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Managing Competitive Sports Stress

Barry Bremner provides an overview of five techniques for managing competitive sports stress.

As an athlete, you are required to perform exceptionally well under any form of pressure. Whether it is self-imposed expectations or pressure from teammates and coaches, the desire to always perform at a consistently high level can lead to elevated levels of stress. Such extreme stress can result in depression, anxiety, injury, and illness.

Stress management is an essential tool for any athlete, from the weekend warrior to the professional. There are several techniques one can employ to manage the stress that competitive sports can bring. Below are five of the best ways to do so.


Visualization or guided imagery works to relieve stress brought on by competitive play as it provides imaginative cues of where you want your success to take you. When used correctly, this powerful, creative tool can bring about self-confidence and self-improvement, two necessary tools to achieve success in a competitive landscape.

To use employ visualization as part of your stress management techniques:

  • Start by closing your eyes.
  • Picture yourself achieving your goal.
  • Use "treasure mapping," a personal development tool to help you focus on each step necessary to complete your plan.

Physical relaxation

Every athlete has been at a point where adverse demands exceed capabilities or ability. Examples include a football player missing a crucial penalty kick or facing an opponent who is perceived to be faster or stronger than you. These situations can often induce oppressive stress that can feel debilitating, hindering your ability to perform at a high level.

When such situations arise, focus on these three physical techniques: deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation (PMR), and centering.

Deep breathing is done from the diaphragm; slow, progressive deep breaths reduce stress and slow down your heart rate. Progressive muscle relaxation should be used when muscle tension is hindering your performance. To use PMR, tightly contract a group of muscles for a few seconds then relax. Centering uses visualization techniques to remove nervous or negative energy to become more positive and achieve relaxation.

Building mental strength

In an interview with The National, tennis coach Sigi Meeuws stressed the importance of mental strength to succeed in sports. Unwavering mental strength is necessary to overcome barriers or apprehensions in your athletic performance. Mental strength is crucial in producing consistent results in high-pressure situations.

Like your physical body, training can be done to improve mental toughness. Several exercises can be performed to enhance mental strength, but there are three we want to focus on: improving self-awareness, self-confidence, and resilience.

All three require a strong capability in self-talk and choosing thoughts that foster improvements in performance and mental toughness. Creating a winning mindset starts with your thoughts. Recognize when negative thinking arises, interrupt it, and replace those thoughts with helpful or positive thinking.

Reframe pressure

The pressure in sports affects every athlete differently. For some, it improves their performance, allowing them to compete at a high level. For others, it results in more stress.

Harnessing pressure is crucial to managing sports-related stress. Any form of competitive play will involve high-pressure situations. By reframing pressure situations, perceiving and associating them with positive outcomes, you facilitate avenues to improve your performance.

Review past performance

Stress can be brought on by how we perceive our athletic performance. When we perceive our abilities in a negative light, thoughts of failure and doubt can cloud our ability to perform, leading to increased rates of stress and a lack of confidence. So, one of the best things to do to minimize such negative self-talk is to review your performance.

As best as you can, acknowledge, unbiasedly, how you performed. Focus on actions that you did well, particularly thoughts and behaviours that contributed to your improved performance. Use coping mechanisms to address perceived failure.

The best sports coaches will assist you in positively reviewing your performance. Their years of practical and technical experience make them valuable resources in realistically assessing your performance.


A comprehensive approach to stress management can help you better determine the cause and sources of stress. The five coping strategies above will help you better manage your sports-related stress responses to ensure you stay confident and always perform to a high degree of success.

Page Reference

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  • BREMNER, B. (2018) Managing Competitive Sports Stress [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

A veteran c-level executive with more than 25 years of experience across multi-faceted industries including Leisure & Recreation, Barry Bremner joined Zayed Sports City as Director of Business & Corporate Services in 2009 and was appointed to General Manager in 2013. During his time with Zayed Sports City, he has developed and implemented new management systems as well as raised the profile of the organization by securing leading events to take place at Zayed Sports City, including WWE, Monster Jam, the U-17 World Cup, FIFA Club World Cup, and the Mubadala World Tennis Championship. During his tenure at the property, annual visitors to Zayed Sports City have increased from 420,000 in 2009 to 1.3m in 2016.