David Foster Wallace, the late essayist and novelist, was at one point in his life a moderately good junior tennis player. That experience led him to reflect on the qualities that enabled better players—those who were more than just moderately good—to outperform him on the court. In a radio interview, he noted that pro tennis players had a way of responding to the stress of competition that differed from his: “I would begin thinking about, oh no, what if this happens and then I would say well, shut up, don’t think about it. And then I would say to myself, but how can I not think about it if I’m not thinking about it. And meanwhile, you know, I’m standing, drooling, on the baseline going through this whole not very interesting game of mental ping-pong while the other guy is briskly going about the business of winning the match.” Pro players, Wallace concluded, “have some sort of muscle that can cut that kind of thinking off.”
Top-tier athletes react to stress not by overthinking the situation but by overcoming the adverse effects of their body’s stress response. In effect, they have a well-developed “stress muscle,” and they are able to flex it when the moment comes to summon peak performance. Keeping this muscle taut and ready for use is one vital element of an Olympic Frame of Mind.
Not all stress is bad stress. In recent years, researchers have demonstrated what elite athletes and other high-level performers have long known: The experience of acute stress—a spell of game-day jitters, a bout of stage fright before a big presentation—is often the prelude to excellence. In the right circumstances, being “keyed up” or “on edge” comes with a burst of energy and a keener ability to focus. Far from being something that you should fight, stress can be your friend.
Just like the rest of us, elite athletes feel pressure and get nervous as they prepare for a big event. But, unlike many of us, they have developed the ability to harness stress for their benefit. They work to strengthen this figurative muscle, just as they do the muscles that power their arms and legs, and then use the pressure of the moment to attain new heights of achievement.
To be sure, the wrong kind of stress have negative ramifications for our health and well-being. But accepting the need for self-care when feelings of stress become unbearable is fully compatible with recognizing the benefits of a well-toned stress muscle. Indeed, the most successful performers—both in the athletic arena and in the arena of organizational leadership—are those who know how to flex their stress muscle without straining it.
The Science of Stress
Stress has a bad reputation—partly for good reason. Childhood stress can lead to developmental delays and to a wide range of physical and psychological problems later in life. At any stage of life, high levels of stress can be associated with adverse conditions that include obesity, hypertension, heart attack, and stroke.
But the stress response is just the body’s reaction to the demands that life makes on an individual. And, crucially, not all stress is created equal. Chronic stress—the kind of sustained pressure that, for example, children endure when they live in poverty or experience abuse—can cause serious long-term damage. Acute stress, by contrast, occurs when one anticipates or encounters adversity while pursuing a goal, and it can spur an individual to push for higher levels of achievement. In biological terms, an acute stress response involves activation of the sympathetic nervous system, a parasympathetic withdrawal, and increased activity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. Together, these physiological experiences enable an individual to harness the energy and sense of focus that are necessary for peak performance.
Importantly, a major factor in how people react to stress is their attitude toward stress. In a 2013 study of different “stress mindsets,” a team of researchers examined the effects of having either an “enhancing” or a “debilitating” view of stress. People with an enhancing mindset regard stress as a necessary and beneficial component of achieving a performance goal; those with a debilitating mindset regard stress as a performance-undermining experience that they should try to avoid. In the study, participants who exhibited an enhancing stress mindset reported better health, fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety, and increased levels of energy than those who exhibited a debilitating stress mindset.
The same study investigated how easily people could attain an enhancing stress mindset. Researchers asked participants in a treatment group to watch three short videos that highlighted “enhancing” aspects of stress. Participants viewed this content over the course of one week, and afterward they reported positive changes in psychological symptoms and work performance. The simple act of learning about the potential benefits of stress was apparently enough to induce an enhancing stress mindset. Exposure to that mindset, in other words, provides one of the few occasions in life when wishing something actually makes it so.
Hans Seyle, an endocrinologist who is credited with founding the field of stress study, coined a term for the helpful form of stress: eustress. According to a standard definition, eustress (which takes its prefix from the Greek word for “good”) is “a positive form of stress that can have a beneficial effect on health, motivation, performance, and emotional well-being.” The concept of eustress helps us differentiate between clearly harmful varieties of stress and varieties of stress that lead to improved performance.
Great athletes commonly view stress as an essential, and indeed positive, aspect of their sport. Take Dana Vollmer, an Olympic swimming gold medalist and a former world record holder. During her early years as a swimmer, parents and coaches would say to her before a race, “Don’t be nervous. You’re going to do great!” These adults were well-meaning, but they were sending precisely the wrong message to the young athlete: She was nervous, after all, and she worried that “being nervous” meant that she might not “do great.” Over time, Vollmer learned that being nervous before a race was not only natural; it was often a prelude to having a great swim. In short, she intuitively understood the concept of eustress when many of the adults around her did not.
The Power of Preparation
We develop and strengthen physical muscles by subjecting them to repeated, ever-more-difficult use. The same dynamic applies to developing and strengthening our mental stress muscle. Successful athletes, like successful leaders in other fields, commit themselves to hours and hours—and then years and years—of disciplined preparation for the moment when they will need to flex that muscle.
Dave Durden, head coach of the UC Berkeley men’s swimming program, is meticulous in his stress preparation. A full six months before the 2016 US Olympic Trials, he arranged for his team to experience a virtual tour of the venue where that competition would take place. He wanted every swimmer on the team to understand every aspect of the site—the location of the warmup pool, the distance from the warmup pool to the competition pool, and so on. Preparing the swimmers’ minds in this way would help them plan for the most stressful meet of their careers. (Durden was named head coach of the 2020 US Olympic men’s swimming team.)
This kind of preparation is equally essential for non-athletes. Leadership coach Drew Kugler, for example, advises his clients to take time before a big speech to walk through the space where they will deliver it. Too often, people will practice a speech dozens of times in their living room, only to seize up with nerves when they step onstage for real thing. As much as possible, Kugler advises, leaders who face a big moment need to experience the stress of that moment beforehand—and to do so in the environment where it will occur. “Get on the stage, because then you start … to feel more comfortable in your head,” he said.
In general, the work of preparing your stress muscle for optimal performance includes these key steps:
– Acknowledge that stress can be good for you.
– Avoid the temptation to suppress or explain away stressful feelings. Instead, learn to sit with them.
– Read and absorb information about the positive effects of stress—because wishing makes it so!
– Then practice! Sign up for a race. Say yes to a speaking engagement. Volunteer for a stretch project at work.
Take this approach consistently, and eventually you will begin to experience stressful situations not as overwhelming challenges but as enticing opportunities.
Originally published in Forbes