Stress can ruin your performance and it can also enhance your performance. There are athletes like Yankee Second Baseman Chuck Knoblauch, who one day discovered he couldn’t throw a ball accurately from second base to first base (the shortest distance a player has to throw a ball in baseball) and ultimately had to quit the game because of it. And then you have people like long jumper Bob Beamon who famously broke the long jumping record in Mexico City in 1968, not by inches, as is usually the case, but by two feet.
Each of these two men were great athletes, no question. Bob Beamon had been breaking track records since high school. Chuck Knoblauch had been a superstar at his previous (small market) team, The Minnesota Twins, which was why he was so coveted by the Yankees. But the stress of being on “a big stage” - for Knoblauch it was New York City and for Beamon it was Mexico City - radically changed their performances. One in a positive direction and the other in a negative direction.
Think of stress as energy. Great athletes learn to harness this energy and lesser athletes get harnessed by it. As a life-long Yankee fan, it was painful to watch certain great players who ended up on the Yankees, and then did terribly (or were just mediocre) once they started playing in New York while other players flourished under the spotlight of the New York media. People like Reggie Jackson, whose nickname was “Mr. October,” played better in high pressure situations and people like Dave Winfield, who Yankee Owner George Steinbrenner famously nick-named “Mr. May,” didn’t play as well.
And why do some players, like basketball’s Michael Jordan and Yankee reliever Mariano Rivera play their greatest games under stress? For Mariano, when he stepped out on the mound, it was always a high pressure situation. He was trying to save the game for the Yankees. And having shattered every record in the books, sports writers everywhere say that no one ever has done this better. And these are two really interesting athletes to compare.
Everyone, all his teammates, anyone who has ever met Mariano Rivera, (his nickname is Mo) say he is a modest, humble and kind man. He also had a deep belief in God. He said in an interview that he didn’t really worry that much when he came into a big game. His belief was he would do the best he could and God would be there for him after the game was over, no matter what the outcome (good or bad).
Michael Jordan seemed to deal with his stress differently. I remember him being asked by a journalist: You know those times when you throw up a shot and as soon as it leaves your hands you know the ball is going to miss? Does that ever happen to you?
I knew exactly what this guy was talking about so I fully expected Jordan to say, that at least once in while, it would happen to him too. But his answer was emphatic: “No, I never feel that way. Every time the ball leaves my fingers I always believe that it is going through the hoop.” Jordan had a level of confidence in his own abilities that was beyond belief.
Hans Selye is the Canadian Scientist who coined the terms good stress (eustress) and bad stress (distress). A simple way to look at this question of how stress affects sports performance is to consider this dichotomy between good and bad stress. For an athlete who achieves greatness - he or she takes the same sensations that everyone else is feeling (anxiety, tension, butterflies, etc.) and coverts that into a heightened state where they have more energy, better concentration and increased confidence. Thus, they experience these feelings as good stress.
For lesser athletes, it’s a different story. The pressure of the situation crushes them and they experience bad stress. As Dr. Selye himself, once said about stress: “It’s not so much what happens to you but how you take it.” Both Michael Jordan and Mariano Rivera took (and probably still take) their stress differently - not only from lesser athletes who might be broken by it - but from each other too. Rivera handled his stress with an unwavering belief in God and Jordan handled his stress with an unwavering belief in himself.
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