Championship season brings a whole new environment for swimmers. One important question is how does the body respond differently to the stress of a championship event and the pressure building up to the event? Any competitor knows that championships feel different. Championships even look different with more people in the stands and maybe some TV cameras present. But what’s really going on inside the body when we step behind the blocks for a championship race?
Alan Goldberg describes what happens when we succumb to mental demons under the pressure of key races…..
First, your level of NERVOUSNESS will INCREASE. Second, when you get nervous, your MUSCLE TENSION will automatically INCREASE. Third, the amount of NEGATIVE THINKING and SELF-DOUBTS bopping around inside your cranium will increase. And Fourth, when you're flooded with negativity and doubts, your SELF-CONFIDENCE will DO A NOSE DIVE!!!! And finally, and a result of all of these above, your RACE PERFORMANCE will go down the proverbial tubes!!!!
Fortunately, with sound mental strategies such as ones taught by Dr. Goldberg, swimmers can overcome the mental demons and have the best chance of swimming to their potentials. On the other hand, many other swimmers bring the right mindset to championship season but find their bodies betraying them at the worst possible time due to illness or injury. Far too many swimmers find themselves nursing colds or more serious maladies despite hitting all their practice goal times and having a successful pre-championship season. Often the trigger into illness or poor performance is a misunderstanding of stress management before and during big competitions.
Moreira (2013) studied elite male volleyball players and compared various stress markers between a regular season match and a championship match. Markers included rating of perceived exertion (RPE), salivary cortisol (SC), and salivary immunoglobulin (SIgA). Results indicated higher stress in the championship match, as indicated by greater RPE, increased SC, and reduced SIgA. In other words, tasks seemed harder, overall stress was elevated, and immunity decreased. Filaire (2001) found similar results with judo athletes, noting that cortisol increased at an interregional competition as compared with a regional competition. However, immunity was not significantly affected in this study, though many theorize that immunity may be indirectly affected by changes to these other stress markers.
In short, by simply attaching more importance to any result, our stress levels increase. Added stress also increases vulnerability to illness, injury, and poor performance. These risk factors only multiply for championships when you factor in travel, midterms, and the next phase of life for high school and college seniors and even middle schoolers heading to high school.
A similar trend emerges in studies comparing simulated competition with actual competition. Moreira (2012) compared simulated basketball games with actual games and found increased RPE and SC levels in young elite males, but no change in immunity. Another Moreira (2012) study looked at Brazilian Jiu Jitsu fighters and noted an increase in cortisol levels when comparing interregional competition (a higher level) with regional competition, but again no decrease in immunity. Unlike other studies, RPE was not part of this analysis.
Let’s not forget that higher stress may be a good thing when managed properly. Stress is part of the body’s fight or flight mechanisms and may stimulate career best performances. Problems occur when stress lasts too long and when training inputs are incongruent with the body’s needs given the present stress levels. Coaches must recognize that stress is a tangible physiological phenomenon that can be harnessed for peak performance or alternatively trigger athletes into disappointment or breakdown. Though saliva samples are unrealistic for most teams, the research has validated other methods such as RPE that coaches can use to track athlete readiness during a potentially stressful championship season.
- Moreira A, Crewther B, Freitas CG, Arruda AF, Costa EC, Aoki MS. Session RPE and salivary immune-endocrine responses to simulated and official basketball matches in eliteyoung male athletes. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2012 Dec;52(6):682-7.
- Filaire E, Sagnol M, Ferrand C, Maso F, Lac G. Psychophysiological stress in judo athletes during competitions. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2001 Jun;41(2):263-8.
- Moreira A, Freitas CG, Nakamura FY, Drago G, Drago M, Aoki MS. Effect of match importance on salivary cortisol and immunoglobulin a responses in elite young volleyball players. J Strength Cond Res. 2013 Jan;27(1):202-7. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31825183d9.
- Moreira A, Franchini E, de Freitas CG, Schultz de Arruda AF, de Moura NR, Costa EC, Aoki MS. Salivary cortisol and immunoglobulin A responses to simulated and official Jiu-Jitsu matches. J Strength Cond Res. 2012 Aug;26(8):2185-91. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31823b8702.
By Allan Phillips. Allan and his wife Katherine are heavily involved in the strength and conditioning community, for more information refer to Pike Athletics.