Exploring the Unknown

Exploring the Unknown
Representing the 99%!

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Impacts of Stress on Athletes By Lara Pomerleau-Fontaine

Pic © Poliquin Group.com
Thesis Statement: 
Athletes face financial pressures that impact their level of stress arousal, putting them at higher risk of injuries.

How to Make Stress Your Friend
By Kelly McGoniga

Sport has a very big influence on our society. Athletes want to perform more and more and they are ready to do everything they can in order to achieve their goal. The media is always present in order to cover these incredible performances and spectators are ready to spend a lot of money in order to watch the games/performances. However, the physical side of an athlete is not the only thing that brings him to perform. The psychological aspect also has an important influence and place on an athlete’s success. Athletes need to have a stable environment in order to be emotionally stable. However, athletes face financial pressures that impact their level of stress arousal, putting them at a higher risk of injuries. Three aspects are going to be discussed in this paper. In the first part, the historical aspect of sport is going to be shown, while for the second part, the sociological aspect. Finally, the third one will be the psychological aspect.

The Rutgers University football team, 1891
Pic © Library of Congress
Everything changed when the period of industrialization came. People started to move to cities and get a job and sports started to take on more importance. One of the main great accelerators that had contributed to this is the advancement of transportation (Morrow & Samsley, 2010, p.46). The train appeared at that time in the history and had a big influence on the world of sport. With this new transportation, it was easier for the athletes to travel from the country and to face other athletes. Also, it allowed spectators to travel and to follow their teams or athletes in order to see their performances. Based on that, people started to build larger venues such as stadiums in order to be able to receive the spectators.  This is where sports became more organized during the period of urbanization. According to Morrow and Samsley (2010), “in addition to technological changes in recreational and sporting equipment, the phenomenon of urbanization and urban growth, with clustering of the population in cities, had profound effects on the organization of sport. Most sporting activities before the middle of the nineteenth century were prompted by impulse. Pioneer sports associated with such social occasions as work bees and with taverns were spontaneous and loosely organized” (p.50). Rules and structure were developed and athletes needed to follow them in order to play. This change had a significant impact on the athletes. They were not only athletes anymore, but they were a part of the economic system. They were playing in order to make money and to live. Therefore, the pressure on their shoulders increased dramatically and if they were not performing, they lost their job. It is a different stress that athletes needed to deal with because when they were falling, it was not only ten people who were there, but 1000. Also, the increase of the number of athletes in every single sport brought the competition level very high.  Those who wanted to perform and become the best athlete as possible needed to work twice as hard as they used to because athletes were ready to compete.

Adrian C. Anson,
Chicago White Stockings, baseball card portrait. 1887.
Pic © Library of Congress 
It also became more expensive to do so; hence, the social class had an importance. Only the upper class was able to play sport professionally. For people who were in the working class and wanted to perform in sport, it was almost impossible because of the expensive cost and the number of hours of work that they needed to do. According to Scambler (2005), “Working-class fans could follow both on-the-field heroics and the player-director struggles of their favorite teams. The sport became less a gentleman’s pastime and more a commercial enterprise when played at its highest levels. Relationships among teams increasingly came to resemble the relationships among ordinary competitive business firms” (p.118). Consequently, it was difficult for those who were in the working class because they had to work more than 10 hours a day because if the inequalities of the time. Athletes who did not have enough money could barely play sports and since it was almost only reserved for the upper class, it was difficult to make their place in this rich world. Playing sports became a business that was always only reserved for those who had the money for. It was an unwritten rule of the time. This unwritten rule was a stressor for the few athletes in the working class that wanted to break it. Moreover, the attitude from the upper class toward the working class is an additional pressure that the working class athletes needed to deal with because they were rejected from them.

African American baseball team from from Morris Brown College,
Atlanta, Georgia (ca.1899)
Pic © Library of Congress
Unfortunately, the negative impacts of social classes are still present in our society.  Based on the information provided above, the environment of an athlete is a source of stress for them and has an impact on the participation. According to Young and White (2007), research indicates that: “the higher the class, the greater rate of participation in sport and physical activity” (p.100). furthermore, according to Spaaij (2013), “sport provides the poor and underprivileged with a means for upward social mobility through mechanisms such as increased occupa¬tional and income status, educational attainment and symbolic capital is a big factor of stress for athletes” (p.54). The image of the sport itself brought by society brings the motivation to some young athletes to work hard in order to achieve their goals. It gives them this little (positive) stress, this little excitement to become a better person and therefore, the best athlete possible. Popularity, money, family and success, that is the image of an athlete that society shows today. The media gives value to athletes, and people want to be valued. Consequently, professional athletes want to keep this image because that is what they want, that is what they are.  This gives them what we call eustress, this term is going to be explained later in the text, in order to compete against each other, and achieve their dreams. In other words, people are experiencing positive stress in order to become a better person, to achieve their dreams and become what they want to be.

However, even if media acts in a positive way for vertical mobility, it does not for gender stereotypes. Obviously, athletes can also be victims of this situation and experience negative stress because of that. Women, in particular, have much more difficulty to find sponsors and to be covered by the media for their athletic performances. According to Kane and Maxwell (2011), “Female athletes, compared with their male counterparts, are significantly underrepresented in terms of amount of coverage and, 2) sportswomen are routinely presented in ways that emphasize their femininity and heterosexuality versus their athletic competence” (p.203). In other words, women athletes are in shape and the media rather cover their beautiful body for advertisement than for their sport. This can be a source of negative stress for athletes because they need money if they want to perform it. They need to pay for their competitions. Society is less interested by their performance because they are less spectacular then the men. For this reason, women athletes need to deal with financial pressures that are caused by society. This last one creates barriers to athletes because it is a capitalist world. Money passes before performance. This influences women’s performances because they are preoccupied by money and it is a source of distraction. As a result, women that are already less shown by society need to face these challenges that are always there and that could be a reason why they do not perform as they should.

Maggie Jones of Cleveland Baseball
Pic © Library of Congress
Furthermore, stress, which is called also stress process, can be positive or negative. In other words, positive stress is referred to eustress and negative stress as distress. Athletes need to experience stress if they want to perform. An athlete that is not excited about a game or a performance will have less chance to perform compared to an athlete that is because he is going to be less aware and less ready. Eustress is necessary for athletes that want to perform. You need to focus on what you are going to do, and be ready to achieve your goals. According to Sylvain Guimond (2014), it is simple, if you want to become one of these big athletes, you just need to learn, be positive and to be confident and you are going to be able to deal with your stress and experience eustress, “Lorsque vous voulez accomplir une chose, mettez votre attention sur les moyens de la réaliser et non sur les difficulties anticipés pour les mener à terme, encore mois sur l’impression que vous ne serez pas à la hauteur” (p.94). On the other hand, there is distress, which is the negative type of stress that athletes experience. Negative stress can bring shaking, anxiety and injuries. According to Williams (1998),

“most psychological variables, if they influence injury outcome at all, probably do so through a linkage with stress and a resulting of their stress response. Individuals with a history of many stressors, personality characteristics that exacerbate the stress response, and few coping resources will, when placed in a stressful situation such as a demanding practice or crucial competition, be more likely to appraise the situation as stressful and to exhibit greater physiological activation and attentional disruptions. The severity of the resulting stress response, caused by the increased stress reactivity, is what predisposes the athlete to injury” (p.410).

So, athletes who experience distress have a greater chance to experience injuries such as stress injuries than those who do not experience distress. When an athlete has negative stress, he will tend to be more focused on the stress itself than about the performance. Therefore, he is going to be less aware of his body and that is where injuries come from. They need to learn how to cope with it. Stress is present everywhere in sport. It is not possible to not live stress otherwise athletes do not perform because they will not be excited about getting better and beating someone else or the other team. It creates competition and brings improvement. With that said, athletes need to learn how to deal with it, find solutions so that that eustress does not become distress, which is going to decrease their performances and bring injuries.

Athletic Bilbao’s Fernando Llorente stands dejected at the end of the match.
Pic © Dr. Chris Stankovich
Nonetheless, stress is not the only cause of good or bad performances. It is directly related to arousal. Arousal is a concept in psychology that describes the level of awakens of an athlete or someone. An athlete needs to be awake and ready to go during his training and his competition. It is impossible that an athlete who wants to sleep can perform as much as someone that is excited and ready to compete. Also, arousal is directly linked with stress based on the Reversal Theory. According to Horn (2002), he is convinced that “arousal and stress continua must be viewed jointly and are together related to reversal theory. This result in four quadrants: anxiety, excitement, boredom and relaxation. Boredom and under stimulation occurs when stress is high and arousal is low. Conversely, when stress is low and arousal is high, excitement occurs” (p.222). Appendix 1 precisely shows the impact of stress on an athlete’s arousal. Basically, when the stress level is elevated, either you are going to feel an overstimulation or an under stimulation.  On the other hand, if you are not stressed at all, either you are going to be excited or want to sleep. The prediction of this theory (Horn, 2002, p.222) is that successful athletes tend to have a higher level of arousal and therefore, tend to be less stressed and perform better compared to a non-successful athlete.

Pic © Sport Psychology
For that reason, stress and arousal are directly related and help bring the athlete to achieve their best performance; however, the athlete does not always have control over that unfortunately. According to Cox (2012), the “Reversal Theory hypothesis can be an involuntary switch back and forth between the positive state (paralytic) and negative state (telic)” (p.204). This meaning that a stressed athlete may have difficulty in regulating their emotions, but can still develop methods in order to improve that. Cox (2012, p.204) refers to Smith (1992) that used this theory in order to explain what happened in the 1972 Munich Olympics. It was the final men’s basketball match and the USA team thought they won the gold medal. They were experiencing a positive state, but this state totally changed to a negative state when they realized that there was only three seconds left in the final. Finally, they lost and did not even go to the medal ceremony. The large increase in stress in the last seconds and the high level of arousal would have created an overstimulation and therefore, anxiety. This had a direct effect on the team, which caused them to lose the final. Thus, it demonstrates the impact it can have on athletes. 

The New York Female Giants
 Pic © Library of Congress
To conclude, stress comes from many areas. Through history, it has taken more and more place in sport-related areas. Everything started during the period of industrialization and did not improve because of the gap between social classes. With time, society used the media in order to promote the successful image of an athlete and that creates motivation for the athletes that want to keep this image, but also for the young ones. With that said, the media does not cover women as much as men, which creates financial pressure for them and can reduce their performance. Also, athletes need to experience eustress if they want to perform in order to motivate themselves, to focus their energy and feel excited about what they are doing. On the other hand, experiencing distress is not a good thing for athletes. It brings about feelings of anxiety, reduces performance and causes injuries. If an athlete experiences stress, it is difficult to say what the consequences will be because it depends on every single athlete. One thing is sure; however, stress is present in sport and will always be.


Cox, R.H. (2012). Sport psychology ; concepts and applications. New York, NY: Mcgraw Hill

Guymon, S. (2014) Vivre ses rêves…Pourquoi P.A.S.? Quebec, QC : Un Monde Différent

Horn. T. (Ed.) (2002). Advances in sport psychology. Champaign, IL : Human Kinetics

Kane, M. J., & Maxwell, H. D. (2011). Expanding the Boundaries of Sport Media Research: Using Critical Theory to Explore Consumer Responses to Representations of Women's Sports. Journal Of Sport Management, 25(3), 202-216.

Morrow D. & Wamsley K.B. (2010) Sport in Canada : an history. Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press

Scambler. G. (2005) Sport and society : history, power and culture. New York, NY:  Two Penn Plaza

About The Student

Lara Pomerleau-Fontaine is presently studying at Champlain College Lennoxville located in Quebec, Canada. Impacts of Stress on Athletes was completed as part of a special project for Integration Approach in the Social Sciences in the Department of Social Sciences.

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