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The expectations on professional athletes are enormous. There is room for success and not a lot of room for failure. This kind of pressure and scrutiny can result in stress. However, depending on how athletes deal with stress, it can lead to positive and negative results. The idea of stress can be thought about as energy and great athletes harness this energy while lesser athletes let the energy harness them.
Vodafone Warriors winger Ken Maumalo has been a revelation since debuting for the club in 2015. Ken is one of those players that, when he gets the ball, fans, teammates and opposition players alike expect something to happen. His dynamic running game sees him average more than 150 metres a game- a feat that even some forwards struggle with.
With a player like Maumalo, the expectations are enormous. When players start to average incredible numbers, make excellent shots in defence and score out of this world tries, people take notice. What are moments of brilliance have become expected occurrences for players, which can then lead to stress.
Stress is a hard one in professional sports and in fact, it doesn’t necessarily have to be performance-related. When harnessed correctly players can soar, but when it becomes all-consuming and players begin to underperform, a dressing room can feel like a very small place.
Ken says: “Off the field it would have to be skin folds and weight for me. I sort of stress over that, and if I’m not up to date with my weight and my skin folds, that sort of puts a lot of stress on me.”
The impact of stress on the field can be detrimental to performance. Stress impairs important cognitive functions such as attention, memory and decision-making. When cognitive functions are impaired, players can rush up out off their line and let in a crucial try. They can drop the ball in an attacking position or give away a crucial penalty that levels the game with only minutes to spare.
The Vodafone Warriors Wellbeing Manager, Jerry Seuseu says “In terms of competition and being assessed, there is a natural ‘stress’ response to any challenge whether it be physical, mental or psychological or emotional and that is part of our survival instinct.”
There are three different types of stress that affect athletes. Firstly, competitive stressors which are related directly to the sport. Issues like injury, game day pressures and expectations for a big performance. Secondly, organisational stressors which are an ongoing transaction between an individual and the environmental demands of which the athlete is performing in. This relates to training issues or changes, interpersonal conflict and a perceived lack of support. Lastly, there are personal stressors relating to the demands placed on the athlete personally such as lifestyle changes, financial issues or outside commitments.
Stress isn’t just because of the outcome either, it also relates to performance factors. With different factors of stress working to impair the cognitive functions of the brain, unless this energy can be harnessed correctly, players can get in trouble. Therefore, developing techniques to clear your mind and use stress positively are paramount.
Maumalo says: “We do a lot of breathing on the field, so we just come in the huddle and it’s normally a few breaths, so the leader will call out ‘three breaths’ and you all breathe together in sync.”
Dealing with stress effectively comes from already having some level of confidence in your own ability. An athlete who achieves greatness takes the same stress sensations that everyone else is feeling and converts it into a heightened state where they have more energy, better concentration and increased confidence.
Being able to get your body into this effective performance state is known as a challenge state. A challenge state is related to a number of positive thoughts and emotions and enhances performance across a range of activities. Physically, the body reacts in an efficient manner with blood vessels dilating and the heart shunting more blood to the brain and muscles so that you can think and act in the desired way.
However, Wellbeing Manager Jerry Seuseu says that there are certain roadblocks which can lead to stress, “Not having coping techniques specific to our unique personality and contextual propensities when challenges arise.”
If you have sufficient resources of self-confidence, perceived control and approach focus, when faced with pressure your body will rapidly assess the demands of the situation and how your body can react- known as the challenge state.
If you have insufficient levels of self-confidence, control and focus, the body reacts in a distressed manner with negative and unhelpful thoughts- known as a threat state.
Other than accessing the challenged state, there are a variety of ways for athletes to handle stress. Things like reframing pressure as a positive and normal feeling, reducing external and internal sources of pressure and using pressure in training all contribute to better performances under stress.
Some athletes like to use methods of relaxation like progressive muscle relaxation or deep breathing to calm the body down, while others use imagery to imagine themselves in game situations to build confidence in their ability and reduce anxiety.
Ken says: “Before the games, I put my legs up against the wall and I just have 10 deep breaths to myself, and I try and close my eyes and sort of focus on my breathing every game.”
Dealing with stress starts by acknowledging that this energy can be used both positively and negatively. Once players accept stress as a part of the playing process, they can work towards finding ways to minimise the negative effects it can have on their game, while also maximising the positives. From deep breathing to challenge states and stretches, there is a way for every athlete to harness stress as a positive.