Psychological Warfare...Stress responses in competition...The act of engaging in competitive combat sports is not, what many would consider to be, normal. Knowingly engaging in an activity which could result in serious or catastrophic injury and seeking to inflict injury on others, for many is just not what having a good idea means. However, the impact of this act consensual violence is more than physical. The psychological impact to the stress of competition is as fundamental as the potential physical impact. Moreover, the psychological (and physical) effects of competitive stress can begin weeks before the event and if not well managed can create issues post event too.
The stress of competition is not unique to combat sports, indeed it can be apparent in all sports. Equally, a similar type of stress response can be felt and observed in regards any life or work situations which are emotionally loaded or pressured (for example, a crucial work presentation, the birth of a child, getting married etc.) Whilst the fundamental situations are varied the emotional response is fairly consistent and as such recognising the impact of this stress can assist in becoming better managing in all situations.
The Oxford Dictionary of Sports Science and Medicine defines competitive stress as,
"The negative emotional reaction of an athlete when he or she feels that his or her self-esteem is threatened during a competition. The threat comes from an imbalance between the performance demands of a competition and the athlete's perception of his or her own ability to meet those demands successfully." (Quote from Michael Kent, The Oxford Dictionary of Sports Science & Medicine (3 ed.), 2006, Oxford University Press)
In this context competitive stress is isolated to the sporting context. In the moment of the fight the participant doubts their capabilities and this opens the flood gates to a self fulfilling prophecy of negativity. The issue here (as discussed in previous posts) is not stress, anxiety or fear. The issue is doubt, negative self talk that results in a serious of actions which lead to confirming the original doubts. More specifically, you doubt your ability to perform, therefore you don't perform. What you focus on is indeed what you get.
The remit of the term 'competitive stress' for this post assumes a much greater window than that which occurs in the moment of the fight/game. The context in which we will consider competitive stress, is to understand what impacts the individual before the event (both in the weeks preceeding and the hours immediately before), during the event (as previously defined) and immediately post the event.
Anticipatory stress response is common. Typically, this response (measured in the body by an increase in stress hormones such as cortisol) can occur weeks before the event. As the event draws closer the response magnifies and is subject to linear increases. It is also apparent however, that the more exposed an individual is to this type of stress, the lower the elicited response. The conclusion here is that there are methods and strategies which we can explore to manage and lessen the impact of anticipatory competitive stress. (Source: The anticipatory stress response to sport competition; a systematic review with meta-analysis of cortisol reactivity, Kjell N van Paridon et al, BMJ Open Sport Exerc Med. 2017; 3(1): e000261. Published online 2017 Sep 17.)
Cortisol is a naturally occurring stress hormone. Linked to the evolutionary 'fight or flight' response, cortisol raises blood pressure and blood sugar levels. Whilst short term this is not a problem, long term exposure to high levels of cortisol can be hugely detrimental to health and wellbeing, having been linked to onset of coronary health issues and diabetes. Elevate cortisol levels can further be detrimental to diet (carbohydrate cravings), immunity, sleep and organ function. Simply, the dripping effect of increasing cortisol levels caused by anticipatory competitive stress is potentially damaging to physical health. Additionally there is the psychological aspect to consider here. Anticipating a event can be a great psychological tool. Positively framed, structured and powerfully visualised, anticipating the event and outcome is a valid and well utilised technique in sports psychology (research visualisation for more information). However, the converse is also true here. Allowed to drift into the negative, this anticipation can become wholly detrimental. Doubt begins to creep in. Doubt of the outcome. Doubt of personal capability. Doubt of self. This itself leads to a reduction in performance, but coupled with the potential associated physical issues, effectively and progressively destroys the individual before they step foot in the ring/cage/mat.
Managing this anticipatory stress is then critical. Recognising it is step one. It may manifest in disrupted sleep, irritation and restlessness, poor immune function or loss/change of appetite. The strategies then are to reframe your stressors. Meditation and opportunities for mindfulness are essential. Posture and breathing are just as essential. Focused visualisation is the key however, with a heavy sprinkling of positive, self talk. Draw on experiences of success and look at what made you successful at that time. For every negative image, thought or internal comment, replace this with a positive one. Surround yourself with success, yours and others and look to mirror this behaviour and reflect this psychology.
The immediate pre-event time can be particularly challenging. Typically this is a time of activity (pre-fight weigh in, medical check, referee meetings etc.) and periods on inactivity. Many times it's the waiting around that gets people. Again here the pre-competition anticipatory response is raging. It's fundamental to ensure that you manage this period effectively. Eat and ensure you're fuelled early, then stay hydrated. Use distractions to assist and support your positive mental framing. Movies, music and books are all great ways to effectively provide stimulus control. The fundamental is to relax. Know that the adrenaline your are feeling us your supercharge. Be confident that your body is responding naturally and you are fully capable of achieving/overcoming the challenge you have set. You control the outcome and this should be the mantra of positive self talk running through your head. Stress responses are natural, the first step to managing them effectively is to accept this.
The 'competitive stress' as defined previously, occurring in the event is hugely destructive. In a competitive setting the means of managing this can be extremely challenging. Fundamentally this is snout surrounding yourself with the correct people prior to the event. In boxing your coach and corner team are key to the success you have in the ring. Having people present who understand you, your drivers and can manage your doubts is key. Secondarily, psychological anchors can assist here. If you have a mental image of success, how it feels, what it looks like, why you want it prior to the fight you can use this to effectively fight off that infight doubt. Knowledge is key, knowledge of self is essential.
Post fight, we have spoken about cortisol and the chronic effects that this can have to health and wellbeing. The strategy for managing post fight anxieties are just as important. Whilst the stress response is different here, no question that there can be one. It may be that you lost, in this case there's a potential sense of inadequacy and lack of self confidence to resolve. It may be that you won and now that you have achieved that goal there's a relative hole and question about what to do for the future. Focus is key here. Understanding the issue, reflecting on it or discussing this as it fits best. However, once again the champion here is in positively reframing the outcome. There is never failure only feedback, we win or we learn.
Understanding that we can change for the future, that change is indeed possible, is key to managing post fight issues. Review and revision with your coaching team and understanding that it's a process never a destination is key to goal setting. There is always a choice, always a next step, an opportunity to change, develop and evolve.
Competitive Stress is a real and natural thing. You have the ability and choice to manage this. Investigate, research, understand and implement the strategy. Its what we do!