Stress is never a great ally to anyone, but unfortunately, it's quite common for us all. And for athletes, it can be extra harmful. For those of us who are training, stress has the potential to derail workouts and even cause some health problems or injury.
"Research demonstrates that stress impacts not only risk of injury and athletic performance but recovery from injury and return to play," noted Bonnie Marks, PsyD and staff psychologist at NYU Langone's Sports Performance Center. "Mental health can also be a great concern for injured athletes, who often feel disconnected from their sports community when stuck on the sidelines. Using mindfulness and other coping strategies to reduce and manage stress plays a crucial role in rehabilitation, both in terms of physical and mental quality of life."
So in addition to stress potentially causing harm to the body, it can cause some athletes to feel even further removed from the community they rely on so heavily. Luckily, Dr. Marks shared some simple yet effective mindfulness tips every athlete can keep on standby to help manage stress everyday.
Use abdominal breathing to induce the relaxation response, which replaces the stress response.
Breathing exercises have been shown to calm the central nervous system, reduce tension, enhance endurance, and undo the "negative physiological effects of stress," explained Dr. Marks.
Focus on the moment, not the outcome.
The next mile, the next hill, the next step — they add up to success. Dr. Marks suggested using self-talk like "run free" or "keep your knees bent" to keep your spirits up and your stress down with positive, personal affirmations. "Remind yourself to stay relaxed, yet alert," Dr. Marks added.
Visualization and mental imagery can be used both before and during activity.
"Mentally rehearse the entire race or game, imagining yourself at difficult points, feeling calm, focused, and energetic," Dr. Marks said. "Create a mental video of yourself performing successfully. During the activity, use specific images (visual, phrases, words) at particular cue spots."
Create soothing preperformance rituals.
Practices like leaving your clothes out the night before, meditating, wearing lucky socks — for this editor, it's saving my favorite pair of UA Fly-By 2.0 Shorts ($19, originally $25) for race day — can actually reduce stress and help you reach your sports performance goals.
Bottom line: stress isn't going anywhere, especially now. But learning how to manage it in daily life is within our control.