Does Stress Make You Better?

You get better because you adapt to stress.

You lift weights that create microtears in your muscles and then they heal stronger than before.

You sit, clueless and scared, in the driver seat of a car for the first time with your heart pounding out of your chest as you struggle to master the clutch, the stick shift and the narrowing road while tuning out the yammering of your dad’s instructions in your ear.

One day, you get in the car and just drive away.

This is the basis of athletic training, of course. You push yourself to failure in practice so that your matches are easy when the pressure is on. Coaches continually tweak your training program to add new challenges and stresses for your body to adjust to. They can track your progress in your sprint times, amount of weight lifted, your VO2 max – there is a staggering number of parameters that can be analyzed.

But it’s harder to train and measure the mental side of sport.

In The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First , Jonah Keri, describes the unconventional training techniques of Joe Maddon, the manager of the Tampa Bay Rays.

Later in his career, Maddon latched on to newer devices, wielding them with the confidence and enthusiasm of a tech-savvy teenager. He became one of the earliest adopters of customized small-ball pitching machines. If hitters could track a tennis ball going up to 140 mph, the idea went, they’d have an easier time following a 90 mph baseball in game situations. He set the machines to lower heights so as to challenge hitters’ plane of vision. More challenging still, he began marking tennis balls with red and black marks. If hitters could call out “red” or “black” on high-speed pitches, they might gain a better approach to hitting that could yield better pitch selection, more favorable hitters’ counts, and more chances to drive the ball to all fields. Years later, star Rays third baseman Evan Longoria would prove to be a whiz at this exercise, amazing onlookers with his ability to call out pitches on their way to the plate. Did his incredible natural batting eye make Longoria a superstar hitter, or did the machines hone his pitch selection? Mostly the former – but Maddon liked to think a little of the latter too.

This technique is pushing the hitter’s brain to its limits, over and over. When the hitter is able to call out the right color dot for the pitch, Maddon adjusts the difficulty until the hitter struggles to succeed. He keeps pushing the athlete’s brain to adjust to the stress.

It’s a bit primitive but it sounds like lifting weights for the brain, doesn’t it?

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7 comments On Does Stress Make You Better?

  • Any thoughts about Rory McIlroy’s recent collapse at the Masters? What might you have advised him if you were on the bag when the wheels were coming off? What might you advise him now if he asked for mental help moving forward?

    • Young guy, playing at a world-class level on a huge stage, heading for an epic win only to falter when the finish line is in sight; you see this a lot. Not just in golf, but in many other sports. Some unknown pushes the top player to the brink of defeat but then self-destructs on a key shot or play and settles for a close loss.
      So, a couple thoughts:

      1. McIlroy allowed thoughts of winning into his brain.
      Eighteen holes to go and he wins the Masters. The media has been all over him since the first round. He’s about to achieve a childhood dream. He knows his life will be different. Unfortunately, this isn’t the mental state that produced his high level of play in the first three rounds. Back then, his conscious, thinking brain was quiet and he was trusting his game: planning out his goal, picking his target and then letting his well-practiced swing bring the ball there. In the final round, the stakes were higher – he could actually win this. There is fear and stress now. This sets off a chain of physical events in his brain and body: amygdala sensing the threat, adrenal glands getting him ready to fight or run. His conscious brain wanted to take over control. Just to make sure that everything goes OK.

      2. He didn’t quite believe the story that he could win
      All of us, athletes included, deal with the world through our own personal lens, a cognitive map. It’s how we explain the chaos of everyday life to ourselves so it logically makes sense. Breakthrough wins are difficult because this isn’t part of the map, you don’t believe that it’s possible. So when you get close, the brain works hard to maintain your current belief system and makes sure your map is still valid. Winning the Masters is off the map for McIlroy; winning would force the brain to redraw the map, rescript who he was. By coming close and losing, his brain “wins” – the map is intact

      Moving forward, this tournament could be a very good thing for McIlroy. He was clearly playing well enough to win the Masters so that belief is a reasonable one for him to internalize. It’s a fine line at that level of sport, any hesitation or doubt is enough to push your game off. So techniques for keeping doubt at bay are key. Focus on what you can control: your preparation, your pre-shot rituals which trigger the brain programming and remind you that you are in control, your focus on a precise target. All other thoughts, of the future: the result of this shot or winning the tournament; of the past: a missed putt, a bad strategy on the last hole, can be allowed to pass. The goal is to maintain an optimal brain state and narrowing the focus to the present keeps potential frustrating and anxious thoughts from triggering that physical chain of events that cause collapses on the back nine.

  • Hello Steve,

    What practical peak performance ideas do you have or most like for pain management/dealing with discomfort for endurance athletes (marathon, triathlon, etc.)?


    • Hi Mark,

      I’ve been thinking about your question for a while. I’m fascinated by the neurological fundamentals of performance; dealing with pain, discomfort, exhaustion and the cognitive challenge of being so far behind you start to wonder what’s the point of continuing.

      In endurance competition, your physical capability plays a significant role: your body is either capable of performing at a level to compete, or it isn’t. But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that at the elite level, all things are approximately equal: each competitor has the same physical endurance capacity (I know, this is not true, but to simplify…)

      The athletes who will pull out to the front are those who can endure the most pain and discomfort.

      When all of us compete, we have a quiet question that is constantly whispering in our heads: Is it worth it to keep going? Do the potential rewards of continuing, possibly winning, outweigh the relief of stopping and ending the pain?

      An even deeper, more fundamental question is: Will I harm myself or even die if I keep pushing?

      Tim Noakes proposed the Central Governor theory in the last decade. The brain has built-in monitors for over-exertion that will keep the athlete from approaching the breakdown point in oxygen depletion, muscle rupture and a number of other fail points. So this theory assures the athlete that he or she cannot consciously and by force of will override the body’s warning signals. The body will shut down to protect itself.

      If this is true, then the success of the athlete depends on their tolerance of pain and discomfort. The one who has trained their mind to endure more, that is, push themselves closest to the body’s governed limit will prevail.

      You asked for practical ideas for pain management/dealing with discomfort. I fear that I’ve just started to answer your question. More research on my part….

      Check out

      This is a great resource for endurance sport. The two authors are athletes and PhDs in sports science.

  • Sweet. I will check out that resource you mentioned.

    How about recovery from a serious injury? Must be a common mental challenge for elite athletes!

    Are you currently providing sport psych services for athletes? You have a lot of good ideas.

    • Coming back from a serious injury, you’re a long way from fully trusting your body. The injury is there, you’re thinking about it as you play your way back to fitness. You’re wondering if it’s healed enough to try it out. You want to push it a bit harder, but not too hard, for fear of re-injuring yourself.

      This whole process happens in your conscious brain. If you stop thinking about it, you let go of control and you just can’t do that. It’s way too soon. You think you’ll never be able to go full speed.

      The trick is to offer your conscious brain enough evidence that all is well. Small, incremental increases in stress that don’t trigger pain create a pattern of success that increase your brain’s confidence that it can eventually let go of control. But until it does let go, it will make sure that injury is well protected with tightness in the muscles, ligaments, tendons and whatever else it has to do to make sure you don’t do something crazy.

      The goal, of course is to get back to full speed WITHOUT your conscious brain constantly asking: Is it okay? What if I do this? How about now? With enough repetitions, the conscious actions will again descend into the subconscious and your brain will trust the healed body part again.

      It’s not so different from learning a new skill. You are thinking so hard about your technique that it’s unnatural and awkward. Over time, you refine the skill, it feels easier, automatic and you can execute without thinking. You’ve rewired your brain and you’re back on the field.

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