Mental health is a hot topic these days, and for good reason! According to the American Institute of Stress, about 33 percent of people report feeling extreme stress; 77 percent of people experience stress that affects their physical health and 73 percent of people have stress that impacts their mental health. 

Imagine that you’re stressed out about a situation at work or at home. You’re constantly thinking about the problem, possibly losing sleep, and feeling unable to concentrate on anything else. In the meantime, you’ve got an athletic event coming up.

You’re still going to training, but you find it hard to ‘keep your head in the game’ and you feel exhausted. Come game day, your performance isn’t your best. What started as an event at work or at home, turned into a mental stressor, which impacted your athletic performance. While this chain of events is common, it doesn’t have to be your norm.

Taking steps to improve your mindfulness can help reduce stress and improve your athletic performance, no matter what happens outside the gym or the field.

For more recovery and stress reduction techniques, check out NASM’s Certified Wellness Coach course.


To successfully manage stress, it’s important to first understand what stress is, where it comes from, and how it impacts your athletic performance. A stressor is any stimulus or situation that causes a deflection from homeostatic balance. Moderate amounts of stress can help enhance your performance and boost your immunity, while too much pressure can have the opposite effect.

Stress can be mental or physical, and it can be considered good stress (known as eustress) or bad stress (known as distress). Eustress encourages us to make a positive change or push toward a goal, while distress can hold us in place or back us mentally and/or physically. 

What is considered good or bad stress can vary from person to person based on our personal experience of an event. A coach yelling in your face might cause one athlete to shut down, but your teammate might experience the same event and find that it inspires them to perform better. Everyone is different! It’s important to note that every workout produces stress on the body and that stress is needed to improve athletic performance.

However, if the workout is too strenuous or causes injury, the stimulus that was meant to be eustress becomes distressed. Identifying sources of eustress and distress is personal and worth exploring on your own so that you can become more aware of what you personally need to thrive in your sport and in life. 


In general, when discussing stress, most people are referring to what would be called psychological or mental stress. So, how does mental distress impact athletic performance? When you experience any type of distress, your homeostatic balance is thrown off, and your body will respond quickly to restore balance. Whether you’re experiencing mental stress (like standing on the mound preparing to throw the pitch that could determine the outcome of the game), or physical stress (like running from a hungry bear), your body will respond in the exact same way.

Your mind sends a signal to your body that says, “Danger!”, and in both cases, the sympathetic nervous system is activated, and your body goes into what’s called “fight or flight” to protect itself from the perceived danger. Heart rate and respiration increase, blood flows rapidly toward the body’s vital organs, and digestion and reproduction are put on “pause” so that all energy can go toward escaping potential danger.

This response helps us flee a life-threatening situation with everything we’ve got! This is fantastic if you’re in physical danger, but if the source of stress is mental, then it might make it harder to perform the task at hand. If distress happens occasionally, your body will return to homeostasis, and you will bounce back with no problem. However, if you experience chronic mental distress, this can increase your susceptibility to illness and injury (Lopes Dos Santos, et. al. 2020). 

Stressors are unavoidable in life, but the good news is that you can train yourself to better respond to the stressors that come your way on a day-to-day basis. If what begins as a mental threat manifests itself in a physical response, then learning how to better navigate mental stressors can help you lessen the negative physical impact that these stressors have. Practicing mindfulness is one way that you can do this.


Mindfulness describes a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. A meta-analysis of 209 studies on mindfulness-based therapy shows that incorporating a daily mindfulness practice can help you to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression (Khoury, B., et. al. 2013).

For athletes, this can have major implications. Sports psychologists use the phrase “functional athletic behavior” to describe an athlete’s ability to perform at their physical peak while maintaining the ability to focus on the immediate performance cues, like being able to focus on and hit or kick the ball at peak performance (Röthlin, P., et. al. 2016).

While there are a limited number of studies on the effects of mindfulness interventions on athletic performance, the preliminary findings suggest that regular, daily mindfulness practice may promote improved performance (Röthlin, P., et. al. 2016). 


Read through the following stress reduction and mindfulness techniques and try the one that looks the most appealing to you. Try one of these techniques first thing in the morning, before practice, or any other time that works best for you.

• Nature walks. A 2022 study on nature walks shows that a one-hour walk in nature can reduce stress (Sudimac, S., Sale, V., & Kuhn, S. 2022). Even if you don’t have a full hour, getting outside can help you get your mind off what’s stressing you.

• Breathing exercises. Breathing exercises will help you narrow your attentional focus and promote convergent thinking (or the ability to reach one well-defined solution to a problem). Give this one a try! Inhale while counting to 7, exhale while counting to 7; inhale while counting to 6, exhale while counting to 6, and continue from 7 to 1. If you lose count or get distracted, begin again at 7. Repeat several times.

• Meditation. Look at meditation as spring cleaning for your mind. Meditation involves focusing your thoughts, and there are many ways to practice it. Active meditation develops your capacity to become mindfully aware of your internal experience (thoughts, feelings, and body sensations) and external experience (what you see, hear, feel, smell, or taste) while you are performing an activity. 

• Self-myofascial release and stretching. Foam rolling and stretching are recovery techniques that can help reduce the impact that stress can have on your muscles by helping overactive muscles to relax and lengthen for improved performance.

Like all new behaviors, developing a consistent mindfulness practice takes time, but it is well worth the effort. 


Stress reduction and mindfulness are not just reserved for athletes. Everyone deals with stressors daily, so there’s good reason to adopt these practices to experience better physical and mental well-being.

Outside of the gym, the benefits of reduced stress and improved mindfulness may look like an ability to better concentrate on the task at hand, an ability to be more present with friends and family, improved physical health, and the ability to cope with stressful events without being completely derailed mentally or physically. 


Stressors may be unavoidable, but they are certainly not unmanageable. With regular, daily practice of mindfulness and stress reduction techniques to balance out your training, you can overcome life’s most stressful events while maintaining peak athletic performance.

For more recovery and stress reduction techniques, check out NASM’s Certified Wellness Coach course.


Khoury, B., et. al. (2013). Mindfulness-based therapy: A comprehensive meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review, 33(6), pp. 763-771.  

Lopes Dos Santos, M. et. al. (2020). Stress in academic and athletic performance in collegiate athletes: A narrative review of sources and monitoring strategies. Frontiers in Sports and Active Living, 2.

NASM Certified Wellness Coach Course 

Röthlin, P., et al. (2016). Psychological skills training and a mindfulness-based intervention to enhance functional athletic performance: design of a randomized controlled trial using ambulatory assessment. BMC Psychol 4(39). 

Sudimac, S., Sale, V., & Kuhn, S. (2022). How nature nurtures: Amygdala activity decreases as a result of a one-hour walk in nature. Molecular Psychiatry, 27. 4446-4452. 

The American Institute of Stress. (n.d.). What is stress?



Kinsey Mahaffey, MPH, is a Houston-based fitness educator, personal trainer and health coach. She developed her commitment to lifelong fitness while playing Division I volleyball. She’s passionate about helping others cultivate a healthy lifestyle and enjoys educating other fitness professionals who share this vision. She’s a Master Instructor and Master Trainer for NASM. You can follow her on LinkedIn here.