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Under Pressure: How Elite Athletes Respond to Stress


Elite athletes, though among the most skilled and talented in their sport, are still not immune to the psychological pressure that can attack the mind and body before, or during an important athletic event. Professional athletes are humans, just like the rest of us. They feel the same nervousness, "butterflies," or physiological stress that everyone has felt in situations where and when "the pressure is on." Pressure, regardless of where it stems from, can have a direct impact on how an athlete performs. In some high-stakes athletic instances, stress might be to blame for ruining performance; BUT it can also enhance it. The most successful athletes of our time – Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James – were/are able to manage the stress response, and maintain mastery over their physical, emotional, and cognitive function. Kobe called this, “Mamba Mentality.”

The stress response begins in the brain. When the human body experiences mental or physical stress, a series of signals and relays take place in the brain that eventually results in a command to the adrenal glands to release the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. These stress hormones are chemicals that cause physiological changes throughout the body. The sympathetic nervous system engages what is known as the "fight or flight" response, providing the body with a burst of energy to prepare to defend itself. When that occurs, there are some significant changes that you might recognize. These include a faster heartbeat and blood pressure pushing blood to the muscles and heart, quickened breathing, sending more oxygen to the brain, and increasing alertness. Also, sight, hearing, and other senses become sharper. "It's an uneasy feeling," basketball star Steph Curry proclaimed in a recent ESPN interview. "It happens fast. It's not a steady progression. I experience it when I'm in the locker room, preparing to get locked in for a big game."

This feeling of being "under pressure" and the body's physiological responses to it, some athletes say have cost them the game. They report feeling unable to control their bodies or focus on skills that usually come with ease. Indeed, too much stress can cause performance anxiety, which can prohibit one from playing relaxed, confident, and focused on competition. There can also be a difficulty with control of fine motor function due to changes in muscle tension. But not all stress is bad for your performance. In the right amount, that pressure can help you prepare, increase alertness and focus, and can push you to perform at optimal levels. One piece of advice to help control these reactions is to think of stress as energy. Some athletes learn to harness this energy and play better in high-stress situations, and other athletes succumb to the pressure. "When I was younger and got into those types of situations," Curry says, "it made me rush, play fast. With experience, you figure out ways to slow the game down." There are two key aspects to that comment. One is recognition – the understanding and insight associated with knowing and feeling that your body is being affected by the stress chemicals. It’s important to be self-aware. Recognition is critical. The second key aspect is having a plan. Figuring out ways to perform at peak and manage the stress is what the most successful athletes do better than others.

No matter how far into their careers they are, or how seasoned a player they've become, most athletes admit they still get nervous before a big game. Nervousness is a natural physiological response, and it's a good thing. It means that your performance matters to you and you want to perform at the best of your abilities.

Luckily for us, it's not only elite athletes who can harness this "pressure" into useful energy and benefit for themselves. We can all feel that excitement or nervousness in preparation for any competition. Perhaps these feelings come in response to a sporting event. The same can be experienced during a public speech given at school or for a friend's wedding, in an interview for a dream job, a presentation at work to valuable clients, or any interaction that's important to you. The perceived pressure acts like motivation, and a healthy amount can push us to do our best. Like Steph Curry said, "If you aren't nervous, it doesn't matter to you." Channeling anxiety, tension, and "butterflies" into a heightened state of increased confidence is something that comes with practice and repetition, but it is possible for anyone.

I think General George S. Patton said it best, “Pressure makes diamonds.”