Psychological and Emotional Stress in Athletes

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Psychological and Emotional Stress in Athletes

The number of stressors that a professional athlete encounters can exceed 640. Three of the most-common psychological/emotional stressors experienced by athletes as a result of competing/training are (1) performance anxiety, (2) depression from injury, and (3) body image perception. Psychology is certainly important for athletes because it's estimated that 80% of their success is attributed to mental resiliency.


1. Performance Anxiety

  • One of the most-common psychological/emotional stressors experienced by athletes as a result of competing/training is performance anxiety.
  • As its name implies, performance anxiety involves athletes worrying about how well they will do during competition.
  • Performance anxiety is very common among professional athletes, as approximately 50% of them suffer from it.
  • The prevalence of performance anxiety has been sharply rising, as its prevalence was just about 10% two decades ago.
  • An expert summarized the performance anxiety issue among athletes well in stating: "Today, there’s so much pressure they [athletes] put on themselves. They feel they don’t want to disappoint. . . We see so much anxiety. It’s amazing."
  • The performance anxiety psychological/emotional stressor also impacts non-athletes in the form of pressure to succeed.
  • Research found that 67% of millennials reported feeling "'extreme' pressure to succeed, compared to 40 percent of GenXers and 23 percent of Boomers."

2. Depression From Injury

  • Depression following an injury is also among the most-common psychological/emotional stressors experienced by athletes, as a result of competing/training.
  • There is a strong nexus between depression and injuries among athletes.
  • Injuries are extremely common among athletes. As just one example, nine in ten student athletes said they have some type of sports injury and over half (54%) said they played through an injury.
  • Research has found that 80% of athletes being treated for injuries also cited psychological impacts resulted from those injuries.
  • A sports injury has been described as "[o]ne of the most recognized risk factors for psychological distress among male athletes . . . ."
  • An injury can be so significant for an athlete that it was even described as a "[m]ajor negative life event."
  • Even non-injured athletes suffer from depression, as a study found that 21.4% of college student athletes in the U.S. reported experiencing depression symptoms. As another example, in Australia, 27.2% of athletes experienced depression symptoms.
  • Depression is also a very prevalent psychological/emotional stressor among non-athletes, as the World Health Organization found that over 300 million individuals worldwide experience depression.

3. Body Image Perception

  • One of the most-common psychological and emotional stressors experienced by athletes as a result of training/competing is body image perception, as demonstrated by the prevalence of eating disorders among athletes.
  • Body image perception is so prevalent among athletes because their performance and appearance is closely linked to their body health.
  • Approximately one-third of athletes (33-35%) said they have an eating disorder.
  • Athletes are especially prone to eating disorders, as they are two to three "times more likely than the average individual to develop an eating disorder."
  • Among women who participate in aesthetic sports, 43% have eating patterns classified as "disordered."
  • A study of 583 triathletes (female and male) found that 100% of them "were unhappy with their current BMI [body mass index]."
  • Between five percent and 10% of anorexia diagnoses are among males, but nearly half of those males (45%) were athletes or have a job where weight control is integral for performance.
  • The body image psychological/emotional stressor strongly impacts non-athletes as well. According to the World Health Organization, eating disorders affect 70 million individuals worldwide.
  • Within the general public, males account for one-fourth of people suffering from anorexia and approximately 50% of people suffering from binge eating disorder.
  • In the U.S., seven million females in the U.S. have an eating disorder, as do one million males.

Your Research Team Applied the Following Strategy:

We identified the three psychological/emotional stressors experienced by athletes as a result of competing/training by first consulting sources that discussed stressors that athletes encounter. An example of one such source that we consulted was titled "3 Types of Psychological Stress Affecting Athletes In-season." We then proceeded with our research by looking for hard data demonstrating the prevalence of those psychological/emotional stressors among athletes. We categorized the three stressors included above as among the most-common stressors experienced by athletes as a result of competing/training based on the percentages of athletes affected by each stressor. As our research findings demonstrate, each of the three stressors affect a very significant proportion of athletes, which is why we included them. The sources we used throughout our research ranged from sports-related sources such as Global Sports Development to media sources such as Inc. Together, this research process provided us with all the information we sought.
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Dealing with Psychological and Emotional Stress in Athletes

The most common ways athletes deal with psychological and emotional stressors experienced during training and competing include: practicing visualization and positive self-talk to motivate themselves, setting individual goals and ensuring that they get enough rest in between training and before competitions.

Common Ways Athletes Deal with Psychological and Emotional Stressors

#1. Practicing Visualization and Positive Self-talk

#2. Setting Individual Goals

  • Goal setting is also another common coping strategy, which athletes employ to counter the effects of competitive anxiety in sport.
  • Athletes set for themselves smaller, short-term goals after realistically gauging their abilities. This gives them the advantage of being able to attain reachable goals and with less added emotional stressors that would have gone into trying to achieve unattainable goals/targets.
  • Setting goals also helps them keep track of progress, with a long-term perspective in mind as opposed to trying to achieve so much, so soon which usually brings with itself added psychological and emotional stress.
  • Besides, successful attainment of any goal changes the brain's chemistry by increasing testosterone levels and decreasing cortisol levels. This enhances self-confidence and motivation, which are two of the main ingredients in combating stress and anxiety.

#3. Getting Enough Rest Before Competitions

Suggestions About Dealing with Stressors.

#1. Breathing Deep and Progressively Relaxing Muscles

  • Coaches and parents usually encourage relaxation techniques during training and at home to better manage the psychological and emotional stressors.
  • These techniques include: deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and mentalization during the game/training to keep their anxiety and stress at low levels.

#2. Focusing on the Task at Hand Rather than the Outcome

  • Coaches and parents also encourage concentrating at what is present at the moment and the avoidance of thinking too far into the event or thinking about the finish.
  • They also suggest that if one finds themselves having negative thoughts or negative self-talk, they ought to pause for a moment and focus only on the breathing.
  • Focusing mainly on one's breathing movement automatically pulls them back into the present moment.

How Non-athletes Deal with Psychological and Emotional Stressors in Comparison to Athletes.

Due to their coping ability, emotional regulation and mental toughness from numerous exposure to competitive situations, athletes are better able to deal with psychological and emotional stressors than non-athletes.
Athletes borrow from their resilient mental toughness associated with their sport to deal with psychological and emotional stressors in problem-solving whereas non-athletes do not have a lesser aggressive approach in dealing with the same.
Athletes generally take part in higher levels of physical activity weekly than their non-athletic counterparts. Higher physical activity levels have been proven to correlate with a more positive approach and coping styles which are generally associated with decreased stress levels.
Physical activity usually brings about the release of endorphins which helps with stress reduction and perception. Subsequently, the reduction in perception of stress enables an individual to perceive a stressor in a more manageable manner than they did before taking part in any physical activity. Engaging in physical activity, therefore, correlates to more positive emotion-based coping for athletes than non-athletes

Research Strategy:

To commence the research, we scoured through leading industry publications such as, but not limited to, Journals of Experimental Psychology, PubMed, Psyc INFO, Sports Fitness Network, Psychological Science as well as psychology research literature and scholarly papers in sports psychology and the like. The rationale being to try to pull out what industry experts from the sports psychology research departments have managed to identify and publish over the years from their research on athletes and in particular in their investigation of the ways in which athletes deal with psychological and emotional stressors experienced during training and competing. We were able to obtain necessary findings for the subject under investigation from these sources.


From Part 02
  • "Visualize. Allow a few minutes to practice visualization. During this time, you mentally rehearse, showing yourself doing everything right. Breathe easy, close your eyes and use mental imagery to visualize yourself performing well. This positive self-talk can change your attitude. "
  • "Stress management techniques in sport typically target somatic, behavioral, and/or cognitive affective symptoms of stress. Somatic responses involve the athlete’s physiological reactions, such as changes in heart rate (HR), respiration (R), sweating, gastrointestinal functioning, muscular tension and control, pupil dilation, urinary system, and salivation. Behavioral responses are the direct actions taken because of the stress, including engagement or disengagement in certain strategies or activities, as well as distraction. "
  • "Breath control is commonly used before a competition or during a natural break during the competition, as it is most practically applied during nonactive times."
  • "Positive thought control involves self-awareness to identify negative thoughts and replace them with more adaptive ones. Positive thought control involves three elements: using negative thoughts in a positive way, controlling negative thoughts, and training positive thoughts. The aim is to have the athlete take a more positive orientation regarding the situation"
  • "Attentional refocusing involves shifting attention or focus from a stressful issue to one with fewer negative connotations attached to it. Some athletes may become too focused on their thoughts and stress reactions, causing them to become more anxious. To a large extent, attention refocusing attempts to shift attention from a self-focus to more of a focus on the features of the sporting environment."
  • "Another common coping strategy is called goal setting, which athletes use to counter the effects of competitive anxiety in sport. Setting smaller, short-term goals has the benefit of helping the athlete to monitor and track progress toward achieving a long-term goal. In addition, successful attainment of any goal — a win — has a winner effect, whereby a change in brain chemistry increases testosterone level and decreases cortisol level, enhances our self-confidence and motivation. Self-confidence and motivation are two of the main ingredients in combating stress and anxiety. "
  • "Several research studies in applied sport psychology have examined the different stressors, or demands, that performers may have to deal with in stressful situations. Here the literature suggests that aspects of competition (e.g., thinking about performance, the goals that may have been set, and perceived levels of physical and mental preparation), interper-sonal relationships (e.g., expectations from team-mates, coaches, family members), fi nancial matters (e.g., funding issues, sponsors), traumatic experi-ences (e.g., the risk and consequence of injury), and the weather and environmental conditions can result in athletes having different anxiety responses"
  • "Rest is an important component of the training regime in general and is also particularly important for stress level and mental health. Good rest is one of the most restorative things one can provide for their body, mind and spirit. Getting plenty of rest will help one perform at an optimal level and will reduce the susceptibility to stress. If one finds themselves lacking on rest regularly, squeeze in a nap when they can would be a good idea."
  • " When it comes to mental toughness, athletes are able to deal with competitive situations well due to their coping ability and emotional regulation than non-athletes. Their amount of mental toughness often predicts their ability to use problem and emotion-focused coping when dealing with particular stressors associated with their sport."
  • "Athletes in general engage in higher levels of physical activity on a weekly basis than their non-athletic counterparts. Levels of physical activity have been shown to have a relationship with more positive and approach coping styles and in general decreasing stress levels. Physical activity causes a release of endorphins which helps with stress reduction and perception. This reduction in perception of stress causes an individual to look at a stressor in a more manageable way than he/she did before engaging in physical activity. Engaging in physical activity also correlates to more positive emotion based coping."