The best way to think about stress is by seeing it as a two way process: the environment provides stressors and we appraise them. When we appraise a situation first we determine how important the situation is to us and whether we focus on the potential positive outcomes or potential negative ones. The way we evaluate a situation as an opportunity, challenge or threat will determine in part our emotional response to it. A secondary appraisal refers to control: the stressor is either controllable by the athlete, controllable by someone else or uncontrollable by anyone. It is in that idea of control that the athlete evaluates their resources to cope with the situation. If the athlete considers that their abilities surpass the needs of the situation they will feel bored. If they consider that their abilities match the demands of the situation they will feel motivated but if they appraise their abilities as no match for the demands of the situation they will experience stress.
Two terms closely associated to the concept of stress are: arousal and anxiety. Arousal refers to the level of physiological and psychological activation based on the sympathetic nervous system and several key hormones. On the other hand, anxiety is a label that we use to understand our arousal as an emotion. In other words, anxiety is negatively interpreted arousal that has a significant effect on our decision making capability and our performance. The way we label our arousal can determine a set of behaviors that can be detrimental to the performance of the athlete. One question that I don’t like to ask any of my athletes before a match is – how do you feel? It is a very open question that forces the athlete to label their emotional state of affairs. If the athlete labels their arousal level as being “nervous” they will start acting according to that label. If they label their arousal as being “fine” it is more likely that they’re trying to convince themselves about being “fine” by producing a struggle inside their heads trying to argue to themselves how “fine” they are and distracting them from actually being focused on the task ahead. This is why I prefer to ask them – how does your body feel? – It is a more concrete question that doesn’t involve any labels, and can be addressed very precisely. If they feel short of breath we can focus on deep breathing. If they feel tension in their legs, a stretch routine can help. If they feel jittery, a light roll can also do the job, etc.
The effects of anxiety on performance are caused by something called attentional narrowing and conscious reinvestment (paralysis by analysis). Attentional narrowing relates to attentional control theory. This theory explains that we have two main attentional systems: a top down system that is driven by our goals and a bottom up system that is driven by stimuli from the environment. Anxiety affects attentional control because we tend to focus more on the bottom up process and less on the top down processes that are logical and thought out. As competitors, for example, you might have experienced going to the tournament with your very well thought out plan but ended up doing something completely different right at the moment that your match started, maybe focusing more on what your opponent was doing rather than what you wanted to do in the first place.
Conscious reinvestment explains that when we learn a skill we move from a stage of conscious processing, where we think about specific movements, to an unconscious, automatic response. But when anxiety becomes an issue for athletes that already have mastered several complexes moves, they regress to an earlier version of themselves where they need to think consciously about their moves. Greater conscious processing makes their previously effortless moves jerkier and less proficient.
In conclusion, stress is a cognitive process of evaluating a situation and its importance to the athlete and the resources they have to handle them. The way we label the situation (opportunity, challenge or threat) and our arousal response (anxious, excited, relaxed) have significant effects on our performance, and are a matter of constant supervision by the athlete and coach.