Athlete Stress on the Rise

May 12, 2019

Stress among athletes is prevalent in all level of sports, and it seems to be on the rise—including at the high school level.

In an interview on the Social Brain Blog, Dr. Steve Graef, a counseling sports and performance psychologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center who works with intercollegiate athletes, provides insights on why there seem to be more stressed athletes than ever before.

“I think the demands that are placed on athletes today are greater than they have been historically,” Graef said. “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.”

Dr. Graef said that research shows that, not surprisingly, athletic performance is impaired between being overly anxious, but it's also hindered by feelings of fatigue, lethargy, and depression.

“We're not going to perform very well if we're in any of those states,” he said. “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.”

Dr. Graef tries recommends coaches keep things as simple as possible with their athletes in working to reduce their stress level. He calls it the “ABCs.”

“'A' stands for acceptance, acknowledgment and appreciation for whatever is going on, Dr. Graef explains. “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 minds 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:' Choosing what to think, feel or do next.”

Dr. Graef recommends that coaches tell their athletes to get into some type of ritual to remind themselves of the “ABCs.”

Athletes could have a mantra of “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...So regardless at the end of the day, that ABC process helps the individual to acknowledge and appreciate the times can be tough in that there's some stress going on, brief their way through that transition and then more deliberately choose what to think, feel, or do next.”

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