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  • Writer's pictureFarran Mackay

Psychology 101 for Coaches: Stress and Anxiety

Farran Mackay CrossFit competition

We've all had members cry during or after a workout, throw equipment out of frustration, or look upset because they didn't meet their expectations. These moments remind us we are not just physical trainers. Part of being a coach is that we're here to help our members' mental health where we can. By using psychology, we can better help our members deal with stress and anxiety.

Stress and anxiety, though they share some common features, are distinct concepts that are important to distinguish. Stress is generally a response to an external cause, such as workout, and tends to dissipate once the situation has been resolved. It is a reaction to a specific, tangible pressure that places demands on the body and mind.

On the other hand, anxiety is often internal, arising from a feeling of unease, such as worry or fear, that can be vague and hard to pin down. Anxiety does not always have a specific or identifiable cause, and it tends to persist beyond the stressful situations themselves. In some cases, anxiety may even occur without any obvious external stressors.

However, both stress and anxiety can result in similar physical symptoms, that can impact the overall training performance of a member as well as having an effect on their overall well-being. In other words, stress tends to be a short-term response to a specific situation, while anxiety is usually a long-term, persistent condition that may not have a direct cause.

A view of stress through psychology

Hans Selye's theory, called General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS), helps explain stress. According to GAS, our bodies react to stress in three steps:

  1. Alarm Stage: Our body sees the stress and gets ready to deal with it. This causes feelings of alertness or even fear.

  2. Resistance Stage: If the stress continues, our body tries to handle it and protect us.

  3. Exhaustion Stage: If the stress lasts too long, our body becomes tired, and we may get sick or feel extremely tired.

This theory is not only applicable to the bigger picture of our daily lives, but it can also be applied to the micro-level including completing a workout.

  1. Alarm Stage: The athlete begins their workout, a high-intensity functional training that places significant demands on the body. The body recognises this strenuous activity as stress and prepares for a fight-or-flight response. Adrenaline surges through the body to enhance the performance, heart rate increases, muscles tense, and the athlete might feel a heightened state of alertness, ready to tackle the workout.

  2. Resistance Stage: As the workout continues, the body tries to find a way to cope with the stressor, i.e., the ongoing intense workout. Heart rate and breathing start to regulate, and the body begins to use its resources (like stored glucose and fats) more efficiently to fuel the muscles. During this stage, the athlete might feel a short-lived boost in performance and endurance as their body fights to maintain homeostasis (when all the biological processes are balanced).

  3. Exhaustion Stage: If the workout is too long or too intense without appropriate rest or nourishment, the body's resources may become depleted, leading to exhaustion. The athlete may experience symptoms like extreme fatigue, decreased performance, slow recovery, a weakened immune system, and even injuries. This stage is akin to overtraining in the fitness world, and it's a sign that the athlete needs rest and recovery.

How to Help Athletes Manage Stress

Obviously a certain amount of stress is useful, if not desired. However we do not wish our members to (consistently) reach the exhaustion stage. However as coaches we can utilise several strategies to help athletes avoid reaching the exhaustion stage of Hans Selye's General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS).

Practical tips:

  • Focus on virtuosity of movement (incorrect technique can lead to unnecessary stress on the body)

  • Understand each members' ability to deal with intensity (both in general and for that day)

  • Emphasise proper nutrition and hydration (both pre- and post-workout) as well as rest and recovery

  • Promote the importance of balancing "practice, training and competing" in your members' approach to training

  • Regularly check in with members and monitor for signs of overtraining

A view of anxiety through psychology

The Uncertainty Theory helps explain anxiety. This theory says that not knowing what will happen next can make us feel anxious. Members might feel this way before a tough workout or when they doubt they can reach a fitness goal. Remembering this theory can help us understand why the unknown parts of CrossFit can make athletes anxious.

How to Help Athletes Manage Anxiety

Creating a Friendly Environment:

According to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, people need to feel like they belong somewhere. Try to make your gym a friendly, supportive place. This can help members feel safe and less uncertain, and therefore less anxious.

Practical tips:

  • Use athletes' names

  • Celebrating their successes

  • Facilitate group activities

Mindful Training:

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) says that being mindful helps reduce stress. During training, remind athletes to focus on their breath, movement, and body. Not only can it help lower their heart rate but it can help them stay in the moment and feel less anxious.

Practical tips:

  • Discuss when to breath during a movement

  • Actively coach members on breathing during workouts

  • Some members may be " allergic" for mindfulness so do not call it that :)

Setting Goals:

The Goal Setting Theory says that clear goals help improve motivation and reduce anxiety. Help athletes set SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound) goals. Make time for regular check-ins and check-out to see how they are progressing towards their goals.

Practical tips:

  • start with setting a goal for that training

  • to reduce anxiety and stress, goals should be execution focused (e.g. three sets, breathing correctly) and not performance focused (e.g. max weight, fastest time)

  • during the workout keep the member focused on that goal

The power to manage stress and anxiety

Being a coach means more than just training athletes physically. It's about supporting their mental health and overall well-being. By using psychology, we can understand and help members manage stress and anxiety. So let's put this knowledge into action and continue to inspire our community to reach new heights!

Supporting all aspects of coaching

At Virtuous Coach Development, we're committed to addressing all facets of coach development, and understanding stress and anxiety is just as crucial as any other aspect of coaching. Whether it's at the affiliate, team, or individual level with our support, expertise, and experience, you'll acquire the tailor-made knowledge and skills essential to elevate your coaching game (or that of your team).

Feel free to schedule a call to have a chat over coffee (or whatever you want!) about your affiliate, team, or your own coaching.


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