Mental stress is a component of sport that is more pronounced in its effects on the athlete the more significant the event. Mental stress in the pressure brought to bear on the existing mental balance or emotional equilibrium of any person; the symptoms of mental stress will most commonly be exhibited when the demands of a situation are seen as exceeding the personal resources that the individual can bring to bear on them at that moment.
Mental stress is distinct from the broad variety of mental health conditions that are defined as illnesses, such as depression or a post-traumatic stress disorder. Stress is a more transient and focused circumstance, usually tied to well-defined and identifiable factors that are close to the subject. Stress is also a distinct psychological condition from anxiety, which is a feeling of a lack of control over one's future circumstances. Stress is usually related to the pending present event.
Mental stress is commonly regarded as a negative circumstance in sport as well as daily living. It is often the response of the person to stress that determines how the stress ought to be characterized. Many athletes in particular train to channel their stress into positive influences on the outcome of an athletic event; this concept is better known as "healthy stress." Stress is a combination of instinctive and learned reactions. Mental stress represents a delicate balancing act for the athlete; when the athlete feels little or no stress in an important circumstance, he or she is often too relaxed and not sufficiently activated to achieve the best result. When the athlete feels the effect of mental stress in a fashion that he or she cannot control or harness for his/her own benefit, it is equally unlikely that a strong result will be achieved.
Stress arises in a number of different circumstances for an athlete, irrespective of ability level or athletic experience; elite competitors often tend to feel the effects of stress more profoundly. Stressful situations often result from a number of conditions, including: competitive pressure, the desire and the drive to succeed; training pressures, the ongoing stress of adherence to daily targets, mileages, or performance standards; the external pressures created by coaches or teammates to achieve; financial pressures created through either the cost of participation in a sport or as a career component; or the consequences of an injury, accompanied by the stresses of rehabilitation or fears of recurrence.
As a companion to the internal emotions associated with mental stress, this condition has a number of physiological reactions. Most of these consequences are triggered by the body's recognition of a dangerous circumstance, which initiates what is often referred to as the "fight or flight" response. The brain signals the adrenal gland to release the hormone adrenaline as a first-line response to a stressful circumstance. Adrenaline almost instantly creates a rise in both the heart rate and blood pressure, preparatory to any required muscle action. The body automatically raises its blood sugar level, and blood is directed to the extremities of the body, preparatory for physical action. The negative consequences of the release of adrenaline are increased excitability and a reduction in motor control skills. Controlling the impacts of stress is therefore of crucial importance to athletic success.
Of fundamental importance to athletes and their ability to separate the positive aspects of stress from the negatives is the distinction between mental stress and physiological or training stresses. Physical discomfort and fatigue associated with training are inherent in sport and must not be a source of mental stress. Increased physical fitness will act as a barrier to the negative consequences of undue mental stress.
The channeling of mental stress by the athlete from that of a limiting condition into a positive force can take a number of directions; an entire body of science, sport psychology, has evolved to assist the sports world in better understanding the principles underlying the control of mental stress in athletes. Most sport psychology techniques used to harness the energy of mental stress center on the ability of the athlete to focus on the event to the exclusion of all other thoughts and distractions. Catch phrases such as "blocking out pressure," "getting into the zone," and "positive self-talk" are tools employed by athletes to put their mind in an optimum position to assist the body.
Simulation is an important stress-defending mechanism, useful in many athletic disciplines. When athletes know the obstacles to be faced in a particular event, their stress over performance will generally be reduced. It is also important for an athlete to appreciate that the strengthening of one's abilities to counter the harmful consequences of mental stress is not an instantaneous process; stress-channeling strategies take time to develop and require experience in their execution, in the same way that an athlete develops motor skills.