Sport psychology: take mental charge of your performance

Owen Anderson explains how athletes can harness sports psychology to overcome stress in sport and maximise performance

Mental stress can hurt your performances in a variety of different ways. It can raise heart rate and oxygen consumption, harming your exercise efficiency and causing particular workout and race speeds to feel tougher than they actually should. It can increase muscle tension, reducing stride lengths (if you are a runner) and making your legs and arms considerably less ‘springy’ and powerful. On a cognitive level, stress prevents you from ‘mentally managing’ your tough workouts and races; instead of relaxing and focusing on the task at hand, you are preoccupied with stressful thoughts and emotions, so the quality of your performance decreases.

If you feel stressed-out before and during your competitions or hard training sessions, what can you do to control the stress, and thus increase your chances of performing at your highest-possible level? Sport psychologists have proposed a number of different stress-managing techniques over the years, but one of the most successful has been something called ‘stress-inoculation training’. Developed in the late 1970s and early 1980s by Donald Meichenbaum, a psychologist at the University of Waterloo in Canada, stress-inoculation training takes its name from the fact that it exposes individuals to stress in manageable but gradually increasing amounts, thereby enhancing ‘immunity’ to stress for the persons practising the technique.

The key, however, to stress inoculation is not simply that stress levels are increased in a governable way during training; athletes also learn skills for coping with psychological stress and enhancing performance, including the development of productive thoughts and self-statements and the utilization of centring strategies. There are usually three stages in the overall stress-inoculation process: (1) A conceptualization phase, in which an athlete becomes more aware of how positive and negative thoughts, self-talk, and imagery influence performance, (2) a rehearsal period, during which an athlete learns to use centring, positive self-statements, and other coping skills, and (3) an application phase, in which the athlete actually practises his/her skills, first in low-stress situations and then in settings in which stress levels are gradually increased (for more on this, see the fine book Cognitive-Behavior Modifications: An Integrative Approach by Donald Meichenbaum).

Banishing unsuitable ‘headwork’

Stress-inoculation training was originally developed for the public-at-large, but psychologists quickly realized that it could be applied to sports settings. They knew that many athletes unwittingly respond to stress with maladaptive thoughts and images which greatly hinder performance. Once such athletes understand how their unsuitable ‘headwork’ is keeping them from reaching their potentials, they begin to eagerly construct new self-statements and images which can have a profoundly positive impact on their performances.

Scientific studies concerning the effects of stress-inoculation training on exercise capacity have generally been positive: In one study, two sessions of stress-inoculation training per week for 5.5 weeks improved the running economy of eight male collegiate cross-country runners. Stress-inoculation training has also been linked with improved performance during abseiling (descending mountain faces) and lower stress levels during squash competitions, and it has been particularly effective at boosting the performances of gymnasts (‘Stress Management and Athletic Performance,’ The Sport Psychologist, vol. 7, pp. 221-231, 1993).

Not too surprisingly, a number of sport psychologists have examined the effects of stress-inoculation training on basketball players, particularly with regard to free-throw shooting, which is often a high-stress activity within the game. One study found that stress inoculation improved both free-throw and field-goal shooting, and a second investigation (carried out with just three players, however) determined that free-throw shooting accuracy increased from 50 to 88 per cent and self-statements changed from 86-per cent negative (!) to 71-per cent positive after just 10 hours of stress-inoculation training.
In practical terms, here’s how stress inoculation works:

The conceptualization phase

If you are interested in managing your stress more effectively, you begin by keeping track of the things you say to yourself about your training and performances. You may want to write these things down, unless you are able to keep a fairly clear ‘mental log’ of your self-statements in your head. It’s important to bear in mind that no statement you make about yourself and your running is ‘too small’ to record, and you should also make note of the emotional content of your self-statements. Do they make you feel somewhat hopeless and like a failure – or confident and strong?

Here’s a specific example of a common self-statement which endurance athletes make, along with an explanation of why they make it and what it does to their performances.

Many athletes do quite well with their workouts but have problems delivering good race performances (i.e., they ‘choke’ on race days). After their races and at various times during their daily routines when they think about their racing, it’s typical for such athletes to utter self-statements along the lines of ‘I just have to face the fact that I am not a good racer.’

Here, poor race performance is the stressor. The bad races are making the athlete feel bad about himself; he feels that he is not measuring up to the expectations of himself, his loved ones, and peers. And since he lives in a culture in which winning is highly valued, he feels that his bad races brand him a ‘loser’.

The statement ‘I just have to face up to the fact that I am not a good racer’ is the anti-stressor, the temporary relief from the anxiety associated with racing so miserably. It is anti-stressful, because it implies that nothing can be done about the horrible race performances. If nothing can be done, then there is no longer any need to worry!

And the anti-stressor statement works, to a small degree, if modest and temporary reductions in anxiety are the ultimate goal. However, the statement is not functional at all if the ultimate goal is to learn to handle stress more effectively and perform up to one’s capacity. The statement ‘I just have to face up to the fact that I am not a good racer’ encapsulates a sense of hopelessness and futility, which will make it impossible to ever race well. In fact, such a statement is an inoculation for failure, rather than a true stress-reliever. It ensures poor performances – and it is the type of statement which makes it certain that stressors will never be met head on.

Another negative conception

Here’s another fairly common situation: a female marathon runner who performs very well in 5Ks, 10Ks, and half-marathons consistently experiences problems after the 20-mile mark in her marathons. In the last six miles of the race, her pace falls off so much that her finishing times are considerably slower than expected or predicted. As she looks ahead to an important marathon and begins to feel anxious about how well she will run after reaching the 20-mile point, she develops the following self-statement: ‘I just have to accept the fact that my speed is going to drop off after 20 miles or so.’ As race day approaches, she makes a similar statement to herself every time she worries about the final portion of the impending race.

The stressor in this case is the last 6.2 miles of the marathon, or more specifically the runner’s inability to perform well during this portion of the race. The transiently stress-relieving but basically negative statement ‘I just have to accept the fact that I am going to slow down after 20 miles’ takes away some of the burden of stress, because if nothing can be done about the velocity downturn, then it is not necessary to worry about it.

However, the emotional content of such a self-statement expresses a strong sense of futility and hopelessness. As such, it can not help the marathoner perform well in the marathon itself (secretly, she hopes to do well even though her self-statement admits defeat), nor can it help her train effectively and completely for her big race.

Away with ‘warm-fuzzies’

In addition, the self-statement, although temporarily relieving in a small way, is neither truthful nor realistic. The truth is that the individual is a good runner who performs well in other races, so she can do well in the marathon, too. The reality is that the individual is not doomed to a late-race slowdown; she can train to overcome the plunge in velocity over the final miles. The transiently relieving self-statement gives the runner the temporary ‘warm-fuzzies’ but actually works to block better performance and smooths the pathway to failure. In spite of the modest relief it provides, it needs to be completely jettisoned in favor of a positive and realistic statement which can push the individual toward better running.

There are many similar, transiently stress-relieving but emotively negative self-statements which endurance athletes commonly make. ‘I don’t have good foot speed’, ‘I’m not much of a 40-K bike racer’, and ‘I have trouble with interval workouts’ are just a few examples. In the conceptualization stage of stress inoculation, it’s important to become aware of how you talk to yourself about your training and racing. Try to gain an appreciation for the emotional content of your self-statements and understand how they might help or hinder your performances. Once you have gained a good understanding of how you have been talking to yourself and what your statements mean, you can move on to the next stage of stress management – rehearsal.

The rehearsal phase of stress inoculation

In the rehearsal stage, the negative self-statements are replaced with productive ones. For example, the runner who has been saying ‘I just have to accept that fact the I am not a good racer’ will put a halt to that kind of conceptualization, replacing it with something like ‘I work really hard in my training and carry out my intense workouts very well. This hard work is going to pay off – I’m going to start having some breakthrough races.’

Note that this new verbalization is no longer futile and helpless in tone; it is logical, positive, and optimistic. The runner is now ‘inoculating’ himself for success, not failure. He is giving himself a strong chance to perform up to his true capacity in his future competitions.

Also note, however, that the new self-statement, although positive and affirming, is not stress-relieving by itself. Negative self-statements tend to take stress away by touting the notion that nothing can be done to change things; positive self-statements proclaim that something can indeed be done, and thus the pressure (stress) is still squarely on the athlete’s shoulders to perform. This stress is gradually reduced in the application phase of stress inoculation, when the athlete uses his self-affirming thoughts and statements, first in low-stress situations and then in gradually more anxiety-producing events.

The runner who has been saying to herself ‘I just have to accept the fact that I will slow down a lot over the last six miles of the marathon’ can replace that pessimistic phrase with ‘I am going to train myself to hold my pace at the end of the race’ and also ‘The 20-mile mark is going to be my take-off point for a strong surge to the finish line.’

Once again, the new statements don’t remove stress: The pressure is on the self-affirming runner to identify and carry out the proper pre-race training – and actually mount that late-race rally on marathon day. However, the new statements give her a real chance to perform at her highest-possible level, and the stress can be steadily reduced over time as pre-marathon workouts and races go well.

In a similar vein, ‘I don’t have basic foot speed’ can be replaced with ‘I am carrying out strength and neural training to progressively develop my speed’, ‘I’m not much of a 40-K cyclist’ should be cast out in favour of ‘I’m going to upgrade my 5-K performances this year’, and ‘I have trouble with interval workouts’ can sink into the cellar, replaced by ‘I am really going to become proficient with my interval training over the summer.’ Productive self-statements should carry a positive emotional tone and project a desired outcome.

Why rehearsal?

At this point, you might be wondering why this stage of stress inoculation is called the rehearsal phase, since one is primarily replacing negative self-statements with more positive ones and apparently not doing much rehearsing. The key is that once the new, stronger self-statements are formulated, one ‘rehearses’ them by repeating them on a daily basis; one also rehearses the basic act of monitoring self-statements and classifying them as negative or positive, as well as discarding the negatives in favor of productive verbalizations (many athletes have ‘stream-of-consciousness’ self-statements which flow through the mind throughout the day without being checked or adjusted). An ‘anti-stress’ log book, in which one can – on a daily basis – write stress-producing self-statements (or negative self-statements produced in response to stress), can be helpful to many athletes. The idea is to jot down the negative self-statement as it experienced and then write alongside it the positive substitute.

In addition, while one is developing more positive self-statements, it is productive to rehearse the strategies of centring and ‘attentional control’. The concepts are related: centring simply means blocking out distractions, sensations, and thoughts which are irrelevant for good performance and turning one’s attention inward in a productive way; some athletes use key words like ‘go’ or ‘now’ to relax and shut out external irritations and to begin focusing on their breathing and state of muscle tension. Attentional control refers to keeping oneself focused on thoughts and movements which enhance performance, preventing one’s mind from wandering or focusing on ‘task-irrelevant’ things (thoughts and feelings which can’t help you perform well). Both of these strategies require rehearsal; in fact, once you begin to want to centre and control your attention, you will usually become aware of how non-centred and diverting your thoughts have been in the past.

Note that stress-inoculation training takes into account the fact that stress is transactional. It is not simply a sticky blanket which drapes itself over one’s shoulders and refuses to come off; it is something one can interact with and handle effectively by using various techniques. In effect, you are having a conversation with your stress – on your own terms. There are times when you want to shut it out – when you centre and practise attentional control, but at other times you want to use the stress as a platform to make yourself a better athlete (as when you take the stress of ‘I’ll never be a good racer’ and transform it into ‘I’m going to focus on having some breakthrough races’).

The application phase

Once you have developed positive self-statements and are better at centring and attentional control, you’re ready to apply your new strategies in increasingly stressful situations – leading up to your big competitive event(s) of the year. Remember that stress-inoculation training doesn’t initially relieve stress; in fact, in a study carried out with competitive gymnasts, the athletes performed better after going through stress-inoculation training, even though their anxiety levels were initially higher during competitions than they had been prior to the ‘inoculation’. Don’t be alarmed that the stress is not magically going away; in fact, you can use the ‘somatic stress’ (higher heart rate, higher breathing rate, greater muscle tension) which you might feel as a positive: when you experience it, simply say ‘All right, my body is getting ready for a high level of performance.’

Cognitive anxiety (the mental stress you are feeling) will be relieved gradually over time, as your new strategies steadily enhance your ability to perform. For an athlete, there is no better antidote to stress than good performances. The athlete who is stressed out about racing is transiently relieved when he tells himself that he will never race well, but he is permanently and positively relieved when he begins to have solid races and set PBs.

Basically, to apply your new stress-managing skills effectively, you would be wise to set up a moderate-length test race which you can carry out on your own. Practise your positive self-statements, centring, and attentional control during the weeks leading up to this ‘race’, and then perform to the best of your ability. A few weeks later, enter a low-key contest outside your immediate geographical area, where you will know few of the other athletes (not knowing anyone makes attentional control easier), and use your skills again prior to this race. As the weeks go by, gradually enter more and more stressful races (i.e., races where you want to do fairly well, competitions in which you do know the other competitors, etc.). Generally, your stress-managing skills will increase enough as time goes by so that you will be able to perform well at these races, in contrast to when you were not managing your stress. At your big event of the year, you will be in much better control of your mind and body – and ready to give yourself a chance to have a great race.

If your problem is not the stress of racing itself but a within-race problem such as losing speed in the last portion of a marathon, the positive self-talk, centring, and attentional control will also work, and you’ll need to use them leading up to and during a workout which duplicates the stress of marathon day. A training session in which you run moderately for 20 miles or so and then ‘take off’ at marathon pace for three to four miles will be helpful, and so will all training sessions which require you to run at goal marathon pace while tired. If you use stress-inoculation training correctly along with your regular training, you can ‘inoculate’ yourself with the positive focus and self-statements which will make it possible for you to perform at your highest-possible level.

Owen Anderson

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