Summary and Keywords
Sport and stress are intertwined. Muhammad Ali once said, “I always felt pressure before a big fight, because what was happening was real.” As this quote attests, sport is real, unscripted, with the potential for psychological, and often physical, harm. The response to stress, commonly described as “flight or fight,” is an evolutionary adaptation to dangerous situations. It guides behavior and readies a person to respond, to fight, or flee. However, the stress response is not evoked solely in situations of mortal danger; it occurs in response to any situation with the potential for physical or psychological harm, such as sport. For example, the possibility of missing out on a life-changing gold-medal win in an Olympic Games, or losing an important competition that you were expected to win.
Stress in sport is often illustrated by the archetypal image of an athlete choking; snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. But stress can also help athletes perform well. Stress also plays a role in behavior away from the competition arena, influencing interactions with significant others, motivation and performance in training, and how athletes experience and manage injury and retirement from sport. In sport stress, the psychophysiological responses to stress are not just abstract theoretical concepts removed from the real world; they reflect the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of athletes.
It is important to understand the arousal response to stress in sport. Both theory and research suggest a connection between arousal and athletic performance. Recent approaches propose ideas about how the nature of arousal may differ depending on whether the athlete feels positively (as a challenge) or negatively (as a threat) about the stressor. The approach to seeing stress as a challenge supports a series of strategies that can be used to help control arousal in sport.
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