Athletes are under pressure to perform well. Self-imposed expectations or those of coaches, teammates or family members can lead to anxiety, depression, insomnia and other forms of stress. It doesn’t matter if you are a professional or a weekend warrior, stress management techniques are an important tool for any athlete.
Managing your stress can reduce injury and illness. A 2003 study published in the “Annals of Behavioral Medicine” found that college rowers who received cognitive behavioral stress management training reduced the number of days they were sick or injured. They also cut their visits to health services in half. The CBSM included seven group sessions with a licensed psychologist and a clinical psychology intern, where athletes learned progressive muscle relaxation, diaphragmatic breathing techniques, emotive imagery and cognitive restructuring.
Cognitive restructuring enables you to think through a situation, turning negativity into a balanced response while helping you plan for future situations. Mind Tools provides the following cognitive restructuring technique: Write down the situation and identify the deep feelings you experienced. Identify the thoughts that went through your head and mark the ones that were most stressful. Look at both sides of the situation and create a balanced answer, such as "I performed well, but in the future I would like to improve in this area." Now come up with a game plan. Think through how you’ll respond the next time and create positive affirmations. A 1988 study on Canadian Olympians found those who planned ahead for their competition as well as how to evaluate their performance and how to deal with any disruptions were significantly more successful than athletes who had not planned ahead.
Seeing yourself achieving your goal is an important part of building the self-confidence you will need to obtain it. If you are a runner, picture yourself running the race, going through each part of the course and getting the medal at the finish line. This gives you something to remember when you are running the course and can provide the push you need to get through the difficult moments. Visualization can be as easy as closing your eyes and picturing each step that will get you to the finish line. You can also use a tool called "treasure mapping" that creates a physical representation of your goal. Hang a collage of photos that represent each piece of what you’ve visualized in a place where you can see it daily. For a runner, the collage would consist of pictures of the course, people crossing the finish line – any image that helps you recall what you’ve imagined.
Guided relaxation physically reduces stress. The authors of the CBSM study found that relaxation recordings reduced the hormone cortisol, which is released in response to stress. Most have soothing music and calming voices helping you to gently contract and release your muscles or focus on your breathing. Downloads are available or you can create your own sport-specific track by recording your voice as you walk yourself through your event combining guided relaxation with visualization.