New research explores how elite athletes can better manage stress

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A new study investigated the relationship between elite sports and stress and how mindfulness can help high performing athletes.

The study, published in the journal Perceptual and Motor Skills, was conducted by researchers at the University of South Australia (UniSA). The study’s authors found that dispositional mindfulness, defined as a keen awareness and attention to thoughts and feelings in the present moment, can significantly reduce and protect athletes from stress.

Researchers engaged a group of elite athletes and evaluated the relationship between mindfulness, executive functioning, and psychological stress. They found that the athletes who demonstrated greater mindfulness had lower levels of stress. The relationship was observed at two timepoints: immediately after the initial COVID-19 related shutdown of sports in South Australia and approximately six months later, at the end of the athletes’ competitive season.

“When you’re an elite athlete, staying top of your game also means keeping your stress levels in check, but time and time again we hear about athletes struggling with psychological stress,” said Ed O’Connor, lead researcher and UniSA Phd candidate in a statement. “Athletes have concerning rates of mental health issues - including depression and anxiety - with the pandemic only adding to their mental health burden. Our research explored this with elite footballers, finding that athletes who were able to stay present and calm in the moment reported far lower levels of stress. If mindfulness can equip athletes to better cope with unexpected change and uncertainty it could be a very beneficial intervention to minimize potential stress.”

O’Connor said researchers are only at the start of understanding how stress can manifest and affect athletes.

“More research is needed, but as this study identified that mindfulness may protect athletes from stress, cognitive training interventions may equip athletes with greater mindfulness and stronger mental resilience, then this is a path absolutely worth investigating.”