Life Stress and CrossFit
Too much stress can affect performance. Here's what you can do to relax.
Let’s take a deeper look at the components of stress and the mental skills you can practice to help negate any decreases in performance outcomes.
The “stress family” is not a fun one. This family consists of anxiety, fear, pressure, nervousness and panic. Each one of these components can negatively affect your CrossFit performance.
Numerous theories (drive theory, inverted-U hypothesis, individualized zones of optimal functioning theory) attempt to describe how stress affects performance. The bottom line is that every individual has a unique reaction to stress. It’s likely that small amounts of stress may help your performance and larger amounts of stress will negatively affect your ability to perform at high levels.
Literature in the field of sports psychology commonly expresses that a certain amount of stress is necessary for performance. Our bodies initially respond to stressors by releasing hormones that prepare our bodies to respond. This is known as the “flight or fight” response. These hormonal and physiological changes provide an increase in energy and awareness and can therefore have a positive effect on our ability to perform. As all CrossFitters know, there is only a certain amount of stress that we can handle. When any member of the stress family becomes chronic and/or increased, the stress response is no longer beneficial.
Some commonly noted somatic (pertaining to the body) and cognitive (pertaining to the mind) signs of increased stress are cold and clammy hands, constant need to urinate, profuse sweating, negative thoughts and self-talk, inability to focus, headaches, butterflies or nausea, increased muscle tension or pain, difficulties sleeping, energy loss, and burnout.
These signs can be brought on by stress at work, home or even training stress from CrossFit. Although the stress mechanism may be very different (e.g., a challenging day at work vs. seeing Fran as the WOD), the somatic and/or cognitive stress response may be exactly the same (e.g., inability to focus on task at hand). As one can see, any aspect of life that becomes stressful may lead to negative responses that can decrease CrossFit performance.
Many CrossFit movements require composure, finesse and absolute concentration, and it’s easy to see how each stress symptom might negatively affect your performance. Most athletes are able to cope with one or two of these signs of increased stress and may not sense any threat to performance. A culmination of these symptoms may lead to an excessive amount of stress, and over time that may have a detrimental influence on many areas of function, performance and health. As these symptoms accumulate, athletes have a very hard time regulating and controlling the negative effects.
Psychology has been studied and used in sport performance scenarios to describe, explain and predict behaviours. Mental performance training is necessary in order to halt or negate the negative impacts of stress on performance. I have broken down mental performance training into three segments that are expressed as a simple continuum:
Awareness ➞ Development ➞ Application
This basically means you need to become aware of the thoughts in your mind (or your mental processes), develop and learn skills to improve control of your mental processes, and then apply those skills during performance situations. CrossFit athletes should constantly tune in to their mental state and continue to find ways to improve on their mental control under pressure or during performance scenarios.
The first step of mental performance training is becoming aware of your mental processes. When dealing with the stress family, it is important to become very aware of what is causing you any negative thoughts or emotions and how exactly it may be affecting your performance. As an athlete, you must become aware of the direction of your stress. Is it facilitative (benefitting your performance by increasing your arousal levels) or debilitative (hindering your performance)?
There are some very simple steps to becoming more aware of your excessive life stressors:
1. When stress arrives, write down any causes or triggers for it.
2. Share these notes with a coach or someone who is an emotional support in your life.
3. Take note about when stress is occurring and how it makes you feel. It is important to tune in to which situations cause you stress and especially any negative emotions. You may also note in your journal how you feel before, during and after a WOD.
These behaviours will help you become more aware of the stressors in your life and will give you an idea how they affect your performance.
Other questions you may ask yourself: What thoughts were in your head before, during and after the WOD? How was your self-confidence? Were you under-aroused or overly stimulated for the WOD? Did you experience any physiological responses such as clammy hands, the need to urinate or increased heart rate?
This is all part of the awareness aspect of mental performance training. Until you are very aware and accepting of your mental processes, you cannot begin to take proper steps in ensuring that you gain control of them. Become fully aware of the exact effect stress has on you somatically and cognitively.
The second step in mental performance training is development. This involves acquiring and learning mental strategies that will help you maintain emotional control. Now that you have become more aware of your mental processes and how they affect your performance, you can begin learning and developing skills that will help you control your thoughts and emotions (aka stress) specifically in a performance situation. Development strategies:
1. Re-evaluate your goals to make sure they are SMART - Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Time-bound.
2. Explore the demands that are being placed on you from all aspects of your life.
3. Stay closely connected to people who are supportive of your goals and lifestyle and weed out those who constantly demand too much emotional energy and are unsupportive.
4. Develop healthy alternatives outside of your typical work/CrossFit schedule.
5. Practice common relaxation techniques such as meditation, listening to soothing music, visualization, relaxation imagery sessions (example below), massage and diaphragmatic breathing.
A mental performance coach can really help an athlete develop these particular strategies, similar to how your CrossFit coach helps you with new physical skills.
The last step of mental performance training is application. This simply means maintaining control of your mental processes and applying proper mental strategies in a performance setting.
The three parts of mental training are meant to be continually cycled, which is why they are displayed as a continuum. Once you become aware of your processes, then practice ways to improve your mental strategies. Then you must apply the learned strategies when it counts (pressure or performance situations). You can always continue to become more aware of how your mind and emotions affect your performance outcomes. Mental training is very similar to physical training. You never stop improving if you keep learning and practicing.
As mentioned before, a certain amount of stress is necessary for optimal performance. Too little stress is expressed through boredom and lack of motivation. A particular amount of stress provides alertness and activation that improve performance. But too much anxiety, fear, pressure, nervousness or panic can drastically decrease performance.
As CrossFitters, we are concerned about outcome, performance and improving ourselves. It is important to become aware of stress and the impact it has. Practice and apply mental strategies that control and limit the negative effects of the stress family: 3, 2, 1 … Go!
Article by: Dawn Fletcher
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