Stress that occurs very quickly and prompts us to respond in an emergency-like fashion (like moving out of the way of an oncoming car) often is referred to as burst stress.
Police officers, firefighters and paramedics deal with burst stress every day, as it is not uncommon for these people to receive emergency phone calls and quickly go from zero to 100 mph on the adrenaline scale.
Granted, athletes usually do not deal with burst-stress anxiety in the same, life-threatening ways as first responders do, but athletes regularly deal with a wide range of unexpected stressors and emotional responses. Athletes are especially at risk for burst stress in fast-paced, tempo-changing sports, as well as those pressure moments in all sports when the outcome of a game hangs in the balance.
Examining stress in sports
Being able to control and moderate arousal (or human energy) is a very important skill, according to sports psychology research, and it often is what allows people to stay cool, calm and collected while in the middle of otherwise stressful situations (like a police officer responding to a crime, or an athlete keeping his cool after receiving a cheap shot from an opponent).
As with most things in life, some people are able to adjust their focus and arousal appropriately, whereas others struggle in trying to stay relaxed and focused when things become chaotic. In sports, athletes who master mental toughness and keep it together in pressure situations are known as "clutch players," whereas athletes who succumb to the pressure they experience are known as "chokers."
If your son or daughter experiences great distress while trying to maintain focus, concentration and calmness during pressure situations, consider the following ideas that can help:
• Discuss and normalize stress in sports. Talk openly about things like stress and pressure and provide examples of people (maybe even yourself) who have failed under these conditions. Normalizing the fact that people commonly make mistakes and aren't always perfect will help your child become more understanding and tolerant of himself when he, too, makes a mistake in a game.
• Practice stressful situations whenever you can. For example, if you are working with your child and trying to improve athletic skills, be sure to throw in surprise situations and gauge how she reacts. Praise her hard effort and success and shape her failures so she can learn and improve the next time she experiences the situation. By practicing stressful situations in real time, conditioned, muscle-memory movements will be established, leading to automatic reactions when burst stress occurs.
• Use stress inoculation techniques. Talk to your child about the reality that there will be bad games, errors, mistakes and failure to be experienced while playing sports. When these situations occur, teach your child how to improve his mental toughness by responding to the mistake with positive-thinking and problem-solving skills. Remember: It's not how many times we fall down but how many times we get up.
• Dismiss the notion that only some people are gifted enough to handle pressure while others have no control over it. It is a myth that athletes who perform well in the clutch were "born that way" and that other athletes can never improve in mental toughness because they weren't born with the DNA to succeed in pressure situations. Self-fulfilling prophecies can be developed quickly when young athletes think they can't, as well as when they think they can.
Learning how to successfully react and respond to burst stress is a big part of playing well "when the lights are on." Try to normalize stress in sports and teach athletes how they can learn ways to have stress work for them rather than stress leaving them helpless to the situation.
Dr. Chris Stankovich is the founder of Advanced Human Performance Systems, an athletic counseling and human performance enhancement center. Sports parents, please check out The Parents Video Playbook and sports counseling services at drstankovich.com.