The Emotional Game – Part 3: Stress.

DSC_0023For the last article of “the emotional game” I will be talking about the most commonly discussed part: Stress:

“…a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances.”

Unfortunately very often in sports ‘stress’ is the term used to describe the negative psychological and physiological responses which result when the individual feels unable to meet the demands of the task they are performing. This means that during this specific article we are looking more at the perception of stressors. How are certain things viewed differently per person and why does one cause distress and the other does not? A way to explain this is by looking at the “four-stage stress process”,

Demand -> Perception of Demand -> Stress Response -> Outcome

Let’s take an example from hockey:

  1. Demand ‘stressor’: “Today we are playing for the championship”.
  2. Perception of Demand: “I do not want to let my team down; I am not good enough to be champion”.
  3. Stress Response: Arousal of the body and Anxiety.
  4. Outcome: Poor performance due to Arousal and Anxiety.

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Before we look at how we can manage the stress responses and perception of these stressors it is first important to look at different types of stressors as these ultimately are the start of the four-stage stress process. These can be grouped into five different stressor types:

Threaten Our Self-esteem:  When we receive negative feedback from our coaches we are aware of the view of others in regarding to our performance; the possibility of being evaluated by others will threaten our self-esteem.

Cause Personal Harm: An easy example for this would be in hockey where you have to stand in the goal and stop a penalty corner. There is a high chance that the ball will hit your body causing pain and possibly an injury.

Fear of the Unknown:  This is a stressor that I am familiar with when coaching hockey when players do not understand what the coach wants or are asked to play in a position they are not used to, this causes them a lot of stress which ultimately leads to Anxiety.

Create Frustration: When we are unable to achieve a task or a goal we have set out to do, for example, if a player is constantly making the same error in sport, such as receiving the ball, they start to gain stress which makes it even harder next time. Unfortunately, this is usually a downwards spiral in performance.

Create Pressure: Most often people think that pressure comes from the event it’s self, taking a penalty in football to win the match but something that is overlooked is the ability of other players to create pressure. Something just as simple as laughing when someone from the other team makes a mistake can cause a huge amount of stress (anxiety).

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The next part in the process is how the athlete responds to these stressors but I went into detail in the part one and part two of these articles about the emotional game. Instead, I will look at something that most people will be helped directly from: Stress Management.

The first thing we will look at is getting athletes to take the time to think about how they perceive the stressors in the first place. Does the coach tell the players that scoring the winning goal is important or do they instead explain that the game-winning goal is just as important as any other goal? This will give a direct impact on how the players are affected by the stressor of scoring the goal that wins the game. A phrase that I hear (and have used thousands of times) is “Mistakes happen they are not a problem, try and focus on the positives and not the negatives”. I am certain that everyone reading this blog has heard this phrase at some time in their lives, even though it sounds like positive coaching it is actually a perfect example for trying to reduce the intensity that players perceive the demand (stressor).

There are a few physiological techniques that can be used, these include biofeedback, breathing regulation and relaxation (meditation). These are somatic techniques and are used to reduce the physiological responses associated with arousal, I will not discuss these as I am going to focus two easily utilised psychological (cognitive) techniques that can be used to reduce anxiety and arousal during sport:

Goal Setting:

Goal setting is hugely underutilised in hockey in my opinion, even with my own coaching. I know I should use it more often but it takes a lot of planning outside the hockey field. The main advantage of goal setting is the player can shift the focus from the stressor towards their goal. Goal setting should almost always be focused on performance-related goals (“I  am going to give positive feedback to other players during matches”) and not based on outcome-related goals (“I must score three goals a game”). Goal setting can also be used as a “Plan B” if you are not playing how you want to be playing, the performance is as good as you want it to be and you are feeling the stressor from this, thinking about your goal of giving positive feedback will take your focus  away from your own performance and give you more confidence ultimately playing better.


Self-talk is used by an athlete to use arousal as a positive effect on performance. For example, when you receive a building level of arousal you will physically feel this and instead of seeing it as ‘nerves’ seeing it as a positive bodily response telling you that it is “ready to win”. Something that I use often with my players is getting them to repeat “what would Robert say” in this situation. Although I would love to be, I can not give them feedback advice and support every second of the game, that is where self-talk comes in. A great tip for using self-talk in this aspect when a specific technique is not going well is to repeat the important point(s) from the trainer/coach while learning it. There is a player in my under16s team that after making a technical mistake she often says to her self under her breath things such as “Keep low, head over the ball, use my shoulders (translated)” this is exactly what I would say to her in this situation but she is telling her self instead. Not only does this help her technique to improve quicker she will also reduce the perceived stress from not being able to perform the skill to the level she wants.


The conclusion of all three parts- The Emotional Game Arousal, Anxiety and Stress:

Although I wrote about all three parts separately we now know that they are very closely linked. Here are some tips for coaches that they can use to help their players (players should also discuss these with their coaches):

  • Making the demands less threatening. such as by eliminating uncertainty as much as possible, reducing the importance of an event or having the players focus on performance-related goals.
  • Being aware of personal and situational factors, asking what a particular situation means for that player at that time, discovering what is his or her optimal arousal level (the zone of optimal functioning).
  • Building and maintaining self-confidence by encouraging players to develop a sense of control, such as helping players to learn and apply cognitive anxiety management technique (Goal-setting and Self-Talk), ensuring that they are physically and mentally prepared for competition.
  • Helping players to change their perceptions, such as putting failers in a positive.

For players do not overlook the importance of goal setting and self-talk, please give both a try and you will see how well it works in dealing with Arousal, Anxiety and Stress!


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