The High-Pressure Lifestyle of an Elite Athlete and the Techniques used to Combat Stress

An athlete’s life is fairly unique when compared to the general population. Apart from the obvious exchange of a suit for a tracksuit, their objectives are different too. For many athletes, their efforts accumulate and build up to a major event at the end of a cycle. This could be the Olympics or World Cup every four years or a league final at the end of a year. In this crucial event, it is imperative that they perform to the best of their ability. Their performance on that day not only affects them but also all those that have helped them get to that point: coaches, sponsors, family, support staff and fans all rely on their success to varying degrees in addition to the athlete themselves.

An athlete needs to be at peak health at all times. This means complete focus on everything that they put into and do to their body. Training routines and nutrition plans are regimented and there are limited opportunities to relax this. Lots of sleep is needed to ensure recovery in order to perform and benefit from the next day of training. This regimented lifestyle as well as the reliance from others creates an inevitable sense of pressure. And from pressure comes stress. As they approach a big event an athlete needs focus, and stress does not always help the athlete achieve this.

Whilst sports psychologists might be in place, some things can simply impede performance. Be that impending parenthood, illness, or the death of a loved one. We’ve seen this before, in the 2016 Australian Open Final, Andy Murray looked visibly distracted and lost in straight sets. Why? His wife, Kim, was about to give birth to their first child, whilst he was on the other side of the world. These kinds of distractions can be almost impossible to resist, and whilst it is more than understandable to be distracted by the idea of imminently becoming a father, we can still look for ways of keeping focus even at the most challenging of times.

In his autoethnography, Bradford Cooper talks about the mental toughness needed to overcome setbacks and frustrations during the Race Across America in which he was part of a 2-man team. These setbacks included needing to cover his teammate’s night pull after just after coming off a 5-hour pull, as well as being given the wrong directions by his daughter and having to turn round to get back on track. These kinds of setbacks cause frustration, mental fatigue and stress but with the right training, the effects of it can be minimised.

To stay in control in times of pressure and stress, athletes spend time practising mindfulness. Mindfulness practices help an athlete stay in control at times when they need it most. It has been shown that by practising meditation, stress levels can be reduced allowing for increased focus and concentration. Those regularly using meditation have also been shown to have improved sleep including more time spent in deep sleep and increased hormone release allowing for better recovery. Athletes also benefit from spending time during mindfulness to visualise success and create goals, allowing in turn for increased motivation and work ethic to develop their athletic performance. A recent study also showed that the use of binaural beats helps to counteract the effects of mental fatigue. Their findings demonstrate that binaural beats are an effective technique alongside mindfulness at enhancing cognitive control.

Practising mindfulness can help an athlete get into the ‘flow’, which is poetically described by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as a state of being ‘completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.’ This is a state we have likely all experienced at some point in our life, where we become incredibly productive. Whilst this state might come and go naturally with motivation, practising mindfulness allows us to maintain a state of ‘flow’ for longer. The benefits of being in this state to an athlete are evident, with the athlete being in an optimal state to train and reap the resulting benefits whilst total focus is devoted to improving performance.

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Further Reading:

‘Changing Existence into Flow’
Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi

‘On-the-Spot Binaural Beats and Mindfulness Reduces the Effect of Mental Fatigue
Johanne Lundager Axelsen, Ulrich Kirk & Walter Staiano 
Journal of Cognitive Enhancement, 2020

‘Meditation and its regulatory role on sleep’
Ravindra P. Nagendra, Nirmala Maruthai & Bindu M. Kutty
Frontiers in Neurology, 2012

‘The Rise of Superman’
Steven Kotler

‘A 3000-mile tour of mental toughness: An autoethnographic exploration of mental toughness intra-individual variability in endurance sport’
K. Bradford Cooper, Mark R. Wilson & Martin I. Jones
International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 2018

‘Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density’
Hölzel et al.
Psychiatric Research: Neuroimaging, 2011

‘Self-reported mindfulness and cortisol during a Shamatha meditation retreat.’
Jacobs et al.
Health Psychology, 2013

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