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Performance Stress

Updated: Feb 11, 2021

The athlete who can learn to inhibit a detrimental response to the stress of a big occasion is ideally prepared for competition - a heightened state of readiness, combined with poise. How can we use the situation in preparation for a challenge? Can relaxation techniques before the event go too far and limit performance?

Homeostasis is the physiological process by which the body’s internal systems are kept within strict operational parameters. Blood pressure, body temperature and blood acidity levels are changed by variations in external conditions. For example, during strenuous activity there is a build up of waste products and rise in body temperature. Some of the waste, such as gas by-products, can be secreted by sweat glands. The evaporation of sweat from the surface on the skin has a cooling effect and lowers body temperature. If we become dehydrated and are unable to sweat, skin temperature increases rapidly and may feel prickly. This can become serious if liquid is not taken to allow a return to an acceptable temperature.

Stress is another factor that affects internal systems. How an athlete handles stress is fundamental to performance. The belief that stress was harmful to performance led to the use of methods to reduce anxiety, such as hypnosis and progressive relaxation. However the research behind this practice has since been discredited. We do require a degree of anxiety to perform. Stress activates nervous and endocrine responses to prepare the body for physical activities even when this is not the most appropriate response. In response to stress the hormones cortisol and adrenaline are released to prepare for ‘fight’ or ‘flight’. These hormones increase functions such as breathing, the heart rate, sugar metabolism and muscle readiness. In short bursts it is a valid response to a perceived threat. However if the stress response is sustained over long periods it does have implications to our health. The stress hormones effectively shut down systems not immediately required for the fight or flight reaction such as the immune system.

It is important to be aware of our response to stress. It is possible to use the stress response to our advantage. We should recognise that stress is not the stimulus - it is our reaction to it! We can choose not to respond to a stimulus and prevent or modify the stress response. This is the essence of The Alexander Technique, a revolutionary system for controlling reaction. Using the technique we can learn to meet a stimulus (such as a stressful situation) and deal with it appropriately. It is better to respond (use reason) rather than to react (rely on habit). Loosing our temper is a good example of not dealing well with a stimulus.

Our ancestors’ survival mechanism may be detrimental for the office worker when under stress, but still appropriate for the demands of competitive sport. Relaxation methods have a role to play after an event when it may be necessary to halt the release of stress hormones into the system. However, we must ensure that relax does not mean collapse. The usual positions adopted for ‘relaxation’ often involve total loss of appropriate muscle tone thus impeding bodily functions such as breathing.

Before competing, techniques to lower anxiety can go too far and reduce our readiness for the event. Experiments with medical patients undergoing surgery found those who were too relaxed before the operation, took longer to recover. If the amount of adrenaline is too low before the trauma, there is a greater shock to the unprepared system. Relaxation techniques can achieve the opposite to the desired affect. Our structure requires tension to utilise gravitational forces in order to move and function. A poised athlete will have the necessary tension to enable good movement, without the need to artificially ‘let go’.

The impact on performance is unique to each athlete with some performing better with high levels of anxiety while others flourish with relatively low levels (known as Individual Zones of Optimal Functioning (IZOF) - Hanin (1978,1986,1997)). If a stressful situation creates an attitude that is going to stiffen the muscles (body armouring) and prevent free movement, the body’s preparation for fight or flight is undermined. The athlete who can learn to inhibit a detrimental response to the situation is ideally prepared for competition - a heightened state of readiness, combined with poise. The first step to take is to ensure we do not stiffen our necks or tighten the jaw as the first reaction to a situation we perceive as stressful. These actions impede the body's innate reflex systems for balance and movement - obviously essential for sport. This takes time to learn because we may have already developed the habit of reacting instantly to situations rather than respond after giving ourselves time to think.

Its interesting that Sport Psychologist Kenneth Ravizza's study into the zone (‘A subjective study of the athlete's greatest moment in sport’) drawing on many athlete's experiences refered to the state as:-

" … focusing on the present moment, effortless merging of action and awareness, loss of personal ego, sense of control, clear feedback, and an intrinsic reward system. "

Perhaps learning to 'live in the moment' will not only help with performance but also help us to deal with each situation as it comes, giving us the ability to act appropriately and let the big occasions get the better of us.

Roy Palmer is a teacher of The Alexander Technique and has studied performance enhancement in sport for the last 10 years. In 2001 he published a book called 'The Performance Paradox: Challenging the conventional methods of sports training and exercise' and is currently working on a new project about The Zone.

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