April is Stress Awareness Month, during which discussions around the causes of and cures for stress are encouraged.
We know that elite athletes are far from immune from struggling with stress at various points in their careers, with the pressures of being able to consistently perform on the highest level having the potential to overwhelm.
Here, Commonwealth judo champion and BAC ambassador, Nekoda Smythe-Davis, shares the stress management techniques which she has refined during the decade she has spent in elite sport.
“When you’re in this elite sport bubble, it can be all-consuming. It’s often the first thing you think about when you wake up, and the last thing you think about at night.
“Speaking from my own experience though, the times when I feel I’ve had the best balance are when I’ve had something else to focus on outside of my sport.
“For example, there was a time in which I spent a lot of time going into judo clubs around the country teaching masterclasses. While this was still an activity associated with judo, it was a really refreshing break to step into a different environment, to help and inspire others, and to get a little bit of perspective.
“I would 100% say that having something else away from elite sport is crucial to finding that perfect mental balance, which is so important for sport. Particularly in judo, I’ve always said that it can be 70/80% mentality, and success can often depend on how mentally well prepared you are.”
“If you’re burnt out, if your stress bucket is full and you’ve just been going through the motions for a while, without getting that rest or that break, you will lose that excitement and desire to showcase your best performance.
“It’s so important that you’re able to step away and re-charge those batteries: see your friends and family, do what everyone else does when they finish their working week – do something fun.
“It’s key to build this into your schedule. You always tend to feel a bit guilty as an athlete if you go out with friends or maybe get some food that isn’t super healthy, but if you plan those occasions into your schedule at a time that works, it’s completely what you need. It’s what you need to miss your sport, to feel ready to go back, and to build motivation for the next training block or competition.”
“I think this is particularly key post-competition. There have been times in the past when I’ve regretted not taking some weeks off after a major event, both to actually acknowledge and celebrate my own achievements, but to also mentally re-charge.
“On each of those occasions, when I went straight back into training I would be burning out quickly. It’s so important to step away once you’ve achieved something, because if not, all the goals and all the work will start to blend into one, and you’ll inevitably find yourself not able to give as much towards your next goal, at which point both your performance and your mood will begin to diminish.”
“Having the confidence to know that you can and should step away from time to time definitely comes with experience, so I know that newer athletes on the World Class Programme may find the benefits of this harder to relate to.
“To them, the two pieces of advice I’d give in terms of managing stress would be to take the opportunity to rest, and set yourself small, achievable goals week by week.
“Particularly if you’ve moved to a new area for your sport, the temptation might be to drive home to see family and friends every weekend, but I would definitely advise using your days off to rest when you can.
“I’d also tell new athletes to look ahead at their schedule, and set themselves tangible goals for the week ahead. Things can get busy and overwhelming, so to avoid coming to the end of the week thinking that you’ve not managed to achieve too much, have a clear goal in your mind that you can tick off, and move to the next week in a positive frame of mind.”