Key Issues in Regards to the Stress Response and Injury Prevention

“The clock is ticking. Your team has to score one goal in the next minute in order to win the grand final. Everyone on the team is feeling the tension. Your heart is racing, your vision is blurring and adrenaline is rushing through your body causing you to feel nauseous. The coach is pacing the sideline, shouting at you and your team mates on the court; the crowd is going wild. You manage to position yourself in line with the goal. You receive the ball, take the shot and miss just as the buzzer declares game over.”

Highly stressful situations are an integral part of the sporting experience and this scenario is very common in sporting competitions, especially team sports. Competitive stress can be defined as “an ongoing transaction between an individual and the environmental demands associated directly with competitive performance” (Mellalieu & Hanton, 2009). It can also be identified as positive stress (eustress) which is desired as it demonstrates appropriate responses to physical and psychological overloads compared to negative stress (distress) as it occurs due to the existence of imbalances between imposed training demands and coping capacities (Larson, 1989; Silva III, 1990).

Competitive stress affects athletes and teams at any age, skill level or career stage, therefore for optimal performance it is critical that an individual has the ability to regulate one’s own emotions throughout stressful situations during competition (Gould & Maynard, 2009).

The stress response can affect the athlete’s emotional reactions with positive or negative outcomes on their performance, daily functioning and injury rehabilitation and is influenced by personal, situational and environmental factors (Larson, 1998; Gould & Maynard, 2009; Walsh, 2011). Many studies (Andersen & Williams, 1988; Davis, 1991; Pensgaard & Ursin, 1998; Gould & Maynard, 2009) have discovered factors that initiate a stress response, how the athlete copes and prevention interventions, but there are no studies reporting any attempts to put a stop to stress in the first place via stress management or other psychological means to prevent injury which is a key issue in this area.

Earlier in this blog I discussed the stress-injury model created by Andersen & Williams (1988). This model was created to predict the occurrence of sport injury by considering certain factors such as personality characteristics, history of stressors and coping resources that an individual might have compared to others (Andersen & Williams, 1988). It also suggests interventions to prevent stress from causing injury but it does not consider strategies to manage stress during a competition or game.

According to the model, athletes that demonstrate certain personality characteristics such as hardiness and internal locus control have fewer injuries than those who are less hardy or have an external locus control (Larson, 1998).  High competitive trait anxiety is significantly related to rate and severity of injury and fear of re-injury also leads to high stress responses and increases the probability of re-injury (Andersen & Williams, 1988; Lavallee & Flint, 1996). Individuals with a low social support system, high in avoidance-focused coping were most likely to miss more time on the field due to injury and sustain more injuries than individuals with the opposite profile (Maddison & Prapavessis, 2005).

As you can see this model only just begin to open our eyes to the problem we are actually facing; managing the negative effects of stress to prevent injury. Further research needs to focus on providing guidelines for coaches specifically outlining ways to prevent the negative effects and the onset of the stress response during situations under intense pressure. These need to be practiced throughout training sessions and implemented before, during and after the game for maximum performance to be established.

Both the athlete and the coach need to be involved in generating a solution together to prevent the stress response from causing injury. Rather than only dealing with stress that’s already occurred, coaches need to search for stress management techniques that avoid stress in the first place. In a review by Gould & Maynard (2009) they could not identify a specific coping strategy but instead they discovered that athletes were using several different coping strategies often used in combination of one another that were suitable to their individual needs at the time. Although it may be difficult and complicated, it is a problem that can be solved. No one strategy is likely to be successful in all circumstances (Pensgaard & Ursin, 1998), therefore athletes and coaches need to work together to develop a variety of coping strategies that will be available to them.

By Vanessa Gaynor


  • Andersen, M.B., & Williams, J.M (1988). A Model of Stress and Athletic Injury: Prediction and Prevention. Journal Of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 10(3), 294-306.
  • Davis, J. O. (1991). Sports Injuries and Stress Management: An Opportunity for Research. Sport Psychologist, 5(2), 175-182.
  • Gould, D., & Maynard, I. (2009). Psychological preparation for the Olympic games. Journal Of Sports Sciences, 27(13), 1393-1408. doi:10.1080/02640410903081845
  • Larson, G. A. (1998). Psychosocial Variables: Predicting and Preventing Athletic Injury. Athletic Therapy Today, 3(1), 7-11.
  • Lavallee, L. L., & Flint, F. F. (1996). The relationship of stress, competitive anxiety, mood state, and social support to athletic injury. Journal Of Athletic Training, 31(4), 296-299.
  • Maddison, R., & Prapavessis, H. (2005). A Psychological Approach to the Prediction and Prevention of Athletic Injury. Journal Of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 27(3), 289.
  • Mellalieu, S. D., & Hanton, S. (2009). Advances in applied sport psychology: A review. (p. 126). USA & Canada: Routledge.
  • Pensgaard, A. M, & Ursin, H. H. (1998). Stress, control, and coping in elite athletes. Scandinavian Journal Of Medicine & Science In Sports, 8(3), 183.
  • Silva III, J. M. (1990). An analysis of the training stress syndrome in competitive athletics. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology2(1), 5-20.
  • Walsh, A.E. (2011). The Relaxation Response. A Strategy to Address Stress. International Journal Of Athletic Therapy & Training, 16(2), 20-23.

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