Many coaches and athletes are familiar with the term fight or flight. The phrase is used to describe an instinctual reaction of fight or flight that occurs when faced with a perceived, real or unreal threat. Common physical/mental reactions in this state include:
Increased breathing (typically shallow)
Increased heart rate
Increased muscle tension
Time speeds up
The majority of sporting events that most athletes participant in do not pose a physical threat, and most athletes report low to non-existent signs of stress during work-outs or practices. Yet, frequently an athletes physiological/psychological response leading up to or during a competitive event creates an “as if” reaction. When an athlete enters a state of fight or flight their athletic skills and abilities may derail creating additional frustration around sport participation. In extreme situations athletes may decide they are not able to compete any longer and give up participating in their sport competitively.
Although there are rarely quick fixes to this reaction, athletes can develop successful management strategies to lessen the physiological/psychological stress reactions of competition that can precede the state of fight or flight.
Useful management strategies include:
Preparation for competition. Being well prepared mentally, physically, technically, leading up to a competitive event. Practices should include competitive like conditions to mimic the types of stresses of the upcoming event. “Stress can occur when athletes are uncertain that they will be able to do what is expected of them and when the outcome is important to them.” Rainer Martens.
Stress management techniques. Utilizing skills of visualization, controlled breathing, positive inner dialogue and tools which provide balanced mental energy.
Identify obtainable goals. Process goals vs. outcome goals allow a more balanced gauge of short and long term improvement. Everyone’s outcome goal is to win, but process goals are the steps and details that lead to the wins.
Healthy support team. Support from coaches, family, friends who care about the athletes goals and support those goals, yet aren’t overly invested in the athletes outcome.
Effective management of fight or flight responses begins long before an athlete steps into the competitive arena. Using management strategies can help alleviate the negative aspects of the fight or flight syndrome and can even be the detour from it occurring.
Susan Zaro USPTA-P-1, USTA and USPTA Sport Science Specialist, LMFT