It goes without saying that athletes need to be in excellent physical condition to be competitive, but their mental fitness is also important and also perhaps trickier to achieve.

Competing is stressful; there is generally a lot on the line. It is no surprise, therefore, that 38 percent of women and 22 percent of men in sports report feeling stressed out, according to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).

Stress has a notable negative effect on an athlete’s performance, as reported in the findings of a study conducted during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which took place during the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Even the best professional athletes are negatively influenced by psychological stress, despite being generally well trained to cope with pressure.

The study measured the heart rates of world-class archers as they took aim at the Olympic gold. Yunfeng Lu of Nanjing University in China and Songfa Zhong of the National University of Singapore and New York University Abu Dhabi came to the athletic performance-stress connection after looking at the competitors’ heart rates while they prepared to take their shots.

Olympic archery includes several different types of competitions, from individual to team-based, but for this study Lu and Zhong concentrated on within-gender individual competition. During the events, the heart rates of 122 male and female archers were broadcast as they took a total of 2,247 shots. In order to measure their heartrates, the World Archery Federation collaborated with Panasonic and used high-frame rate cameras that were designed to detect skin reflectance (the quantitative measure of skin color) and determined an individual’s heart rate 96 percent as accurately as an electrocardiogram or pulse oximeter.

During each match, the archers shot a number of arrows at a target. There was a 20-second time limit for each shot. The archers could earn a maximum of 10 points for a bulls-eye shot, with points decreasing the further an arrow landed from the center of the target. Lu and Zhong found that those whose heart rates were higher before taking a shot consistently scored lower on those shots.

“We found that high contactless real-time heart rate is associated with poor performance,” they said, in a statement. “This suggests that even the best professional athletes are negatively influenced by psychological stress, even though they are generally well trained to cope with pressure.”

In addition to confirming the link between stress and performance in a real-life athletic setting, Lu and Zhong say that their research also demonstrates that heart rate captured by high-frame-rate-cameras can be a reliable source of biometric data. This method can be particularly helpful in situations where researchers and participants may not be able to meet in person, such as during a pandemic.

Although some degree of anxiety during a competition is universal and to be expected, as this study shows, high levels of stress can lead to negative outcomes. Here are some ways to keep stress under control:

  • Try mindful diaphragmatic breathing. Feel your belly expand with a full inhalation and relax with exhalation.
  • Tune into your body and assume a relaxed healthy posture. You might envision your spine as an upright pole, your shoulders as the hanger and the muscles of your arms loose like a shirt.
  • Use positive self-talk such as, “I’m prepared!” “I’ve got this!”

The study is published in Psychological Science.