Stress – footballer’s friend, foe or depends?

Words by TYF Program Psychologist Luke Jankie

Growing up as children, most people are encouraged to engage with sports for a number of reasons – it’s healthy, it’s social, and most of all it’s fun! However as the years goes by, depending on the type of engagement you have with sport, it can also become quite a significant source of stress.

As we develop our skills, become more competitive, and increase the stakes, the layers of complexity that surround our emotional connection to sports engagement change as well.

In a two-part blog series, the TYF team is going to tackle the issue of managing stress in sports!

There are many different sources of stress in football, but let’s consider the following scenario:

It’s Wednesday night and you’re getting ready to go to sleep. It’s the day before Thursday night training, which is the final session for the week and the time when teams are announced for the upcoming games. You had a quiet game last week, so there’s no certainty you’ll be able to hold your spot. Besides that, everything else about the night appears to be routine, but under the circumstances with team selection looming, the nightly task of getting to sleep seems to be a little more difficult.

One reason for this is because an actual stress response may have been activated in your brain. When we are in the presence of a perceived or genuine threat/danger, our body initiates a survival mechanism that activates our nervous system and releases hormones so that we can respond really quickly.

This mechanism is known as the ‘Fight-Flight-Freeze’ response. In these stressful moments, we typically turn to one of three options: engaging head on with the stressor (fight), ‘running away’ and avoiding the stressor (flight), or sitting tight and immobilized, in an attempt to hide or prepare for the next big move (freeze). Accompanying the three action options involved in Fight-Flight-Freeze are also a series of physiological changes that occur in different places in our body, including: heart rate, breathing rate, body temperature, muscles and even our thoughts.

Given this, when considering the stress of a player the night before team selection, some of the signs and symptoms we may recognize include an elevated heart rate, increase in body temperature, muscle tension and/or racing thoughts.

At this stage, you’re probably beginning to wonder how this so called ‘survival mechanism’ and its associated physical changes are actually helping the player in this situation – and rightly so.

While some of the changes associated with the stress response (such as increased heart rate) may be really important for wading off physically threatening situations, in other instances (like trying to get to sleep) it can actually be a lot more unsettling.

The reason why the stress response can be so unsettling is essentially because it’s calling upon powers of the body that don’t entirely match the needs of the situation.

In part, the response is effective due to its fast-acting automatic nature, however, this also means that it may therefore be deployed prematurely during a time where those particular physical changes are not required.

Now that we’ve come to understand some of the mechanisms of how the stress response works and we’ve recognized some of the signs of when the response has been activated, it’s time to try and manage distress and some of the unsettling sensations.

One way to try and combat certain stressors is by focussing on the way we breathe. Through the simple act of regulating our breathing, we can often really effectively ground ourselves and remove some of those unsettling and distressing bodily sensations.

One key aim in focussing on the breath is to shift the place in which the breathing occurs, by emphasizing deep breaths from our stomach (abdomen), as opposed to short and shallow breaths from our chest.

Something really simple that can be practiced on the go is a simple formula of 4-2-6. That is, drawing in a deep breath through your nose for 4 seconds – holding tight for 2 seconds – then exhaling out through your mouth for 6 seconds. In order to see a true change in your breathing rhythm you may need to run through the cycle a few times (we suggest starting with 5-10 solid rounds, and reassessing based on your level of stress/discomfort).

While the body’s automatic stress response is inherently positive in serving to try and protect us, what we have learned is that it’s just not always best suited for every type of threat we may be facing.

So, next time you notice yourself starting to feel a little unsettled in the coaches’ box, on the footy field or even at home just thinking about the sport – try focusing on your breath as a means of grounding yourself in that moment. With all the changes associated with the Fight-Flight-Freeze response, something as simple as the 4-2-6 breathing method can really help ease some of the unsettling physiological sensations.

For more information on stress and breathing exercises, feel free to check out free online resources such as the Smiling Mind website and mobile app.

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