The Advantages of Stress in Youth Sports

Many youths experience stress for the first time playing a sport, but its important to know that this is good for young athletes

Photo by Joppe Spaa on Unsplash

At 17 years of age, I had enough and it was all coming from sport.

There was just too much stress.

We had lost our third semi-final in a row. We didn’t even get the chance to make the final when we would have gotten shorts, socks, kit bags, and other free stuff. The excitement leading up to the final would have been great. It would have made the 10-month slog of practice all worth it.

But we lost, and it was stressful. Right after the game all the thoughts of:

“What if we did this?”

and

“What if we did that?”

and

“If I had done this differently then this would have happened and they [the opposing team] would not have scored!”

visited my mind. Not just that, but they pulled up a chair, took off their shoes, and camped in the house of my mind.

Those stressful thoughts were not going anywhere fast. But, it wasn’t just me; the other lads on the team had them too.

Back then, you’d sneak away and have a few drinks to dampen the clamber in your head. We knew it wasn’t the best thing to do and it undermined our parents as we were still too young for alcohol, but we figured

‘Why not, just this once!’

We did it because our heads were being hassled so much. We needed this temporary crutch together.

Now, when I think back to that time I begin to understand ‘stress’ in a new light.

What is stress?:

Our bodies react to our brain’s perceptions of something that shocks us and we call it stress. When we are in a state of shock and feel some part of feeling relaxed is being threatened it triggers us into a state of stress. Our brain gushes chemicals and hormones towards our bodies in the form of adrenaline and cortisol.

These chemicals are ushering us to react to this stress in either a:

‘fight or flight’

way. This is why many people react differently under what seems to be the same stress. For example, if a family experiences stress that is the same on the outside, such as the sudden death of a family member then they can all react differently to this shock on the inside.

All sportspeople feel stress at one time or another. When playing a game or performing an individual sport there is stress for the youth, stress for the parent, their siblings, and even other aspects of the young person’s life.

Photo by Robina Weermeijer on Unsplash

How does stress affect our bodies?:

The hypothalamus is a part of our brain.

Although it’s linked to lots of nuclei, it’s important as its links to the nervous system of our bodies and the endocrine system by way of the pituitary gland. When we feel stress, hormone signals are sent to our adrenal glands which release these hormones. This is how we are wired to fight oncoming stress.

Adrenaline is one such hormone that comes to the fore at that time. That’s when we begin to feel our bodies react to things in a very different physical way.

Our hearts begin to beat faster, our breathing becomes challenged, and we sweat a lot more. And our muscles are unusually contracted. In the short term, we are ready for battle.

But in the long term, we are hyper-charged. That’s where anxiety, insomnia, headaches, and many other risks to our health can take over.

But adrenaline is not the most important hormone, cortisol is.

Cortisol increases the amount of glucose in our bloodstream that fuels the muscles for action in a more efficient manner. Over the long term though it can push us to gain weight, make us lack energy, and give us high blood pressure. All of these things can result in more long term health problems.

Different types of stress:

In general, so long as stress occurs and lasts for a temporary period then it is considered normal and human beings can handle it over the short term. And not all stress is bad.

Distress:

When we feel stressed, in reality, we are feeling distressed.

This is when there is an unpleasant feeling manifesting in us that can come from emotions, thoughts, and actions. These can come from other people around us too.

When you think years in advance about school exams or playing in front of big crowds, it is considered normal to think in this way. It’s simply because right now, as a young person, you don’t feel ready. But, over time, you will improve, prepare, and grow towards that moment when those things are ready for you to happen.

Bigger questions like:

“Am I going to die?”

and

“Why is this happening to me?”

may also come to mind and this will cause distress when we realize that

“Yes, I`m going to die!”

and

“I`m only human after all!”

But then, of course, most of us are not going to die straight away. When we get feelings of something that is going to happen momentarily then we can react. Otherwise, this would send us into a state of panic.

This panic can then cause distress.

Distress can be logically dispelled and broken down for us to understand that although we can’t control everything we can just conclude to react in the most positive way possible. Usually, by the time we do, the stress has changed or already passed.

The downside of distress:

In the longer term if distress is not tended to there can be very negative outcomes. Feelings of sadness, fear, hopelessness, and depression can exist and fester to cause illness.

But on the bright side of stress, there is eustress.

Eustress:

Eustress is good stress and it has specific health benefits too.

It only lasts a short time but throughout this time it can energize and motivate a person. Rather than feeling threatened, it can make us feel excited. Our focus can become sharpened and it drags all our abilities to the fore so that we maximize our talents in that period.

An example is when in the last couple of minutes of a game we have to defend as a team in sports. Here, a lot of work may have been done in practice and now we are just working together to defend. We are all using one another against the stress of the clock and the other team that is against us. Logically, if we are ahead, it is easier to defend and from the other team’s point of view, they too are experiencing stress in trying to score against us.

When we overcome this short term stress our immediate feeling is to celebrate with one another for doing this together.

Photo by Noah Buscher on Unsplash

The downside of eustress:

It is possible that this type of stress can last longer and can bring about feelings of anxiety and restlessness.

Here, a person’s current coping abilities can be compromised and unwelcome feelings can creep into your mind. As a result, sports’ performance can be challenged to such a degree that it becomes an unattractive thing to even think, not to mention, to play well in a sport.

Let stress push you to the positive:

Whether you are a sports person or not you are going to get stressed in some shape or form, at some stage or another. This is just one of the facts of life. Thinking about stress for too long can cause overall distress. Knowing that we can positively use stress to motivate others to immediately do something with that ‘push of stress’ is a good thing as long as you know how to do it properly!

By positively using stress to communicate with another person it will no longer linger in your body after that. By using the stress you’ll have put things into action in a positive manner in both your life and the life of a young sportsperson.

Each time you or a young sports person uses stress in this way they will learn good habits of how to use it. This will mean that you will make their life better.

By making life better, the future stresses that come will create more opportunities rather than problems. This is how stress can be a great thing for a young sportsperson.

Photo by Nicolas Hoizey on Unsplash

So, if you`re feeling stressed right now talk to the young sportsperson, parent, or coach about it. Grab them close and make it immediate, let the stress decide the conversation, and then ‘let it go’. Trust that it will naturally make you both more aware of stress and that it has now passed. It has gone through your mind and body and was used to make you get to the next opportunity in life.

And that’s the one you so richly deserve.

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Dr. Conor Hogan Ph.D.

Dr. Conor Hogan Ph.D.

Forbes, INC. & Entrepreneur Magazines, CBS, & NBC Featured, Dr. Conor Is The World’s Leading High-Performance Neuro Socio-Psychologist & Co-Authored 4 Books