How stress affects the body – and how practice can help athletes react better under pressure

Dr Jamie Barker and Andrew Wilkinson write that performance stress is almost unavoidable, but argue that there are many different factors that dictate just how our minds and bodies respond to stressful events, in an article for The Conversation.

It isn’t easy being a professional athlete. Not only are the physical demands greater than most people could handle, athletes also face intense psychological pressure during competition.

This is something 18-year-old British tennis player Emma Raducanu wrote about on social media following her retirement from Wimbledon. Though the young player had been doing well in the tournament, she began having difficulty regulating her breathing and heart rate during a match, which she later chalked up to “the accumulation of the excitement and the buzz.

She isn’t the first athlete to experience the physical effects of stress, with English footballer Marcus Rashford revealing he’d also had a similar experience in the past.

There are many reasons why stress can cause such powerful bodily reactions. But with training, this response can be changed so that a person reacts positively under pressure.

Evaluating stress

Performance stress is almost unavoidable. But there are many different factors that dictate just how our minds and bodies respond to stressful events.

Typically, stress is the result of an exchange between two factors: demands and resources. A person might feel stressed about an event if they feel the demands on them are greater than they can handle. So for an athlete, demands include the high level of physical and mental effort required to succeed, their levels of uncertainty about the event or their chance of succeeding, and any potential dangers to their health (such as injury) or their self-esteem.

Resources, on the other hand, are a person’s ability to cope with these demands. These include factors such as confidence levels, how much control they believe they have over the situation’s outcome, and whether they’re looking forward to the event or not.

Each new demand or change in circumstances affects whether a person responds positively or negatively to stress. Typically the more resources a person feels they have in handling the situation, the more positive their stress response. This positive stress response is known as a challenge state.

But should the person feel there are too many demands placed on them, the more likely they are to experience a negative stress response – known as a threat state. Research shows that challenge states lead to good performance, while threat states lead to poorer performance.

So in Raducanu’s case, a much larger audience, higher expectations and facing a more skillful opponent, may all have led her to feel there were greater demands being placed on her – but she didn’t have the resources to tackle them. This led to her experiencing a threat response.

For the full article, co-written by Loughborough's Andrew Wilkinson and Dr Jamie Barker visit the Conversation.