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Life Strains Cause Ankle Sprains

Stressed out athletes are more likely to injure themselves on the field.

Stepped on a pebble while jogging and twisted your ankle? You're not the only weekend warrior hobbling to the emergency room: Each year sprains and other injuries temporarily sideline nearly half of amateur athletes, experts say. But these injuries may be due to more than just bad luck or insufficient stretching. Since the early 1970s, at least 18 studies have found that athletes who have experienced recent life stress—anything from hassles at work to the death of a loved one—are two to five times more likely to suffer injuries on the playing field than their less-pressured counterparts, notes University of Arizona sports psychologist Dean Williams, Ph.D. In one study, for example, 73 percent of college football players who had endured high stress levels in the previous year suffered injuries during the season, compared to only 30 percent of those who'd experienced little stress. Similar findings have been reported in sports ranging from soccer to race walking.

Stress probably increases the odds of injury in several ways, notes Williams. Overly stressed athletes are less likely to notice potentially harmful objects in their peripheral vision—like that pebble on the jogging track—and more likely to focus on irrelevant cues. And anxious athletes tend to simultaneously tense opposing muscles, such as the biceps and triceps, causing premature tiring and increasing the risk of injury.

The irony to all this, of course, is that exercise is an oft-prescribed method for handling stress. So what can weekend athletes do to stay injury-free when work or family pressures build? Unfortunately, researchers have only begun to test the effectiveness of injury-prevention strategies. But Williams suggests several approaches that may help, including practicing meditation or mental relaxation skills; taking antianxiety medication; encouraging team members to support each other in times of stress; and learning to ignore distractions.