An Athlete’s Guide to Dealing with Stress

Applied Sports Psychology by Dr. Costas Karageorghis, Senior Lecturer in Sport Psychology, Brunel University, West London

Background on Stress

We all know athletes who thrive in stressful situations and others who appear to be completely debilitated by stress. For example, the British 400 metre runner Solomon Wariso often performed brilliantly in domestic competitions but couldn’t emulate such form in major championships. Why should this be the case?

Many athletes do not fully understand the stress phenomenon: does the term ‘stress’ relate to how we react to situations or is stress inherent in some situations regardless of personality influences? One universally accepted definition of stress was published by a man dubbed ‘the father of stress’, Dr. Hans Seyle. Seyle views stress as a non-specific response of the body to any demand made upon it. This, in part, explains how some people thrive on stress and others are debilitated by it. The effects of stress are governed by how we interpret common symptoms such as an elevated pulse, muscular tension and narrowed attention. For example, while an experienced distance runner such as Haile Gebreselassie is turned on, inspired and exhilarated by competing in a packed stadium, a novice runner might be reluctant even to step out of the changing rooms!

Stress will not impair your daily functioning if the physical and psychological responses to it can be used positively to fuel your passion for success. It only becomes harmful whenever you begin to feel that you cannot cope with it. Therefore, getting to know your optimal stress level is a key to managing stress and being able to expose yourself to the right amount. Excessively high levels of stress can result in illness and, in extreme cases, even mental instability. Long before illness ensues, excessive stress can be identified through symptoms such as muscular tension, irritability and the inability to concentrate. The eight tips that follow are well grounded in recent psychological theory and will be of interest to those athletes who would like to develop greater control over their reactions to stress.

1. Meditation

Meditation provides greater physical and emotional control; it is a technique widely employed by martial artists and practitioners of eastern religions. Meditation relies upon self-focus which leads to a state of internal immersion. Hence, rather than focusing on things around you, meditation involves the practice of focus on internal thought processes. Internal immersion in images will help you to exert greater control over both concentration and arousal levels. There are many different types of meditation which include zen, hatha-yoga, and transcendental meditation. A feature common to all the techniques is that they place an emphasis on breathing control which ‘quietens the mind’ and ‘diffuses global muscle tension’. A good introduction to meditation would involve the use of one of the meditation audio cassettes which are now widely available. Meditation will not necessarily turn you into a guru who is able to float three feet in the air and walk on hot coals, but will be very beneficial in relieving any adverse reactions to stress.

2. Mellow Tones

A popular research area of late has been the effect of music on the mind-body relationship (Karageorghis & Terry, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2001). Our research at Brunel University has in part supported the claims of musical folklore that music can have a profound effect on mind-body interaction. One of the most widely documented uses of music is as a relaxant. Numerous athletes have tapped into the purported stress-busting effects of music. One of the best known was the legendary American 400 metre hurdler, Edwin Moses. He enjoyed mellowing-out to the sounds of soul music before every race and this helped him to achieve a winning streak which lasted the best part of a decade. I recall that when asked by a journalist whether he felt threatened by all the young pretenders who were after his throne, Moses responded, “The other guys are so far behind that I don’t even know what they look like”!

Relaxing music should be music that you associate with tranquillity. This can be slow or a little up-tempo depending on what your preferences are. Clearly, your mood will govern whether you decide to have an easy with Enya or a strut to the Stones. This is one that you will certainly need to play by ear!

3. Socialising

Social interaction provides athletes with many opportunities to relieve stress particularly when mixing with people with whom you feel at ease or are attracted to. Socialising provides time to sideline or forget about problems. The converse is also possible: problems can be openly discussed with fellow athletes who may show empathy. Realising that other athletes have adverse reactions to stress for the same reasons that you do can help to make your stress levels more tolerable. Most women understand that a problem shared is a problem halved; men would also do well to talk about their concerns more openly.

4. Mental Imagery

Mental imagery can act as a form of escapism. Effective imagery involves creating bold and vivid images in the mind while employing all the senses in unison. Your mind has the power to situate you in any place that you associate with relaxation. Mental images of relaxation which use your senses serve to spread relaxation to the entire body. Further, imagery is useful in rehearsing strategies for dealing with stress. For example, a source of stress may be the fear of being beaten by a close rival. To deal with this, it is advisable to play through the competition scenario in your mind, in first person, so that you are seeing events through your own eyes. Visualise focusing exclusively of your own performance and mastering the skills involved. Ultimately, this will maximise your probabilities of success. Remember that fear is negative and desire is positive. Foster a desire to be the best that you possibly can through mental imagery.

5. Massage

An all-over body massage with essential oils is one of the most enjoyable ways to relax. It also eases the aches and strains associated with a tough training regimen. Some massage oils are specially blended to ease muscular tension and to calm the mind. High street retailers now provide quite an extensive range of aromatherapy oils in case you want to practise with a fellow athlete. There are many different forms of massage, which serve a variety of purposes, and these can range from Shiatsu to Swedish. Ideally, you should look for a reputable sports massage therapist. An hour’s session will cost in the region of £15-£30. A good massage will leave you feeling physically and mentally revitalised. There is also the added bonus of reduced susceptibility to injury. I would recommend at least an hour-long session of massage each week to help you to deal with the rigours of your training programme.

6. Hobbies and Interests

Activities that distract you from the day-to-day toil of your training routine and give you time out from the rat race are to be highly recommended. A hobby that is pursued on a daily basis can provide great fulfilment. Hobbies present an opportunity for mastery experiences as well as recreation and personal expression. The diversity of hobbies engaged in by famous athletes never ceases to amaze me. For example, Britain’s most successful shot putter and former world’s strongest man Geoff Capes, is well known for his ability to breed prize-winning budgerigars! Another noteworthy example is the infamous French soccer player Eric Cantona who enjoyed writing abstract poetry during his days at Manchester United.

7. Progressive Muscular Relaxation

Among the pantheon of intervention strategies for stress reduction, Progressive Muscular Relaxation or PMR as it is more commonly known, is probably the most popular. PMR was devised by the physiologist Edmund Jacobson back in 1938 and involves developing an awareness of areas of tension in the musculature. To practise PMR you need to lie in a comfortable position in a place where you are unlikely to be disturbed. Breathe deeply from the abdomen until you feel calm. Start by tensing your arms so that they become taut and rigid. Hold the tension for about five seconds and then relax; take a deep breath and notice the difference between the state of tension and the state of relaxation. Repeat this process then progress through each major muscle group from your head down to your feet tensing hard then releasing the tension as you exhale. Notice the relaxation flow through your body as you progress systematically through each muscle group.

8. Rest and Recuperation

It’s okay to lead a ‘roller coaster’ lifestyle as long as you allow yourself adequate time for rest and recuperation. People differ greatly in terms of how much rest they require. Although most doctors recommend at least eight hours sleep, some night owls can get by with just six hours, while other Sleeping Beauties require as many as twelve hours. Physically active people do tend to require more rest than the general population. Indeed, rest is an integral part of the training process as it is during sleep that many of the regenerative processes such as muscle building take place. Of course, rest does not only include sleep, but any activity which provides a pleasurable refrain from your normal pattern of physically taxing activity. Remember the adage that a change is often as good as a rest.


The number of methods to relieve the debilitative effects of stress is only as limited as your imagination. I suggest that you try out several methods to discover which works best for you. Stress can be a positive force if managed effectively. The right amount of stress will keep you alert, focused and motivated to perform at your very best.

Dr. Costas Karageorghis is a BASES Accredited Sport Psychologist and can be contacted at Brunel University: 020 9891 0121 x2820, E-mail. He is an entertaining public speaker and an experienced consultant.