Want to know how great athletes like Michael Jordan handle their stress?

Bob Beamon on his way to an Olympic record that would last for two decades.

Stress can ruin your performance and it can also enhance your performance. There are athletes like Yankee Second Baseman Chuck Knoblauch, who one day discovered he couldn’t throw a baseball accurately from second base to first base (the shortest distance a player has to throw a baseball) and ultimately had to quit the game because of it. And then you have people like long jumper Bob Beamon who famously broke the Olympic long jumping record in Mexico City in 1968, not by inches, as is usually the case, but by two feet.

Each of these two men were great athletes, no question. Bob Beamon had been breaking track records since high school. Chuck Knoblauch had been a superstar at his previous (small market) team, The Minnesota Twins, which was why he was so coveted by the Yankees. But the stress of being on “a big stage” - for Knoblauch it was New York City and for Beamon it was the Olympics in Mexico City - would radically change their performances. One in a positive direction and the other in a negative direction.

Think of stress as energy. Great athletes learn to harness this energy and lesser athletes get harnessed by it. As a life-long Yankee fan, it was painful to watch certain formerly great players who ended up on the Yankees, and then did terribly (or were just mediocre). Other players flourished under the spotlight of the New York media. People like Reggie Jackson, whose nickname was “Mr. October,” played better in high pressure situations and people like Dave Winfield, who Yankee owner George Steinbrenner famously nick-named “Mr. May,” didn’t play as well.

And why do some players, like basketball’s Michael Jordan and Yankee reliever Mariano Rivera play their greatest games under stress? For Mariano, when he stepped out on the mound, it was ALWAYS a high pressure situation and yet you could plainly see just how calm he was whenever he came into the game. And it didn’t seem to matter whether it was the second game of the regular season or the final game of the World Series. Michael Jordan always played well during the regular season but just seemed to be unbeatable in the post season. And these are two players really interesting athletes to compare in terms of how they seemed to deal with stress.

Mariano Rivera: Generally considered the greatest relief pitcher in baseball history.

Everyone, all his teammates, anyone who has ever met Mariano Rivera, (his nickname is Mo) say he is a modest, humble and kind man. He also had a deep belief in God. I once heard him remark in an interview that he didn’t really worry that much when he came into a big game. His belief was he would do the best he could and God would be there for him during the game after it was over, no matter what the outcome (good or bad).

Michael Jordan shows off his championship rings.

Michael Jordan seemed to deal with his stress differently. I remember him being asked by a journalist: You know those times when you throw up a shot and as soon as it leaves your hands you realize the ball is going to miss? Does that ever happen to you?

I knew exactly what this journalist was talking about so I fully expected Jordan to say, that at least once in while, it happened to him too. But his answer was emphatic: “No I NEVER feel that way. Every time the ball leaves my fingers I ALWAYS believe that it is going through the hoop.” Jordan had a level of confidence in his own abilities that was beyond belief.

Hans Selye: He coined the terms good stress and bad stress.

Hans Selye is the Canadian Scientist who coined the terms good stress (eustress) and bad stress (distress). And a simple way to look at the question of how stress affects sports performance is to consider this dichotomy between good and bad stress. For an athlete who achieves greatness - he or she takes the same sensations that everyone else is feeling (anxiety, tension, butterflies, etc.) and coverts those sensations into a heightened state where they have more energy, better concentration and increased confidence. Thus, they experience these feelings as good stress.

For lesser athletes, it’s a different story. The pressure of the situation crushes them and they experience bad stress. As Dr. Selye himself, once said about stress: “It’s not so much what happens to you but how you take it.” Both Michael Jordan and Mariano Rivera took (and probably still take) their stress differently - not only from lesser athletes who might be broken by it - but from each other too. Rivera handled his stress with an unwavering belief in God and Jordan handled his stress with an unwavering belief in himself.

James Porter is president of StressStop.com and author of the book Stop Stress This Minute.

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