1. pressure or tension exerted on a material object.
2. a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.
Oh beautiful, wonderful stress. It can sneak up on you methodically and stealthily, or it can come rushing in a breath-taking instant. Regardless of how it came, you are overwhelmed, your eye is twitching, and there appears to be no way out.
Stress affects everyone. It’s our standard way of life, and there’s no getting around it. A crucial point to remember is that, while stress is indiscriminate towards the receiver, how the receiver utilizes that stress is what sets them apart. While a physically or mentally weak person might crumble under the stress, the same amount of stress can serve to harden the strong athlete.
I’ve found that when mentally weak people encounter stress, they are usually short-term focused, and their focus almost always surrounds themselves. Fight-or-flight applies here. Rarely can they pull themselves out the stressful situation and look at it logically. Instead, they get caught in an emotional trap, a cycle of reacting to various stressors. Practice makes perfect, and if you practice poor responses to stress, that is how you will continue to perform. The mentally weak person will perfect the negative response to stress, and they will drag themselves down in the process.
In any sport, but triathlons especially, small stressors can easily derail the mentally weak athlete. You didn’t get the swim position you wanted, and suddenly your entire mental game is thrown off. You dwell on the poor swim position, and end up blaming that for your poor performance in the race. It’s a real shame though, because many good athletes get taken down, not by fellow competitors, but by themselves.
Mentally strong people on the other hand, strategically expose themselves to stress and then repress the fight-or-flight response while they examine the situation logically. They might have a positive mantra they repeat, or a breathing technique in order to overcome the stress. Regardless, their response to stress is inherently different than the response of a mentally weak person. This isn’t something that you’re born with. Many have to actively practice maintaining a positive response to stress. Hence why having a coach is so helpful not only for the physical aspects of training, but for the mental aspects as well.
A mentally strong person might have ended up with a poor swim position, but instead of dwelling on it, they mentally remove themselves from the negative-thought cycle, and view the situation calmly. They might make up the time elsewhere by maintaining a positive attitude while others succumb to their own personal stresses. A positive attitude is everything in a race when a million things outside of your control can happen, like a flat or bad weather.
Mentally strong people actually get stronger from being exposed to stress, while mentally weak people get weaker from the same exact stress. Training itself is geared towards exposing your body to stress – that’s the only way to grow. Weightlifting is a great example of this. You lift heavy weights, put stress on your muscles, literally tear them, and they rebuild themselves stronger for the next time. It hurts, but you get stronger. How can we train our minds to respond like that to stress? It’s a little more difficult, and requires you pulling yourself out of the stressful situation to examine it for what it is. It’s probably not the end of the world, even though it seems like it at the time.
This is what I’ve been trying to focus on in training this week. I’m used to putting physical stress on my body (thank you high school and collegiate sports), and now it’s up to me to dial in my mental strength. I usually turn to working out to work through my mental stress problems. Relationship problems? Swimming. Work problems? Gym. Those aren’t the only prescriptions for my mental stress, but I find that moving my body helps me remove myself mentally from the stress, and examine it logically. Plus, the runner’s high is a real thing, and why not use that stress to motivate a great workout!