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what can elite athletes teach us about stress

What elite athletes teach us about stress

If you want to learn how to keep your cool under pressure, the best place to start is the sports arena.

Between the pressure of competing and demanding training regimes, elite athletes experience stress on a regular basis. A great deal of research goes into developing ways to help them cope with that stress: specifically, techniques to harness the positive effects of stress while reducing its harmful impact on performance, health and mental wellbeing.

Fortunately for us, these techniques work equally well in the workplace. Here are three things elite athletes can teach us about coping with stress, no matter what situation we find ourselves in.

1. Recognise that some stress is good

This may be a surprising point to start with, but not all stress is bad for us. Our ‘fight or flight’ response is designed to release hormones which give us a turbo boost of speed, strength and heightened senses. It can also help keep you mentally focused and temporarily sharpen your memory.

World-class athletes learn to harness this energy and we can too – especially before a presentation, or to meet that fast approaching deadline. The key is to recognise when stress increases beyond the optimal level for productivity and turns into bad stress, which can cause health problems.

Feeling overwhelmed, irritability, being unable to concentrate and struggling to sleep at night may be signs that you are under too much stress.

2. Recovery is just as important as training

An important part of sports training is understanding the stress and recovery cycle. To perform at their best, athletes need to effectively recover from the increased stress they place their bodies under while training. A weightlifter, for example, uses this method by stressing their muscles then taking downtime to give the muscle fibers a chance to grow stronger.

We can apply the stress and recovery cycle to our own work life. Most jobs have periods of stress, and we need to give ourselves and our teams time to recover if we want to avoid illness, absenteeism and anxiety. Whether it’s a walk around the block at lunch, enjoying a leisure activity or taking a personal day to care for your mental health, there’s many things we can do to ensure we recover after going through times of stress.

3. Take control of your mind and body

Sports psychologists and coaches spend a great deal of time teaching athletes how to respond to stress. This is because stress is believed to be transactional: there is a dynamic relationship between the environment from which stressors arise, and how a person responds to that environment. Research shows the coping strategies we use to deal with stressors influences whether negative outcomes – for example, burnout, addiction to unhealthy habits or depression – occur.

Ultimately, stress isn’t about what happens to you, but how you handle it. Elite athletes often use disciplines like mindfulness, meditation, deep breathing and neurofeedback to help control the way their body and mind responds to stress. Many of these techniques can also be used when it comes to workplace stress.

To learn more, see these short videos on mindfulness and chilling by Dr Roy Sugarman, SeventeenHundred Director of Neuroscience and clinical psychologist. Both feature techniques you can do anywhere – at your desk for five minutes or on the train ride home.