provided some kind of outlet for people to vent a lot of their feelings, their frustrations, their anxieties and their anger perhaps. All too often, however, I think people's approach to competitive sports leads to them feeling more stressed out and undermines the purpose of recreation and relaxation.

PAUL MONIZ: But that's exactly it. You're talking about it being a way to vent. People are trying to vent their own frustrations, and those frustrations may have absolutely nothing to do with their opponent, but when you get in the game suddenly the opponent is the scapegoat. What's happening? What's the process that is happening up here?

WILLY WIENER, PhD: Part of it is adaptive. A lot of the competitive sports -- there's a benefit to approaching it with desire to win, but part of that is, I think, goes all the way back to something that's really much more primitive and adaptive, which is wanting to win. I think when some of those hormones start to kick in, you start to focus singularly on winning the game.

PAUL MONIZ: You go out on a Saturday afternoon -- let's say you're playing a game of football with your friends. All of you are friends aside from the game. You get into the game and suddenly this animal takes over, and your friend becomes really an opponent that you want to crush. It can cause friction in the friendship even after the game is over, especially if you lose.

WILLY WIENER, PhD: Yes.

PAUL MONIZ: So what would you recommend under these circumstances?

WILLY WIENER, PhD: Well the impulses are healthy for people to get out and want to compete and want to be active -- is a healthy impulse. The difficulty comes, or the problems arise, when people fail to keep it in perspective and their thinking runs away with them. They must win this, or so and so can't get away with that. So really it's a matter of keeping it in perspective and adapting to it psychologically such so that you will enjoy it and it will meet a need for you rather than make you more stressed out and angry.

PAUL MONIZ: So if winning can actually become more stressful, at least always trying to attain that goal and basically defining whether it was a good experience or a bad experience, what should people do?

WILLY WIENER, PhD: I think part of it is to if you feel that something has crossed a line to address it, to take an active role in saying to a friend of yours after a game, "Hey, you got a little carried away there," as opposed to holding on to it and during the next game try to get back or during the next play try to tackle someone twice as hard, but to look for an opportunity to talk about that, to keep it light, to say, "Hey, this is a game. Lighten up." But to address it directly.

PAUL MONIZ: You deal with the kinds of people who are some of them professional athletes, some of them recreational athletes, give me a scenario. Who's coming to see you to relieve stress?

WILLY WIENER, PhD: I will help people advance their performance on, let's say, golf putts. The weekend golfer who is very serious about his game and really finds himself getting anxious and tensing up on short putts towards the end will come to me and learn skills around how to relax themselves in those particular moments. So I will take them through some kinds of relaxation training programs and help them with the aid of biofeedback sometimes to learn how to relax themselves and begin to then pair that with an image of themselves successfully completing that putt. So that might be one reason someone would come to me.

PAUL MONIZ: So what do you tell the person, let's say if their in a foursome. Three of the people are doing well; perhaps their partner has just birdied, and they are sitting there looking at a potential three putt; how do you work through that?

WILLY WIENER, PhD: Well you want to firstly remember that thinking about things other than the task at hand is likely to undermine your performance. People start to get in trouble when they ask themselves "How am I doing?" "You know, what happens if I blow this?" "What's he gonna do next?" Golf is a very demanding game, as are many other fine motor control sports that really demands your full attention. When you begin to be distracted and think about the context of the game, the next hole, what someone else is doing, it distracts you from the task at hand. And also some people develop a response to those situations where they just begin in a sort of -- they are conditioned much like a Pavlovian dog would be conditioned to become tense in those moments. This becomes almost an autonomic response, or an automatic response. And recognizing that that's what's going on is real important.

PAUL MONIZ: How do you prevent the domino effect if you have a bad hole or a bad inning? A lot of times you can let it ruin your game. So how do you just forget what just happened? That can be one of the toughest things.

FRANCIS MASSINO, PhD: One of the things we try to do is really help people to focus on their thinking at those moments and to really focus on the process instead of the outcome. So even when it's clear that you're not going to win the game, trying to develop a skill that you've been working on or if it is a golf putt, trying to make that at a certain point, but getting over that thought that I can't do that. I'm gonna give up. I'm not gonna try any more. But to be really aware of the thought process.

PAUL MONIZ: And look at every opportunity as just that -- a new opportunity. Put what just happened behind you.

WILLY WIENER, PhD: You're as good as your next putt. Not as good as your last putt.

PAUL MONIZ: Right. What about this way of assessing how good something is effort versus winning? Tell us about that. Judging something by just the effort you are putting into it.

FRANCIS MASSINO, PhD: Effort and concentration. I think that athletes, especially recreational ones, do well to evaluate how well they have concentrated, how much effort they've put forth and not necessarily always have they beat the next guy. Because people come in with different athletic abilities and different levels of practice and training and so to really use yourself -- comparing yourself to yourself, rather than the person next to you is, I think, a healthy way to approach it. To ask yourself, have I done the best I can?

PAUL MONIZ: And these guidelines can be applied to women as well?

FRANCIS MASSINO, PhD: Of course.

PAUL MONIZ: Do women react differently to stress on the ball field, generally?

FRANCIS MASSINO, PhD: I think by and large it's quite similar really. I think sometimes the culture that women develop in team sports is more productive than it is with men. It tends to be a more supportive environment. But a lot of the issues around anxiety and tensing up at the free throw line, for instance, or with golf putts, are very similar. We have not seen great differences with respect to that.

PAUL MONIZ: What about the role of exercise, in general, in terms of reducing stress and maybe making people feel better even if they are not performing exceptionally out there?

WILLY WIENER, PhD: Exercise is being clearly linked to a reduction in overall stress. We're seeing that more and more that people are recognizing the benefits as soon as they begin to incorporate it into their routines. So another way of changing the thought is to say, "Hey, even though I didn't win, there are benefits to having gone out. I got some fresh air, had a good time, worked off some steam." So focusing on the exercise. There are benefits to that.

PAUL MONIZ: Some relaxation techniques that our audience can employ, what would you recommend if you are out there on a tennis court, on a golf course, on a ball field feeling stressed. What do you do?

FRANCIS MASSINO, PhD: Take a deep breath, take a step back. If it is a sport where you can afford to take a deep breath, remove yourself from the situation. Take a deep abdominal breath or a couple of them and reassess the situation. Think about your thinking. Ask yourself are these thoughts productive. Really address your thinking and the tension in your body.

PAUL MONIZ: And how quickly can this be done? Will others know you're doing this, or can you do this sort of without drawing attention to yourself?

FRANCIS MASSINO, PhD: You can do it without drawing attention to yourself. The hope is that you can develop a facility to just do it at a moment's notice. To take that deep breath before a serve and to say I'm gonna do the best I can here. Let me just try and get it in that corner rather than telling yourself I gotta get this one. I think that's one cognitive strategy that really is important that you can make mistakes and have a good performance. It's important that athletes allow themselves room to make mistakes and not demand they do everything perfectly.

PAUL MONIZ: What about visualization?

WILLY WIENER, PhD: It's definitely beneficial. What we try to do is have people prior to an event visualize a successful outcome. In recreational sports, if someone has been working on his or her tennis serve, to really visualize doing that instead of saying, "I don't serve well."

PAUL MONIZ: So see yourself serving well.

WILLY WIENER, PhD: See yourself serving well. To pair that with the relaxation, to deep breath, and then picture yourself serving well. If you don't serve as well as you would like, to find a way to talk yourself out of saying, "I knew I couldn't do that." To be able to say, "I'm working on this. I'm doing the best that I can. Let me try again."

PAUL MONIZ: Also break down what you're doing into smaller steps can sometimes help with something, especially if it is something new. And concentrate on each step and making it work through the whole process.

WILLY WIENER, PhD: Noting where you are holding the racket before the serve, noting your stance on a golf putt, noting your posture at the free throw line. You're right, noting it each step of the way, and having your attention on those matters exclusively.

PAUL MONIZ: I want to bring in something else in the short time that we have left regarding stretching. People don't stretch long enough, and it is part of the whole stress cycle. People are busy. They get to the court or the golf course late. They want to get on the course. They want to get on the court. So they just eliminate it sometimes and it can lead to injuries.

WILLY WIENER, PhD: Absolutely. Yes. I think for the most part people stretch far less than is really adaptive and especially as athletes get older, stretching becomes more and more important, and then those little nagging injuries are more and more stressful. Stretching can be very relaxing and incorporating some deep breathing into a stretching program before and after is very wise.

PAUL MONIZ: Dr. Massino, your final words to our audience about relieving stress in sporting activities.

FRANCIS MASSINO, PhD: I think it's a great idea to prepare before hand. To try to get yourself into a zone, to eliminate distractions, to focus on the process as opposed to the outcome.

PAUL MONIZ: Okay, very good advice. Dr. Fran Massino, thank you for your time. Dr. Willy Wiener, as well. Both from the Institute for Professional Performance Advancement in Manhattan. Again, remember you can have fun out there without stress. I'm Paul Moniz. Thanks for joining us.

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