Training: Dealing With Stress

If you look closely at any great athlete in almost any sport you'll notice one characteristic that separates them from everyone else. In many cases, it's not even obvious what this difference may be. You have to look past the athlete's obvious characteristics such as strength or size. What is this magic ingredient that makes champions out of average athletes and chumps of out the rest of us? It's the ability to deal with stress.

I spent a number of years wrestling for Canada and gained first hand experience of the importance of dealing with stress and the problems it can cause if it's not dealt with. I'm positive part of my success was due to my ability to deal with pressure; whether the pressure was caused from wrestling (from my coach, teammates or the athlete across the mat), friends, family, work or school. I learned early in my career that if I was going to survive, especially as a small athlete, I had better learn to deal with it. But although I was able to cope with most of the stress chucked my way, I was not always able to escape it. In fact, I'm sure my performance was hindered on many occasions because I wasn't able to deal with it as swiftly as I would have liked.

One of my most vivid experiences to the downside of stress was at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona. A good friend and teammate of mine went into the competition ranked 2nd in the world and was a serious medal hopeful for Canada. He was the only guy in the weight class who had beaten the defending World and Olympic champion. In fact, he had done it twice. In addition, he was a former World Junior Champion and had placed in many world class tournaments. He was experienced in dealing with pressure and the media attention that comes with success. So the Olympics should have been like any other tournament, right? Well according to him, it was a disaster. He finished 8th at the games and for the most part did not even enjoy his experience. What caused this breakdown? Simple, it was his nerves. Or more specifically, his inability to cope with all the added pressure and expectations that compounded prior to the Games. He had let the pressure build up to the point where he couldn't perform when it counted most. He told me later that he felt like a "petrified rock".

My Game's experience was very different. I wrestled the best I had all year and turned in my best performance ever (I even managed to enjoy myself). What was so different? Well for starters and to be fair to my teammate, my situation was a little different. I'm not exactly sure whether it was because I was one of the rookies on the National team, the fact that I had just recovered from knee surgery the year before or my expectations were just different but I never felt the same amount of stress that he and some of my other teammates had. When it came time to perform I felt like I was at peace with myself. It was one of the first times that I really felt good, physically and mentally. I remember walking down the long corridor to the main venue and feeling relaxed. When the whistle went I was in the zone that we strive so hard to reach; I was ready to wrestle.

So what can you do to deal with stress?

  1. Find something outside of sport that you really enjoy (hanging out with friends, watching TV, reading or playing chess). Often if I needed an escape I'd go to a movie or listen to music. Now that I don't wrestle, I resort to physical activity (either weights or running) to relieve the stress in my life.
  2. Take advantage of imagery. It can be one of the most useful tools you'll ever use. Imagine yourself wrestling (and beating) your favorite opponent in the championships final. You'll be surprised how comfortable you feel once you actually get there. It'll feel like you've already been there. I still use imagery today to help prepare for business presentations.
  3. Get into a routine. Whether you're warming up for a match during practice or the biggest match of your life, just going through your normal routine will help you prepare for the competition. Routines help you get into the zone.
  4. Write down your thoughts. Regardless of whether you're writing for the local gazette or in your private journal, try to put your thoughts down on paper. Often, just the process will help clear your mind and make you feel at ease. At the Olympics I found that writing for the local paper gave me plenty of time to analyze the competition, myself and my fears.
  5. Watch your opponent. If you can't watch on video try to catch them at the competition. Just remember not to allow it to interfere with your warm-up otherwise it may add to your stress level.
  6. Talk to your coach. Find someone close to you with whom you can discuss how you feel. Discussing your stress is one of the best ways to deal with it.
  7. Practice. Practice. Practice. Just the thought of knowing that you've done everything you can to prepare will give you the confidence needed to perform your best and help ease the pressure.

If you start incorporating some of these techniques into your preparations today you'll be on your way to tackling the pressure. And as you get older and leave wrestling behind, you'll find out that these same strategies can be used to tackle the everyday stresses of life.

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About The Author
Tom Petryshen is a former Olympian and Canadian National Freestyle champion. Born in Vancouver, Canada, Tom now resides in Sydney, Australia.
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