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Why you should see stress as a challenge and not a threat

Why you should see stress as a challenge and not a threat

5 min read
  • Motivation, Resilience & Growth Mindset
  • Sport psychology

It is inevitable that athletes will experience stress in their career. There is a variety of factors that make it common in sport such as injuries, deselection, pressure to perform and failing in competitions when it matters the most.

Sport is unpredictable – you never know what the outcome is going to be, and with this uncertainty comes stress.

But while a bit of stress can help with motivation, too much is bad news for performance. It is important for both athletes and coaches to develop ways to reduce stress in order for them to be able to perform at their best – here are some of our favourite ways to do so…

Is all stress bad, or is it down to how you see it?

Stress can be very detrimental, particularly when it becomes chronic, which is when it persists over a long period of time. However, more recently, researchers have looked at the idea that it isn’t the amount of stress that necessarily affects athletes, but the beliefs that they hold about it.

The research suggests that how we view and appraise the stress we’re under has just as much impact on our psychological well-being as experiencing stress itself.

Research focuses on two ways that people appraise situations of importance to them:

  • Viewing it as a challenge – An athlete who appraises stressful situations as a challenge perceives that the competition is relevant to their goals and that the conditions are favourable for success. In turn, this leads to more adaptive responses such as positive emotions. If they experience negative emotions, they perceive those as facilitating performance.
  • Viewing it as a threat – An athlete who appraises stressful situations as a threat perceives the conditions to be unfavourable for success. In turn, these athletes then experience negative emotions, or emotions that are more debilitative to performance.

What is a stress mindset?

A stress mindset refers to the way a person thinks about stress, and their belief that stress has enhancing or debilitating consequences on stress-related outcomes.

A lot of the time, stress is viewed negatively – something we should avoid. However more recent research suggests that it can be perceived positively and as a result, used beneficially. This is when we embrace stressful situations and see them as an opportunity to learn.

This links to growth mindset, which is the belief people have that their abilities and intelligence can develop and improve.

It is important to note that you can change your stress mindset. It doesn’t have to be locked into a certain way of thinking. So, if you currently view stress as debilitating, you can change this!

Why is a stress-enhancing mindset beneficial?

A stress-enhancing mindset:

Train your mind as well as your body. Unlock your full potential with sport psychology coaching.

What does the research say?

Here are some of the most important research findings when it comes to stress mindset in athletes:

  • The more positive beliefs an athlete holds about stress, the more likely they are to approach stressful situations as a challenge, which is associated with enhanced performance.
  • A negative general view of stress can be associated with athletes viewing unpleasant events as the worst thing that could happen (“awfulising”) and having negative evaluations of themselves (self-depreciation).
  • A positive mindset about stress can increase an athlete’s perceived coping resources, which can then enhance levels of challenge and psychological well-being.

In a nutshell, the findings suggest coaches and athletes should be aware of the role that stress mindset can have in potentially influencing athlete psychological well-being.

So, how can you cope with stress better?

Choose your beliefs about stress

The research suggests that how you appraise your stress has a significant impact. Therefore, it is important for athletes to appraise their stress in a helpful way.

Seeing stressful situations as a challenge will lead to the opportunity for growth and mastery, which will in turn positively influence levels of psychological well-being.

Remove uncertainty

By familiarising yourself with the situation, you can recycle your previous coping strategies to help you deal with this current problem. A great question to ask yourself is: how is this situation similar to what I have experienced before? This removes ambiguity, which reduces uncertainty and boosts confidence.

Be proactive

To best deal with stress, it is better to be proactive rather than reactive, as it reduces the risk of procrastinationResearch has found that procrastination is a prime environment for unhelpful thoughts that lead to stress. By being proactive, we can manage and control our stressful situations by doing things ahead of time.


Treat the task in front of you as an opportunity to improve – not as a threat.

Reframing isn’t the process of pretending everything is fine when it’s not, it’s about finding a new way of perceiving a tricky situation. This process allows you to implement a growth mindset as it places the importance on learning and improving.

Best-case scenario

Although it is sensible to be aware of the worst-case scenario, dwelling on it doesn’t seem to be productive. Focus on what you stand to gain, not what you stand to lose.

Talk to someone

Don’t struggle in silence. Talking to your coaches, your sport psychologist, your support system, and your friends and family it will help you develop a team around you that can support your development.

Having access to a network of individuals who can offer you social support has been found to act as a stress buffer and improve coping, as well as improving resilience and individual performance.

Get a good night’s sleep

When you’re really tired, everything seems that little bit worse. It’s really important to focus on getting sleep right. Check out our blog on how sleep helps and how you can get better sleep.

Final thoughts

Avoiding the stress that competition brings is never going to be possible for athletes.

But the next best thing is to learn to cope with it better, and not be afraid of it! A key point to remember from this list of tips is that when it comes to stress, see “both sides” of it, but choose the upsides. If we choose to see stress as fuel for peak performance, it is more likely to result in more positive responses when faced with stressful situations.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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