January 17, 2021

Reframing Stress For Athletic Success


As coaches, we spend a lot of our time encouraging our athletes to balance stress or avoid stress. But, emerging research shows that total aversion to stress isn’t as productive as originally thought. Previous research emphasized the detrimental effects of chronic stress that lead to negative health outcomes.

But, newer studies may confirm what elite athletes and successful people have known for a long time, that our view of stress, the ways we react to it, and what we believe, might actually make the difference between whether that stress kills us or helps us grow. 


Don’t fall apart in the face of stress or adversity, lean into it. The next time you’re confronted with a difficult situation at work, with a partner, in your training, instead of succumbing to that challenge by beating yourself up with negative self-talk or quitting, take a step back and a deep breath. Consciously reframe your mindset by telling yourself “this stress is good for me, it helps me grow” and “I am capable of handling this difficult situation. I’ve done hard things before and I can do them again.”

The reason we want to reframe our self-talk during these moments is that our stress mindset dictates whether that stress will be used for growth or not. Our mindset in those acutely stressful moments literally determines whether that stress will have negative health effects or not. Sure, leaning into challenging and stressful moments is easier said than done, but practicing responding to those moments as if stress is your friend, not your enemy is critical.

As humans, we can not avoid stress in all areas of our lives, especially if we want to grow, push ourselves and see where our potential lies. The stress paradox is challenging. Without stress, we can’t grow. However, without the proper mindset around stress, we can’t grow either and are more likely to suffer from negative health outcomes. The good news is our lives offer tons of experiences where we can practice our reframing and self-talk skills and this skill is learned and refined over time.


The world’s best trail runners, athletes and successful people maximize performance by viewing any stress-arousal they experience as a positive sign that their bodies are preparing for something they care deeply about. High achievers don’t perceive “good” stress or “bad” stress, they’re just aware of what they’re feeling in the moment. They use those sensations as a sign that their body is preparing for something important. That it’s getting ready for action. 

Before big races, I often have stress manifest as a nauseous feeling in my chest and abdomen. Over time, I’ve stopped battling that feeling and have started using it as a cue that my body is preparing for the demands of the event to come. I’ve come to expect that feeling and use it as a sign to start my positive self-talk routine and pre-race affirmations/visualize. I couple this routine with long and deep yoga breaths for around 2-5 minutes before the start of the race. By the time the gun goes off, I’m usually in a more relaxed, but heighted place of awareness that allows me to execute my race from the first stride.

Science now shows  that positively re-framing signs of stress arousal is a good thing. It increases cardiac efficiency and lowers vascular resistance by keeping the blood vessels open and relaxed. Vital performance enhancers for athletes.

Next time you feel your sympathetic nervous system revving up, or some of the tell-tale signs of a stress response coming on as the result of an adverse situation, remind yourself that stress happens when something we care about is at stake. It sharpens our senses to make us more aware of ourselves and surroundings. These physiological responses are all positive performance enhancers that prepare us for action and can be used to our advantage through some of the reframing practices mentioned above. 


How you think about stress matters. When you change your perception of stress, you change your body’s response to it. What we tell ourselves about how we respond is as important as the response itself. The stories we tell ourselves make the biggest difference, so when addressing stressful moments in your life, lean into them, pump yourself up with positive self-talk, and take a few moments afterwards to reflect on the experience. Bank those experiences in your self-belief library to draw from again in the future. Know that whenever you feel overwhelmed, it’s OK to fall back on things like rest, meditation, working with a therapist, talking with a loved one, or any number of those tools. But, it can also be beneficial to accept stress and use it because growth is a derivative of the stress that comes from challenging moments.


Kelly McGonigal, PhD Stanford University


Reappraisal Improves Cardiovascular and Cognitive Responses to Stress:


Improving Acute Stress Response:


Optimize Stress: 


Reappraise Stress Arousal:


Rethink Butterflies: