How Athletes Deal with Competitive Stress

How Athletes Deal with Competitive Stress

If you’re an athlete, you’ve most likely felt the pressure that comes from competitive stress. You know the feeling. It’s a soul-crushing disappointment in yourself during or after a loss, despite the fact that you trained hard and put forth your best effort. Some athletes can shake off the ensuing feeling of anxiety and even anger quickly. However, others feel the strain of competitive stress for hours post-competition; some even lose sleep overnight before the feeling fades.

It’s natural for athletes to be uber-competitive. This fighting spirit is what propels some athletes into the realm of the elite. It fuels their drive to train harder and longer, keeps them on track to nourish their bodies, and master their games.

On the flip side, that competitive drive triggers competitive stress. Left unchecked, the lowered self-esteem and shaken confidence can interfere with an athlete’s focus and eventually undermine performance.

Definition of “competitive stress”

Competitive stress is a negative emotion felt by an athlete before, during or after a competition. The athlete experiences a feeling of reduced self-esteem and questions their performance. This form of stress stems from an athlete’s inability to discern between the actual demands of competition and their perception of their capability of achieving the performance goals needed to win.

Symptoms of competitive stress

Do you suspect that you struggle with the weight of carrying competitive stress?

Here are several of the primary physical and psychological symptoms of this condition:

  • Mood swings, especially on competition days
  • Lack of sleep before or after a competition
  • Bad dreams or nightmares on nights surrounding competition
  • Loss of appetite, weak stomach, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
  • Aggression or irritability with teammates
  • Clammy skin, hands, or feet from increased heart rate
  • Becoming manipulative or trying control situations unrealistically
  • Inability to achieve or maintain focus during practice, training or game time
  • Perceived illness or physical conditions that don’t exist to avoid the sport entirely (hypochondria)
  • Lost desire to socialize or to lose their support network
  • No longer enjoys or loves the game that was once fulfilling
  • Exaggerated feelings of worry, helplessness, or anxiety

Consequences of competitive stress

If an athlete does not learn to deal with competitive stress, they can potentially lead to dire consequences. The above-listed symptoms of competitive stress can take a severe toll on athletes, both mentally and physically. Left unchecked, they can consequently swell into diagnosed ailments such as anxiety disorders, depression, OCD, or a compromised immune system that leaves them susceptible to physical illness.

Additionally, athletes suffering from competitive stress often feel burnt out on their sport and drop out when participation becomes unmanageable for them any longer. Sadly, this burnout can mean years (or even decades) of training and raw talent wasted. For high school or college level athletes, this can equate to the loss of a scholarship and educational opportunities.

Tips to effectively manage competitive stress

Fortunately, coaches and trainers now recognize those symptoms of competitive stress. Astute staff members have studied the findings of sports psychologists and know how to “coach out” the symptoms by working with athletes.  If you suffer from competitive stress, talk to one of those people.

5 effective tips for managing competitive stress


Labeling helps the athlete learn to identify their feelings and thoughts and the triggers that set them into a downward spiral. They can then take that energy and change it into a positive focus rather than a negative result.

An example of this is a weightlifter who is feeling clammy and has a racing pulse. Instead of remaining fearful over his pre-competition jitters, he can be coached to recognize those as natural responses as his body prepares him for a successful competition. In other words, labeling helps the brain reconnect with the body in a positive manner.

Positive talk

When athletes who struggle with competition stress begin to feel anxiety, they begin to run a litany of self-defeating negative talk through their minds. They might think, “I’m not good enough to be here,” “I lost the last time I competed at this venue,” or other troubling thoughts. Positive talk softens the negative and abruptly pivots it into a more positive message.

So, “I’m not good enough to be here,” becomes “I don’t always feel worthy, but I’m going to prove myself a contender today.” And, “I lost the last time,” becomes “I lost the last time I competed here, but I’m holding my head high today.” The positive thought can become a mantra that reassures the athlete emotionally and calms down the physical manifestations like nausea or rapid pulse. This impact prepares the athlete for a better outcome.

Deep breathing exercises

Deep breathing exercises can have a two-fold effect during stressful periods. First, it stops the negativity in its tracks and helps to clear the mind so that the athlete can focus on positivity. Second, the physical act of deep inhales and long exhales delivers oxygen to the blood and fuels the body for performance.

Feeling better before a competition will naturally bolster an athlete’s confidence and can translate into better performance.


Visualization is a commonly-used coaching technique and with good reason. When an athlete visualizes success, they are more likely to achieve it.

The same impact holds true for athletes suffering from competitive stress. Before a game, trainers can help those athletes picture themselves swinging their clubs fluidly, making a free throw effortlessly, or executing a perfect pitch. This technique quiets thoughts of disappointing outcomes and engages positive images that prepare them for competition.

Game day nourishment

While competitive stress can leave athletes dealing with a loss of appetite or nausea, it’s critical to nourish the body, regardless. A well-balanced, light meal, pre-game supplements, and proper hydration remain key performance indicators for every athlete. 

Stress is a natural bodily function. Indeed, it can drive performance, increase productivity, and help athletes deliver results. However, when the strain of competitive stress becomes too much for athletes, the impacts can be devastating. Knowing the signs of this type of stress and understanding how to deal with them effectively can be a literal game-changer for athletes.