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The Stressed Out Athlete

A leading sports psychologist shares tips for every athlete.

Major stress used to be reserved for the major leagues: If there was a championship—and a few million dollars—on the line, anxiety would understandably kick in. But nowadays, stress and anxiety seem to impact athletes from all walks of life, from the grade schooler to the college athlete to the professional training and playing around the clock. Why all the stress? And how might we cope?

The Social Brain Blog interviewed Dr. Steve Graef, a sport and performance psychologist at The Ohio State University working with intercollegiate athletes.

Social Brain Blog (SBB): Are athletes more stressed now than ever before?

Steve Graef: Yes. I think the demands that are placed on athletes today are greater than they have been historically. It starts at a young age where there's a tremendous amount of pressure from parents, club programs, and high schools to have the best program, the best club in the area of the country, and that trickles down to the athlete.

Academics have become more challenging and the time constraints associated with athletics put an additional demand on that. Everyone's getting bigger, stronger, and faster. So there are physical demands that can be difficult to keep up with and societal pressures.

SBB: So is playing sports these days a way to reduce stress or does it just create more stress?

SG: I think that there are aspects of engagement in sport that helps reduce demands in our lives. Sports are physical activities and physical activities are good for the mind and body, but too much of anything can become problematic.

At Ohio State and many other universities, there are a tremendous amount of resources if you're a student-athlete. Those individuals have access to tutors, nutritionists, conditioning coaches, board psychologists, and academic advisors. So there are plenty of people that are there to support the student-athletes, which would be very facilitative for that human being.

Having said that, if you're in athletics, there is even more of a pressure cooker. Parents are on your case, coaches are on your case, and your community is on your case. You're looking at that as your big-ticket item as a way to go on to the next level. You're solely focused on it. And as a result, that creates a lot of internal stress.

One hundred percent of your sense of self and identity is based on sport. That can be problematic because if it doesn't go well, that's going to be damaging to our overall ego. So there are pros and cons associated with elite sport participation, even recreational sport participation. It's critical for each individual to have informed consent about the balance that they're attempting to achieve within the athletic arena.

SBB: What kind of stress and anxiety are you seeing from athletes?

SG: There is general stress, and then there is a deeper worry: How is my performance going to reflect on myself? What is my coach thinking of me? I used to be a big fish in a small pond in high school, and now I'm in college and I'm riding the bench. I'm not getting an opportunity to play. So any opportunity that I do get is riddled with anxiety of not wanting to screw up this one opportunity.

Once college moves towards wrapping up, then it is an anxiety about the future. If you put somebody under a tremendous load for long periods of time, that can lead to burnout and can certainly show up with feelings of depression and low energy and fatigue. And then the final piece is just adjustment and struggles with adjustment. And learning how to adapt to this new context can be challenging for many athletes.

SBB: What happens to athletic performance under stress and depression?

SG: Research shows there's a relationship between our general arousal level and our performance. Our performance is not going to be good if we're overly anxious and feeling panicky. Fatigue, lethargy, depression: We're not going to perform very well if we're in any of those states. There really is a cause and motivation for us to manage our stress, anxiety, and depression effectively, because our performance is relying on it, not only just our physical performance but also our psychological, mental, and emotional health as well.

Unresolved and unmanaged stress can turn into a myriad of psychological and physiological types of problems, such as ongoing depression and anxiety, immune deficiencies, high blood pressure, increased breathing rate, muscle tension, and diarrhea. All of these things are going to be problematic, not only from a sport performance standpoint but from a life performance standpoint as well.

SBB: What are the most impactful ways that you work with athletes to help them reduce stress and improve your overall mental and physical health?

SG: I try to keep it simple and there's nothing simpler, at least in my world, than the ABCs.

"A" stands for acceptance, acknowledgment, and appreciation for whatever is going on. So really what that means is we can acknowledge the fact that times can be tough. We're going to be under times of stress, and sometimes we think won't be fast. And we have wonky feelings. But the more that we try to fight those, the larger and more intense they get. So instead, by just acknowledging and appreciating and accepting these feelings, we can kind of ride that wave instead of feeling like we're swimming against it.

"B" is taking a deep breath and by engaging in the breath. What it allows us to do is focus our mind and slow down our mind so we don't get caught up in a stress-related spiral. Once we were able to slow down our breathing, that allows us to transition more deliberately into "C."

"C" is choosing what to think, feel or do next. And depending on conversations and interactions with the particular individual, we may choose a mantra that they remind themselves of, such as, "This too shall pass." Or they may choose to continue to engage in relaxation and breathing training in order to calm the mind and body and that stressful performance or they may choose to have a difficult conversation with the coach about playing time. So at least they get on the same page and can worry less about that particular situation.

At the end of the day, the ABC process helps the individual to acknowledge and appreciate that times can be tough and that there's some stress going on, abbreviate our way through that transition, and more deliberately choose what to think, feel, or do next.

SBB: As a parent, what can I do to be more supportive of my kids and help them develop a healthy perspective?

SG: I think the question to ask yourself is: Are you helping the situation or hurting the situation? What I mean by that is doing due diligence as a parent and flipping the script: If you were in your child's shoes, how would you want to be addressed? Can you imagine walking in the door right from work, and all of a sudden your kid is asking you how your day was at the office, and asking you whether you had that conversation with the boss? You'd be annoyed as hell. The reality is that oftentimes parents are doing precisely that to their kids.

So are you making the situation better, or are you making the situation worse? Offering support instead of pressure, giving the child an opportunity to disclose or discuss what they feel they may want or need from you as a parent: that’s key. And then, based on that discussion, identifying if it would make sense to bring additional resources into the mix such as a counselor or a sports psychologist.

Steve Graef, Ph.D., is a counseling sports and performance psychologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.


About the Author

OSU Wexner Medical Center for Brain Health and Performance combines five neuroscience-related specialties into an integrated program, and has one of the country's largest neuromuscular clinical and research programs.