When stress is good for student-athletes and when it's not

When stress is good for student-athletes and when it's not

NCSA Recruiting

When stress is good for student-athletes and when it's not

USA TODAY High School Sports has a weekly column on the college recruiting process. Here, you’ll find practical tips and real-world advice on becoming a better recruit to maximize your opportunities to play at the college level. Jaimie Duffek was one of the top 50 high school softball players in Illinois who went onto play outfield for Drake University. Jaimie is just one of many former college and professional players, college coaches, and parents who are part of the Next College Student Athlete team. Their knowledge, experience, and dedication along with NCSA’s history of digital innovation, and long-standing relationship with the college coaching community have made NCSA the largest and most successful athletic recruiting network in the country.

When someone says they’re “stressed,” it usually means they are experiencing negative pressure, either physical or mental. Due to the high stakes of competition and the complex nature of the recruiting process, student-athletes looking to move up to the college level have more than enough reason to feel stressed. However, stress isn’t always bad. There’s a “good” kind of stress that actually pushes you to perform well. But the bad kind of stress can lead to burnout and/or injury, so understanding how to differentiate between the two is important.

The good news is, according to NCAA data, the majority of student-athletes (83 percent of women, 66 percent of men) “often” or “sometimes” ask a family member for help dealing with stress or other mental well-being issues—more than any other kind of support. Before you offer guidance, though, here’s how you can determine if what your student-athlete is going through is normal, healthy stress or something more.

What is good stress?

“Good” stress, also known as eustress or acute stress, is a short-term feeling of jitteriness or nervousness. Good stress causes an increase in adrenaline, which provide student-athletes with focus and motivation, helping them perform at peak levels. Most importantly, good stress is within a student-athlete’s control. Once the pressure becomes overwhelming, it’s no longer a benefit. If your student-athlete is experiencing pre-game butterflies, it is likely good stress. Some instances where your student-athlete may exhibit acute stress include:

  • Playing on an elite team
  • Starting for the first time
  • Earning and having to accept and award
  • Becoming a team captain
  • Competing in an important game or tournament

What is bad stress?

“Bad” stress, also known as distress, is what happens when feelings of helplessness take over. Unlike eustress, distress does not give a student-athlete extra energy or focus; in fact, it does the opposite. There are many signs that your student-athlete is experiencing bad stress, including:

  • Anxiety
  • Anger
  • Guilt
  • Depression
  • Shame
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Restlessness
  • Aggression
  • Poor performance
  • Increased heart rate
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue

Of course, even “bad” stress can be normal if it’s fleeting. It’s when the stress becomes chronic that it’s a problem. Ongoing stress affects not just a student-athlete’s performance, but their school and personal lives, as well. Thus, if you’ve identified signs or symptoms of distress in your student-athlete, it’s important to do what you can to minimize it.

How to minimize bad stress

Student-athletes’ families can play a huge role in the recruitment process. And while it’s ultimately up to the student-athlete to learn to manage their stress, being aware of how you, as their parent or guardian, affect their performance. There are three main ways you can assist your student-athlete in stressful situations:

  1. Have realistic expectations for your student-athlete. If you’re pushing them harder than what they’re capable of, it often has the opposite effect. Being unable to meet parents’ expectations leads to frustration and lowers confidence.
  2. Encourage your student-athlete to focus on one moment at a time. A recent article on Inc.com shared that self-made billionaire Oprah Winfrey’s big advice for young people is to figure out what the next right move is instead of worrying about making all the right moves into the future. If your student-athlete can put all their energy into the next play, race, etc., they won’t worry so much about what a win or lose may mean.
  3. Help your student-athlete bounce back after failing. Stress compounds on itself; thus, it’s extremely important to nip negative thoughts in the bud before they have time to internalize. The ability of a student-athlete to overcome failure will keep them in the right head space and at a high level of performance.

Is it burnout?

If left unchecked, bad stress can easily lead to burnout. Burnout occurs when a student-athlete is no longer motivated to play their sport but continues to do so because of external factors. The signs of bad stress versus burnout are similar, but burnout is more extreme and is harder to reverse. Symptoms include, among other things:

  • Sleeping more than usual
  • Exhibiting a negative attitude toward their sport
  • Low self-esteem
  • Is no longer playing as well as before
  • Mood swings
  • Increased levels of sickness or injury
  • High resting heart rate

Final note. It’s okay to take a break.

If you’ve taken steps to minimize your student-athlete’s bad stress and they still exhibiting distress, it might be best to take some time away from the sport and rest. While this might seem counter-intuitive to the demands of the recruiting process, it’s better to take care of your student-athlete now than deal with the consequences of burnout later.

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