by Betsy Kellerman, ATC/LAT, Manager of the Overland Park Regional Medical Center Sports Medicine and Concussion programs

Most people who play a sport do it to have fun with others who share the same interest. But it's not always fun and games. There can be plenty of pressure in high school sports. Sometimes pressure comes from the feeling that a parent or coach expects you to always win.

But it can come from inside, too: Some players are just really hard on themselves. And specific situations can add pressure: Maybe there's a recruiter from your No. 1 college scouting you on the sidelines.

Whatever the cause, the pressure to win can sometimes stress you to the point where you just don't know how to have fun anymore.

How Can Stress Affect Sports Performance?

It's natural to feel some stress before a big game or when facing a tough opponent. That positive pressure can prepare us to do our best. Stress can help us rise to a challenge and meet it with alertness, focus, and strength.

When the challenge is over, the stress lets up. We can relax and recharge. Then we're ready for the next challenge. But at times, there are more demands and pressures than we can handle. Stress can pile up if the stressful situation doesn't have a specific end point.

Ongoing stress can exhaust our energy and drive. And, it can interfere with doing our best.

What Can I Do to Ease Pressure?

If you're facing stress that doesn't let up or feeling so pressured you're not enjoying sports, it's time to do something about it.

First, identify where your stress is coming from. Then, think about actions you can take to lower the stress or to cope with it better.

  • Is the pressure to be perfect coming from your own inner critic? Are you too hard on yourself? If so, work on becoming less self-critical. Use losses and not-so-great performances as opportunities for improvement. If a self-critical attitude is blocking you, ask a coach for tips on how to shift it. This can ease pressure and improve performance.
  • Are you overscheduled? Committed to too many sports and activities? If so, you may need to make tough choices about what activities to limit. Plan your schedule so there's time for the things you most want to include.
  • Are you giving yourself time to recover from stress by building in needed downtime? Make sure there's a break between stressful activities. Plan your week so there's time for sports, homework, and fun. Take a break from sports by going to a movie or hanging out with friends.
  • Are you getting enough sleep? Eating plenty of healthy foods? Sometimes we skimp on these basics when we're stressed. But treating your body right helps you handle stress.
  • Do you have a way to handle stress in the most pressured moments? Learn to use breathing to help you steady yourself and focus. Simply pay attention to your breathing as you take a few slow, easy breaths.

Talk over these ideas with a friend, parent, coach, or fitness instructor. Get their perspectives, support, and advice. Ask them to help you decide what to do to ease the pressure you're facing. Just sharing what you're going through can lower stress, refresh your energy, and remind you that you're not alone.

Enjoy the Game

Chronic stress isn't fun — and fun is what sports are all about. There are plenty of other benefits to playing sports — like developing sportsmanship, learning to perform under pressure, practicing skills, and working hard toward goals. Sports help us build self-esteem, teamwork, and strong relationships with teammates. Sure, it's stressful at times, but it's worth it. Because it's also really fun.  

Stress will always be a part of competition and sports. But we can use stress to our advantage by dialing it back and managing it well. We can use stress to boost our performance rather than let it defeat us.