Stress Is Not the Enemy. Teaching Your Athletes to Embrace Stressful Situations

If you are living in a stress-free environment, you are either heavily sedated or dead. Stress is unavoidable. Coaches and athletes have potential stressors lurking at every corner: performance expectations (personal or otherwise), winning or losing points or matches, aspiring for personal or team goals, critics everywhere, etc.

We are inundated with the message that stress is inherently debilitating. Stress can promote anxiety, trigger sleepless nights, raise pulse rates, and compromise performance. But, given the proper mindset, there is a different component of stress with a positive side.

Dr. Andrew Huberman

In his latest newsletter, Dr. Andrew Huberman offers a different perspective on stress that entails positive components. According to Huberman, stress has the potential to: 

  1. Increases adrenaline and dopamine release in the brain and body, leading to heightened alertness, increased energy, and elevated focus.
  2. It improves cognition (thinking) and causes the release of neurotrophins (neural growth factors), which improve learning and memory by assisting neuroplasticity (brain rewiring).
  3. Quick bouts of stress (1-2 hours or less) boost the immune system to protect against illness. 
Dr. Alia Crum

Dr. Huberman also recognized the work of Dr. Alia Crum, who has conducted extensive research on the impact of stress on performance. Dr. Crum believes that there is a correlation between handling stress positively and a person’s mindset. The “stress-is-enhancing” mindset, developed by Dr. Crum, involves viewing stress not as a purely negative experience but as an opportunity for growth, learning, and improved performance. The key pillars of the “stress is enhancing” mindset are:

  1. Even though stress will not always feel good at the moment, adjust your mindset to remind yourself that stress puts you in an action-oriented state to enhance performance.
  2. You can change (and lower) your stress response by remembering the positive benefits of stress.
  3. You will feel more comfortable under stress and build up your tolerance with practice.

In this video, Dr. Crum provides examples of how one’s mindset can directly impact the ability to handle stressful situations successfully.

Change Your Mindset, Change the Game

As I observed club practices over the many years of recruiting, I saw many training sessions that offered minimal stress for the athlete. The expectations were minimal, the demands on the athlete were negligible, and performance feedback was sparse. A loose, stress-free practice is okay unless you consider the potential negative impact on learning and how players will react when placed in a stressful on-court environment.

I am an unabashed fan of the late Dr. Anders Ericsson. For those unfamiliar with his work, Dr. Ericsson was an expert on the traits of top performers regardless of their area of expertise. Ericsson observed the core commonalities of top performers and noticed experts generally used a concept that Ericsson termed “deliberate practice.” The critical characteristics of deliberate practice are:

  • Specific Tasks: During deliberate practice, individuals work on highly specific tasks assigned to address their weaknesses.
  • Performance Monitoring: Their performance is carefully monitored to identify areas for further improvement.
  • Effortful and Unenjoyable: Deliberate practice requires intense effort and is often not enjoyable. It pushes individuals beyond their comfort zones.
  • Professional Guidance: Practicing with a professional coach is crucial for effective deliberate practice.

A coach who embraces and implements the concepts of deliberate practice into their training sessions will, by default, bring some stress into the practice session. Now, the challenge is to teach the athlete the positive aspects of stress and how to manage the inherent stress to develop their skills.

Excelling at any activity is hard work. Many players participating in club volleyball do not desire to put in the hard work necessary for improvement. However, many players will want to raise their skill and expertise and will not hesitate to put in the work necessary for improvement.

The club coach has a choice to make. Either make your practice stress-free and sacrifice the ability to make significant performance improvements, or place players in an environment that contains stress and teach them the positive aspects of stress and how to handle this environment successfully. The third component of Dr. Crum’s essential keys to embracing stress is that “you will feel more comfortable under stress and build up your tolerance with practice.” The takeaway might be that stress, like any other skill, needs to be practiced.

The club coach is challenged to embrace Ericsson’s learning concepts that contain a component of stress while encouraging the athlete to embrace Crum’s essential keys for handling stress and incorporate both concepts into a training session without losing the enjoyment of play and the satisfaction of skill development. Without question, this places demands on the coach to organize and implement practice sessions for the athlete that allow for skill improvement while presenting a manageable stress level to teach the athlete that stress is not the enemy.

Below are examples of implementing various levels of stress into your training session.

  • In-A-Rows – Design drills to focus on successful “in-a-row” contacts. When working on serve-receive, I will ask the passers to perform five sets of five consecutive in-system passes. Any out-of-system pass sends the passer(s) back to zero in that set.
  • Have players focus on specific aspects of a drill, such as movement, footwork, posture, specific shots or serving locations, etc.
  • Plus/Minus Drills is a similar concept to in-row activities, where errors are subtracted from positive contacts. 
  • On Edge Instruction—I wrote a blog on how former Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer administered his team meetings. He used “On Edge” instruction to describe his Socratic method of question and answer to ensure his team fully grasped the systems and techniques that Meyer valued.
  • One of the questions I continuously ask players during practice is, “What did you see?” Visual cues are vital to players’ decision-making process. 
  • Emphasize the importance of a good learning environment in practice. The players are responsible for putting forth good effort, whether actively in a drill or on the sidelines, being good teammates, exhibiting positive communication skills, and always having good body language.

The examples of incorporating Deliberate Practice concepts in your training sessions are endless; however, the key ingredients will remain constant. Using Dr. Crum’s research as a platform, coaches should develop a plan to encourage players to accept stressful situations as positive and essential to their development. Coaches should allow for failure, as setbacks will always occur when the athlete’s abilities are stretched. Small steps should be rewarded, and temporary setbacks can be met with a shrug of the shoulders and used as ammunition for the next practice.