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Embracing 'stress mindset' is actually a good thing for athletes

At Staffordshire University, a team of sports psychology experts is pioneering a new approach to help young athletes thrive under stress.

Their research reveals that simple cognitive behavioral techniques can significantly alter an athlete’s ‘stress mindset’, leading to improved wellbeing and enhanced performance.

“The common association of stress with distress can negatively impact health, performance, and productivity. Athletes, despite the health advantages of sports, are not immune to mental health challenges,” Dr. Paul Mansell, the lead researcher, explains.

“Concerns about deselection from elite programs and academic pressures are real for these young individuals. Our goal is to assist them in adapting to stress, which is often an inevitable part of their lives.”

Studying athlete stress mindset

The research team developed a series of workshops for teenage swimmers and footballers at four different clubs. The timing was critical – the end of the competitive season, when stakes are high.

Participants were divided into two groups: an experimental group, where the focus was on changing stress mindsets, irrational beliefs, self-compassion, and imagery; and a control group.

A key aspect of the program was encouraging athletes to adopt a ‘stress-is-enhancing’ mindset.

“It is not an event itself which causes us to think and respond in a particular way. Instead, it is our beliefs about an event which influence our thoughts, feelings and behaviours” commented Jason Wright, a researcher on the project.

“When viewed positively, stress can help to fuel our performance. We have all experienced that feeling when the adrenalin kicks and your heart starts beating faster. We encouraged students to embrace this and to see it as their body and mind preparing to perform well.”

Imagery and visualization techniques

Participants used imagery techniques to visualize their responses to stressful events, like crucial races or games.

They focused on elements within their control, such as effort, attitude, and preparation, instead of factors beyond their control.

The program also incorporated self-compassion and mindfulness exercises, aimed at fostering a more understanding and accepting attitude towards oneself in difficult situations.

The results were striking. Post-intervention, there was a notable increase in stress mindset and a significant decrease in negative emotional states like anger, fear, or irritability among the athletes.

Athletes and students embrace the stress mindset

The feedback was overwhelmingly positive, with many athletes adopting imagery techniques for competition preparation.

“Experiencing stress is unavoidable and often beyond our control but this research shows that shifting perceptions of stress from negative to a more balanced view, can help athletes develop helpful rather than unhelpful beliefs,” said Dr. Katie Sparks, a Lecturer in Sports Psychology.

“These are techniques that we can all use to better manage the stresses of daily life and ultimately to improve our wellbeing.”

In summary, this innovative approach, the team hopes, will be adopted more widely by professionals working with young athletes, including sports coaches.

It’s a method that benefits athletes and can also be valuable for students preparing for exams or anyone facing life’s challenges.

By redefining stress, we can empower our youth to transform pressure into a pathway for success.

The full study was published in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology.


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