Why So Many Athletes are Stressed…and What We Can Do About It


Sam Maniar, Ph.D.

One of the most talked-about incidents at the recent Olympics was Simone Biles and her decision to withdraw due to her mental health. This came on the heels of Naomi Osaka withdrawing from Wimbledon due to her mental health. And prior to that, Michael Phelps and Kevin Love came forward about their challenges with their own mental health.

It seems like this is happening more and more frequently. Athletes’ stress levels appear to be at an all-time high. But why? Here are 10 possible explanations:

  1. Reduced stigma: Perhaps with many athletes coming forward and sharing their own struggles, it has made it easier for other athletes to follow in their footsteps? What was once kept hidden is now (somewhat) safer to discuss.
  2. Increased scrutiny and pressure: The pressure to perform, and the scrutiny if you don’t, is higher than it has ever been.
  3. Technology and distractions: Technology has been shown to distract us, and distraction has been shown to be correlated with unhappiness. It isn’t too big of a leap to think that the more time spent on technology and social media, the more likely you are to be depressed or anxious. In fact, that is exactly what research is telling us.
  4. Public Accessibility to Athletes: In today’s world, the public is able to communicate directly with athletes through social media. Sometimes fans take things too far, and the communication can be negative or threatening.
  5. COVID-19: The current global pandemic has taken routine and structure and replaced it with uncertainty and added stress.
  6. Sport Specialization: Athletes are starting to specialize in a single sport at a younger age. This can lead to burnout and an increased likelihood of injury.
  7. Increased training demands: The training demands of athletes have continued to skyrocket in terms of intensity and duration.
  8. Limited coping tools: As the demands have increased, the teaching of coping skills is still relatively absent. This is one reason why we spend so much time teaching stress management techniques to our athletes at SPIRE.
  9. Sleep Deprivation: With all the time spent on sport training, academic responsibilities, and technology, sleep is being sacrificed. Insufficient sleep is correlated with stress and mood disorders.
  10. Intensive Parenting: As the expectations have risen, so has the intensity of parents. At any given sporting event, it is easy to spot parents who are over-involved or living vicariously through their child.

So how can an athlete overcome these 10 factors? What can an athlete do to mitigate the stress? Here are 15 things to try that come directly from SPIRE’s mental training curriculum:

  1. Practice daily mindfulness/meditation: Ten minutes of mindfulness per day can lead to dramatic reductions in stress.
  2. Get plenty of sleep: While there are individual differences, a general target is nine hours of sleep for athletes. Reduction in sleep can negatively impact recovery and can stress the body and mind.
  3. Laugh: Laughter can lead to a release of endorphins, activation and then relaxation of the stress response, and relieve muscle tension.
  4. Cross-train: Finding a new or fun way to train can help break up the monotony and burden of training.
  5. Get something accomplished each day: Feeling productive is a great way to relieve stress.
  6. Diaphragmatic (belly) breathing: Stress leads to shallow/chest breathing. By consciously taking time to breathe through our diaphragm, we can relax our body and slow down our heart rate.
  7. Keep a journal: Journaling is a great way to get things “off our chest” (or mind) in order to let go and move on.
  8. Visualization / Imagery: Imagining being at a relaxing place, such as the beach or the mountains, can have a similar response as being there in reality. The trick is to practice and make the images as vivid as possible.
  9. Progressive muscle relaxation: By tensing muscles, holding it for a few seconds, and then letting go, we can help to engage the relaxation response. This, too, takes practice, and it is best done by working from head-to-toe or toe-to-head.
  10. Focus on the controllable: In many cases, stress is the result of trying to control things that are out of our control. Focus on the aspects of your life that are in your control.
  11. Prepare and develop a plan: If there is a large stressor looming, it can help to prepare for it and to develop multiple plans for addressing it.
  12. Reframing: Reframing is fancy psychological term for looking at something in a completely different way. Perhaps the added stressor is an opportunity to try something new? To learn more about reframing, check out this article.
  13. Connect with a friend: Social connections—especially during the pandemic—can do wonders for relieving stress.
  14. Limit exposure to the news: Particularly during pandemics and disasters, continuous watching of the news coverage tends to increase stress.
  15. Limit caffeine and alcohol: Both caffeine and/or alcohol can make stress worse. Caffeine can lead to increased cortisol (stress hormone) secretion, and both caffeine and alcohol negatively impact deep, restorative sleep.

Dr. Maniar is the Director of Mental Skills Training at SPIRE Institute & Academy and the founder of the Center for Peak Performance, LLC—a sport psychology and business consulting firm. More information about Dr. Maniar and his work, including his social media handles, can be found on his Linktree.

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