Can stress actually be beneficial to our performance?

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With the Olympics over for another 4 years let’s reflect on the pressure and stress the Olympians have to deal with. They face fierce competition; they are under a global spotlight, the hopes of an entire nation and personal goals resting on their shoulders. Now that the pressure is off it’s important for them to now have some time to relax and recover.

With this being said, have you thought about how stress might have actually been beneficial for those athletes when preparing and competing for possibly the biggest events of their lives?

Do you think it might have actually improved their performance?

The reality is that stress isn’t a ‘good’ or a bad ‘thing’ – it’s just a physical response. One without which the human race would have become extinct!

Stress is a spectrum.

Stress spectrum

  • At the top end of the spectrum, when stress levels are too high we risk ‘Burnout’.
  • At the lower end of the spectrum is lethargy when stress levels are so low we are bored, demotivated and unable to get anything done, The Stress Management Society call this ‘Rust Out’.
  • Somewhere between burnout and lethargy is the ‘Performance Zone’. This represents the zone people should be in to drive optimal performance, whether applied to sports, work or even mundane daily activities like driving.

Without any stress, athletes would be edging towards lethargy and this would have a detrimental effect on their performance. The right level of stress, especially when it comes to competitive sports, is actually the key to beating world records and winning those medals. In fact many coaches ‘hype’ their athletes up right before the event in order to induce a certain level of stress!

The great boxing trainer, Cus D’Amato used the word fear instead of stress:

“Boxing is a sport of self-control. You must understand fear so you can manipulate it. Fear is like fire. You can make it work for you: it can warm you in winter, cook your food when you’re hungry, give you light when you are in the dark, and produce energy. Let it go out of control and it can hurt you, even kill you…Fear is a friend of exceptional people.”

I can talk from my personal experience of being an amateur triathlete – having competed in dozen of events, including an Ironman in Cozumel, Mexico. The races where the pressure or stress I was experiencing was too great would result in a tough painful experience, sometimes resulting in injury. The races that I was not motivated or bothered about the outcome would result in much slower times and poor performance.

When I was appropriately motivated and in the ‘Performance Zone’, I raced strong and hard, yet I enjoyed the experienced and finished happy and smiling! The goal is for us all to find our ‘Performance Zone’ as it varies from person to person, day to day and activity to activity.

little running lady

Tips from Olympians on how to cope with stress:

Put It Into Perspective – Sometimes we get caught up in our own lives that our worries become to seem huge. It’s important to take a few steps back so we can have a better look at what’s going on and remember what’s really important in our lives.

Tune Out Other’s Expectations – Don’t let other people’s stress get to you, it will just pile on and cause unnecessary stress. Tune it out.

Breathe – Stop what you’re doing and take a moment to breathe. Relax and stay calm.

Set Goals – The simplicity of jotting down what needs to be done or adding calendar reminders help keep you focused and on track

Alternative Methods To Relieve Stress – While Michael Phelps and the therapy technique ‘cupping’ (a therapy in which heated glass cups are applied to the skin along the meridians of the body, creating suction and believed to stimulate the flow of energy) has become a hot topic, for those who want to try something else, a massage or two can help relieve the psychological markers of stress.

If you would like to discuss how we can work with you to increase the performance and wellbeing of your workforce to Olympian standards, get in touch and let us share with you what we have learnt from our experience of working with hundreds of people and tens of thousands over the last 13 years – including professional athletes, cricketers and football players.


Neil cropped

Neil Shah

Chief De-stressing Officer

Phone: +44 (0) 203 142 8650

Email: neil@


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