The Word “Stress” – Meaningless For Professional Athletes?

Meandering around the internets the other day, I came across a compelling article by Steven Reiss, an Emeritus Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at Ohio State University. It was his opening statement that caught my attention:

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Athletes and coaches should not think in terms of how a player handles “stress”.

Reiss goes on to explain that the problem with that sort of thinking is that stress is “a common consequence of unrelated causes,” which does make sense – we’re under different kinds of stresses every day. The stress we face when we try something new for the first time is different than the stress we face when we’re scrambling to put together a presentation on a limited timetable.

Reiss lists four types of stress: the stresses of competition, anticipated failure, anticipated injury and unpreparedness. It was his comments on the latter two that I found particularly interesting. First, on the stress of anticipated injury:

This kind of stress de-motivates timid athletes. It is evident in, say, a little league game where a batter is afraid of being hit by the ball. At the professional level, timidity is uncommon. The professional teams that have taken the Reiss Motivational Profile questionnaire, for example, score low for anxiety sensitivity, which means they tend to be less fearful than the general public. For the most part, top level athletes tend to be brave people.

Leaving aside the salesmanship in that paragraph (later in the article Reiss lists an impressive array of sports within which the Reiss Motivational Profile is used) Reiss confirms something I’ve always felt was logical: timidity just isn’t that prevalent at the competitive level.

I imagine that’s particularly true in hockey. Hockey culture frowns at showing fear at the prospect of pain, and players suspected of being “soft” – not just as in playing a non-physical style, but as in fearing contact – are quickly ostracized. The epithets hurled at Patrick O’Sullivan last season after HNIC analyst Mike Milbury spotted him easing up to avoid a hit were tremendous, and he’s been characterized as gutless and cowardly ever since.

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It’s a difficult stain to remove, and other facts (for instance, that O’Sullivan finished 33rd out of 580 forwards in blocked shots last season) generally don’t compensate for it. Players must take the hit, make the play, or face the fans wrath – even if they’ve been physically courageous in other areas. That’s just the way hockey culture is.

Writing about the stress of unpreparedness, Reiss noted that it could motivate or demotivate – that spontaneous athletes thrived when put on the spot, but that those who prepared carefully for games struggled when asked to perform without the benefit of that preparation. It reminded me of something that Ron Tugnutt said about Marty Turco (I can’t find the link now, but it has stuck with me) when asked about Turco’s playoff success (after two previously difficult playoff outings).

Tugnutt said that Turco used to change his pre-game routines before the playoffs, trying to get an extra edge for those incredibly important games, but that switch instead backfired and that by maintaining his regular season routine into the post-season helped the goaltender put up better performances.

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Reiss’s conclusion returned to the main point of his article:

In conclusion, it is not valid to consider how an athlete reacts to "stress." "Stress" is just a common consequence of different motives, and it is the antecedent motive, not the consequent stress, that predicts performance. An athlete might be de-motivated by the stress of losing (even quit before the game is over) but motivated by the stress of competition. Another athlete could be de-motivated by the stress of poor preparation, while the same stress could motivate a different athlete, and yet neither athlete reacts much to the stress of being in a dangerous situation.

The relevance of that point is difficult to understate. It’s also one of the problems I have when fans (and too a much lesser extent the media) start psychoanalyzing players: these things are generally more complicated than ‘X isn’t a clutch player.’

Even if we could know that some kind of psychological issue is the big problem for a particular player – and as a rule, we can’t – it could be any combination of internal and external stresses causing that problem. It’s a subject far too complex for us to form firm opinions based on the body language and facial expressions that we observe from our living rooms.

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  • Horcsky

    I like the article Jonathan, and it leaves me wondering if your last paragraph is aimed at a particular player who you felt was unfairly analyzed in this way.

    Is there a specific case of this you had in mind?

  • Horcsky

    Interesting perspective.
    Have you ever checked out the ‘Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance’? It’s a cross-discipline compendium of all the research that has been done on high level performance, including psych studies like this, sports physiology, training etc.
    Guys like you who appear to be interested in digging below the surface should enjoy.
    I’ve got a loaner copy, if you’d like to borrow.

  • Horcsky

    @JW – “Even if we could know that some kind of psychological issue is the big problem for a particular player – and as a rule, we can’t – it could be any combination of internal and external stresses causing that problem. It’s a subject far too complex for us to form firm opinions based on the body language and facial expressions that we observe from our living rooms.”

    One OIler that I always thought that you could get a good read on through his body language was Roloson, especially the year that he was acquired and took the Oil on the playoff ride. I found that he generally made one of two gestures that were consistent throughout a game, or a series of games.

    When he was ‘on’, after he was scored on (his fault or not), or made some poor play, inevitably he would be nodding his head, in a ‘yes’ gesture.

    When he was sucking, after every goal (his fault or not) he would be shaking his head in a ‘no’ gesture.

    Based upon this, you could generally tell at the beginning of the game whether he would be a game changer or goat for the duration of the game.

  • @ Gongshow:

    I should look it up. I’ve got a pretty elementary knowledge of sports psychology, and I’m definitely interested. I’ve been reading coaching biographies to try and get a better idea of how some of the top coaches treat the issue but unfortunately they’re generally disappointing in that regard.

    RE: Roloson. God he was fun to watch. I actually agree with you a bit there; he was very expressive in net.

  • As a season ticket holder who sits down low enough to see facial expression clearly during many plays I can say 2 things:

    1) 14 and 4 never, ever look stressed. 14 often looks like he could brew a nice cup of tea while taking the puck to the hole.

    2) 22 looks like a freight train is coming and he’s tied to the tracks 94.4354% of the time.


  • DDP

    Now that the NHL Christmas break is in effect, Oiler fans have some time to consider the upside and downside of the team and project where it will likely place at the end of the season.

    It seems there is consensus that it is an exciting and good team, but not good enough to compete for a playoff spot. They tease us but are in 15th place in the Western Conference and likely to stay here. There was a chance to pass the struggling Flames, but it didn’t happen and probably won’t.

    On the downside, I cringe when the 4th line is on the ice. Likewise when Strudwick and Foster are on defence. Cogliano and Brule can’t score and we may have seen the best of Jones; another three fringe NHL players on the roster.

    On the upside. the Oil seems solid in goal and has some great young guns along with a few (too few) NHL vets. I’m sure about Renney; either he is brilliant or as dumb as a sack of hammers. Why would he put the 4th line and/or Strudwick on the ice during the last minute of close games?

    Merry Xmas to all!

  • Death Metal Nightmare

    the timid comment is lame. its not that the athletes are anymore “brave” that anyone else, its because they trust the conditions theyre within from continuous enacting in the environment theyve become enskilled. this detached, internalized “ghost in the machine” of bravery is hilarious/garbage.

    i bet 10 bucks if you threw these Brave Athletes into a situation theyre unfamiliar, and untrusting with, theyd be just as timid as the “General Public”. lets make them electricians for a day where they have the potential to die and see how slow, timid and unsure they are. maybe you can find a couple Meat Heads who’d act tough about it as a mask.

    or you can look at the example of rookies, who are already trained, yet still are untrusting of the new environment and play timid. we even seen it with Taylor Hall for a while when all the Douche-Bloggers were hypothesizing about sending him back to juniors to save money.

    go “Science”

  • DDP

    Really interesting article JW. I love the regular articles on ON, but I really like articles like this that dig deeper into the game.

    Keep up the great work!

    Merry Christmas to all at ON!

  • Death Metal Nightmare

    Jonathan –

    Bottom line is we want players that step up when it matters. All the psychological definitions and disections don’t matter a lick if the tents are folded when the going gets tough.

    It is certainly important for each individual to “self examine” and figure out what makes it matter or not and decide the validity for himself. Nothing worse than someone not being able to say to them selves “I need to do better”. Sidney Crosby is currently the best player in the world because he does that better than anyone else on skates.