A Guest Post by Jeff Fish.
We don’t have to look far to find an article or a report on stress and its influence on the human body. In today’s world there are many resources that provide statistics and suggestions on stress and how to manage it. In most of these articles the subject of stress revolves mostly around daily life activities and lifestyles. For example, the reports on cardiovascular health and the management of stress and anxiety are plenty. However, in sports, the recognition of the types, the amounts, and the effects that stress has on performance are not always at the top of the priority list.
As a Performance Specialist, I would classify stress as a much depended on variable to develop the overall athlete in the short term and long term. I have to be able to apply stress at the appropriate levels and at the appropriate intervals in order to create a change in the organism for improvement of the specific parameters needed based on sport. Without stress, that process cannot occur, so in that regard, stress is my ally — I cannot be successful as a coach without prescribing stress. At a quick glance, someone outside the world of performance may read that last statement and have some issue with it.
With all the positive thoughts about stress and its significant role in the improvement of athletes discussed in the last paragraph, lets also discuss the negative potential of stress when left unmanaged…the enemy. All athletes, and humans for that matter, constantly are adapting to stress each day. We adapt to the environment, the work demands, and family requirements on a daily basis. Our bodies will adapt and take on a change in functional state as long as the stress is not overly intense or highly administered on a regular basis. I would describe my relationship with stress as positive, but only if I can see it and monitor it closely. This helps me to know when and how much to prescribe in order to maintain that positive relationship within an athlete’s overall state.
Let’s discuss the role and general interpretation of stress in sports at various levels. Stress can be associated with the athlete who is getting his/her first opportunity to play or be a starter in team sports, an athlete who has a competition during final exam week, or as anxiety building up for a rival opponent in the coming days. But oftentimes, that is where it ends. In sports, there are an abundance of programs that prescribe practice plans, strength training plans, conditioning plans, and rehabilitation plans each day without any of the staff members discussing each others’ area of expertise in order to determine the optimal load being prescribed. Think for a moment if you were that athlete who just finished a strenuous day of rigorous sports practice, followed by a conditioning session, then to the weight room for a high volume workout, then to a rehabilitation session — all in the same day. And during the course of the week, this day can be repeated more than once with a competition in there as well. While all of these areas have their importance in terms of role on the improvement of the athlete, when performed as individual sessions and not as a part of the overall weekly process, it can have a negative effect on the athlete.
To go further, stress can effect each athlete in different ways by compromising various systems in the body. For example, the autonomic system can reflect incomplete recovery states, as can the hormonal, metabolic, and central nervous system, just to name a few. Each one of these areas can be influenced positively and negatively through exercise. Many of these areas can show us early signs of a fatigued system before the athlete has a perceived feeling of decline. This means an athlete can continue to push themselves to the point of exhaustion in which performance will be significantly reduced and the time to restore this athlete back to a functional state will take several weeks. However, through the advanced methods in which to monitor stress in all related bodily systems, we as performance specialists can become better managers of stress which leads to increased performance.
The use of objective and subjective measures are critical to understanding the stress load on the athlete. Knowing that not just physical factors (training loads, practice volumes, etc.), can increase stress. Social factors such as being new to the team, going through pre-season for the first time, having a new roommate all are stress producing. There can be family factors as well that we need to be sensitive to as all of these examples can increase the overall tension with the bodily systems. And the body does not differentiate between which stressors limit performance….any form of stress at inappropriate levels restricts performance. I hope that understanding the significance of stress can help to move us away from the “just get over it”, or “toughen up” mentality that sometimes dominates the sport culture. If the goal is to have your athletes at their best for competition, and knowing that stress can limit that function, then we should be able to help athletes by being flexible with our strategies.
Often in professional sports the older athletes may be prioritized for workout modifications based simply on age and no other understanding of stress. When I have experienced quite the opposite effect — the younger, less confident, less solidified with his job security, performing in a new city exhibit much higher stress loads than the established veteran. I am not saying the veteran does not need modification in some cases; however, I am saying that age is not the only factor to consider and not to overlook the younger athletes.
This is why I believe it is paramount to have an organized, scientific approach in place in order to get objective feedback and be able to address these deficiencies many times before problems occur. I also believe there is a place for subjective feedback in the form of daily questionnaires in order to collect relevant data on sleep and overall well being to add to the objective measures in order to have a comprehensive profile on each team member. By doing this I believe it gives me a clear picture of how the body is adapting to the stress received, and in what way I am going to apply stress that day in order to get a positive physiological response. By doing this I can continue to apply stress over long periods of time and continue to improve without the risk of overreaching the athlete, or worse, driving them into exhaustion and injury.
Jeff Fish is a leading performance specialist who has used an innovative, cutting edge approach to develop some of the most elite athletes in professional and college sports. He is also on the Advisory Board for the Nike SPARQ Athletic Performance Division.