Joshua Werblin MD

The Feelings Doctor


Suite 550-2033, 25 Northeast 2nd Ave
 Miami, FL 33131

Athletic Stress

While physical exercise has proven to be a powerful tool in stress management, athletic endeavors can create stress of their own. A certain amount of stress is inherent in competitive sports, but managing athletic stress is necessary in maintaining physical and mental fitness. Stressors involved in athletic involvement include:

  • Need to please parents, coaches, teammates, fans
  • Need to define or enhance self-image
  • Need to adhere to stringent schedules
  • Need to follow a rigorous diet, exercise, and sleep regimen
  • Insufficient time for relaxation

Types of Athletic Stress

There are typically two types of stress that affect an athlete: internal and external. Alone or in combination, either type can undermine athletic accomplishments and damage physical and mental health.

Internal Stress

Internal stress is, to some degree, self-generated. It may result from the athlete's own desire for excellence. Although athletes may be excited at the idea of what success on the field will mean -- admiration, popularity, financial rewards, they may also be fearful of the consequences of failure such as humiliation, loss of friends, and the inability to receive athletic scholarships or professional advancement.

Internal stressors also include physiological and psychological occurrences within the individual, such as:

  • Having an illness
  • Having missed sleep
  • Having had an argument
  • Having experienced a loss or trauma
  • Being troubled about school, work or relationships

External Stress

External stress refers to the stress from environmental factors, such as weather conditions or the condition of the stadium, field, rink or court, the behavior of the coach or fans, or an unexpected delay of game time.

When internal and external stressors combine, the result can be overwhelming and may lead to physiological or psychological symptoms.

Symptoms of Athletic Stress

It is well-known that stress from any source can precipitate or exacerbate physical and psychological symptoms. Athletic stress can result in anxiety or depression and may set the stage for panic attacks, eating disorders or substance abuse. Research has also shown that stress can create physical problems or worsen existing ones. Conditions frequently affected negatively by stress include asthma, chronic pain, high blood pressure and gastrointestinal disorders. In addition, stress weakens the immune system and makes the body more susceptible to infection. Athletic stress can manifest itself as any or all of the following physical, behavioral and emotional symptoms:

  • Increased heart rate and respiration
  • Excessive sweating
  • Muscle tension or pain
  • Nervous habits or tics
  • Facial grimaces
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Outbursts of anger
  • Rapid speech
  • Dry mouth
  • Elevated blood sugar
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Exhaustion

Unless treated at its early stages, athletic stress can worsen, particularly if abuse of alcohol, recreational drugs or anabolic steroids are added to the mix. Emergency psychiatric or law enforcement intervention may be necessary if an athlete exhibits any of the following symptoms:

  • Irrational behavior
  • Incoherent speech
  • Panic attack
  • Vandalism
  • Threats of violence
  • Violent behavior toward others
  • Self-injury
  • Suicidal ideation or behavior

Management of Athletic Stress

The first step in reducing athletic stress is recognizing it, highlighting the events, activities and interactions that make it worse, and coming up with a plan to alleviate it. Athletic coaches and psychologists often work together to create stress-management programs. Various techniques have been found to be helpful in managing athletic stress. These may include:

  • Relaxation Imaging
  • Deep breathing
  • Progressive muscle relaxation
  • Biofeedback
  • Massage therapy

Realistic goal-setting has also been found to be helpful in creating achievable short-term goals. Meeting self-established standards can alleviate anxiety about long-term goals and boost self-confidence.

Additional Resources