Jessica Stratton - Old Saybrook (CT) High School, Class of 2019
University of Delaware graduate
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Do you feel stressed with your life as a student-athlete? My guess is yes. There are, of course, many privileges of being a student-athlete and you should appreciate what an amazing experience it can be.
But I know from personal experience, stress can sometimes deter the overall experience of competing in athletics.
The busy commitment of trying to succeed in school while also working toward an athletic goal -- every day -- is a massive challenge that we sometimes fail to recognize.
I am here to help you understand why managing stress is so important as a student-athlete, and also offer ways to do manage through it.
When I was in college at the University of Delaware, I quickly realized that trying to achieve perfection within the day-to-day was going to be an impossible task. The demands of academics and high-level athletics, combined with my own high standards, left me with massive amounts of stress and anxiety. I have become passionate about this because of the impact of stress I saw in myself physically, physiologically and emotionally, and how it took a toll on my well-being as a person and my performance as an athlete. I want people to feel like they can handle their busy schedules and maintain good mental health.
Some of the specific stressors I faced as a student-athlete that I think are a common experience: managing my time, getting enough sleep, finding enough time for myself, traveling for meets a lot of weekends and trying to keep up with schoolwork, combining a demanding major with the commitment of a sport, early morning practices and just the daily grind through an intense schedule.
I often felt like I had no time to relax. I didn't realize it much at the time, but stress most definitely had a huge impact on my performance, ability to recover and probably was a bigger contributor to my injuries than I thought. A lot of times I'd downplay a specific stressor, trying to push through with a tough "athletes" mindset, but I would forget to take into consideration the effects of all of these stressors accumulating.
After doing some research, I confirmed that stress in athletes is associated with decreased energy levels and overall sleep quality, an increase in muscle tension, physical fatigue and a decrease in neurocognitive and perception processes that can lead to physical injuries (Lopez Dos Santos et al.).
It can also create a lot of anxiety. A similar study also stated that when student-athletes perceive their responsibilities to be exceeding their capacity, the stress that causes can be detrimental to the athletes physical and mental health, as well as performance (Lopez Dos Santos et al.). This is so important to talk about because if we can learn how to relieve the burden of stress, we can unlock ways to elevate performance and mental health.
These are my tips for stress that I hope will lead to an increase in performance, an increase in happiness while balancing a challenging life, and a physically and emotionally better you.
Tip 1: You need time for yourself. This was absolutely one of the hardest things for me to do in college because of how busy my schedule was. I would wait for a free moment or time to relax and it would never come. So the key to finding time for yourself/time to relax is to be very intentional about carving that time out. And I know- it feels impossible sometimes.
Photo Credit: Raymond Tran/MileSplit
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But I promise that you can do it. It may mean an hour less of studying for a test. It may mean saying no to a plan to stay in and to instead take care of yourself. The time is there, but it comes down to what you choose to prioritize. When you put your well-being first, other aspects of your life will improve with it.
Tip 2: Take a nap when you need it instead of pushing through exhaustion. You are not lazy. You are taking care of yourself, both physically and mentally.
Even if you have 20 minutes, sneak it in. Quality-over-quantity in all aspects of your life.
Tip 3: Instead of spending eight hours studying unproductively, set a timer for three and decide that whatever you get done in that time frame is what you're going to give and that's it. You have to take care of yourself and not over do it. This is a factor in setting boundaries.
Tip 4: Find a way to slow down, even if it's small. And then be aware that you slowed down and appreciate it.
Tip 5: Find something you love outside of school and your sport. I know I used to think: "Well, I can barely handle my life now so why would I add another thing to my schedule and just stress myself out more?"
I promise you, sometimes it was near impossible to drop the things I had to do. But no matter how much I had going on, having something else that I was committed to that brought me joy always helped clear my head.
If you feel physical symptoms of stress (exhaustion, burnout, tension, etc.), pull back on exercise. Here's a reminder: as athletes, we can't always use exercise as a coping mechanism.
Tip 6: You may often hear people say they're going to go workout or run off all of their stress. As student athletes, overworking and over-exercising is not coping with our stress. Some would argue it is building up more because we don't know how to take a break. Essentially, exercise is a stressor on the body. Speak to your coach about taking an easier day and be vocal about what your needs are. It is much worse to let fatigue and stress accumulate, then to have it start impacting your ability to perform.
Tip 7: Go on a walk with empowering music! I used to find this so helpful to clear my head.
Tip 8: Try your best to create a disciplined bedtime routine and sleep schedule. It is so hard to get adequate sleep when we are busy all day and then have hours of homework at night. But sometimes we just have to accept that in the long term, sleep is going to be better for us, both mentally and physically. Personally, I started realizing that past 9 p.m. my brain was fried; I was never doing anything productive, so I'd try to make myself wrap it up around then even if I felt like I could do more. Also, having a set routine may help your brain wind down after a super busy day so you can actually fall asleep and get a good sleep.
Tip 9: Let go of perfectionism! Just because in a perfect world you could go the extra mile, doesn't always mean you should. Sometimes rest is way more beneficial.
Overall, my advice to you is to remember that you have so much more control than you think and you can set boundaries to take care of yourself.
I'll be releasing a podcast episode in the coming month on managing stress.
If that would suit you better, give it a listen on The Run on Thought Podcast available on Apple Podcasts and Spotify. :)
Lopes Dos Santos, Marcel, et al. "Stress in academic and athletic performance in collegiate athletes: A narrative review of sources and Monitoring Strategies." Frontiers in Sports and Active Living, vol. 2, 2020, https://doi.org/10.3389/fspor.2020.00042.
Jessica is a 2019 graduate of Old Saybrook (CT) High School and a recent graduate of the University of Delaware, where she was a four-year member of the cross country and track programs. In the spring of 2023, she was named on the CAA's Commissioner's Honor Roll. This is a monthly series where Jessica writes about important and wide-ranging subjects involving young and developing runners.
- How to reach for optimal performance
- How to overcome the fear of failure
- The impacts of social media on training and performance
- Tips for navigating holiday training
- The superpower you didn't know you had
- Listen to your body first and foremost
- Why fartleks are my favorite kind of runs
- Jessica Stratton: Six Tips For Helping You Stay Positive
- How mentorship has saved me
- Jessica Stratton: You Are More Than Just An Athlete
- Jessica Stratton: Building international confidence takes time. But it's important.