How Stress Effects Your Performance In Sports

Written By: Heather
Heather Kempton Coquitlam Couples Counsellor

Can you think of a time when you dragged your body into the gym searching for energy and a place to leave your stress behind? Stress can become all encompassing at different times in your life where it overtakes your body and mind. A common thought for an athlete is to hit the gym in hope that physical exertion will decrease the effects of stress and place them at ease. This mentality becomes problematic and can lead athletes into a state of burnout. It is therefore essential for you to learn more about how stress affects your athletic performance and what mental skill set you need to develop in order to manage it and maintain optimal performance.

Anxiety, fear, pressure, nervousness, and panic are all components of what psychologists refer to as the ‘stress family’. When not managed these will have a profound affect on your athletic performance and overall health. Everyone has a tolerance level of how much stress they can effectively manage on a daily basis before having a negative impact on life areas. For more information on the stress response and stress tolerance levels go to We will take a more in depth look at the components of stress and the mental skills you can practice to help negate any decreases in your athletic performance.

Most are familiar with the word stress and can think of a time in their life when stress has been at its highest. Small amounts of stress may help your performance using the hormonal and physiological changes to increase energy and awareness ultimately heightening your performance, where as prolong and heightened stress will have a negative affect on your ability to perform in sports at high levels. It is when what we have referred to as the ‘stress family’ becomes heightened and/or chronic, that the stress-response is no longer beneficial for the athlete. Mental performance training becomes necessary in order to prevent the negative impacts of stress on your overall performance. Researchers have broken these down into three segments of (1) developing awareness, (2) developing skills, and (3) applying awareness and skills in a performance setting. In other words, it will be important to learn how to become aware of your thinking patterns/mental processes, develop and learns skills to improve control of your mental process, as well as, to learn how to apply these skills during athletic performance.

Developing Awareness

It is essential to become aware of what are contributing to and causing negative thinking patterns and emotions. Once you have identified these it is important to look further into how these are affecting your athletic performance. By identifying the direction of your stress you will learn if it is facilitative (benefitting your performance by increasing your arousal levels) or debilitative (hindering your performance).

Simple steps to take in developing awareness:

– identify stress triggers/causes

– discuss this with someone in your support system (coach, training partner, counsellor, friend, family etc.)

– identify when it is happening and how it makes you feel

– pay attention to what situations, places, peoples, or things contribute to stress and negative emotions

– you may wish to write down in a journal how you feel physically, emotionally, and mentally before, during and after an athletic performance in order to heighten your awareness on how stressors in your life and under what circumstances they are impacting your performance.

By becoming aware of what is contributing to your stress and how it is affecting your athletic performance you are able to gain control and make changes towards your overall performance.

Developing Skills

Once you have become more aware of you mental processes and how they affect your athletic performance you can begin acquiring and learning mental strategies that will help you to maintain emotional and psychological control.

Simple steps to take in developing skills:

– create goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound

– explore the demands that are being placed on you from all areas of your life

– set boundaries with people who are emotionally draining and unsupportive in your life

– remain connected to people that are supportive of your goals and lifestyle

– develop healthy alternatives to relax, reward, and escape other then athletics

– practice common relaxation techniques such as visualization, massage, meditation, listening or playing music etc.


Once you have developed increased awareness of your mental processes and have identified mental strategies to engage in, it becomes essential to apply these on a daily basis to your training in order to effectively manage your stress and enhance your overall performance. Like physical training, with practice you will never stop improving your mental game.

In all, a certain amount of stress for each athlete is needed for optimal performance. Not enough stress becomes expressed through boredom and lack of challenges and motivation. A moderate amount of stress provides alertness and activation that contributes to performance enhancement. Yet, too much stress can drastically decrease athletic performance, as well as have a negative impact on all life areas, possibly leading to burnout. Most athletes are focused on outcome, performance, and improving one’s self, therefore, it becomes essential to become aware of stress and how it impacts your life so that you can apply these mental strategies to control and limit the negative affects of it.