Harnessing positive stress: Lessons from the England football team

The latest research into stress shows that positive stress can be trained and developed in individuals

As the England team recently lined up for penalty after penalty, the nation was on tenterhooks. Many also had a familiar feeling of dread; the words 'England' and 'penalty shoot-outs' don't together have great connotations. No-one is more aware of that than England manager Gareth Southgate. He no doubt still carries the memory of his failed penalty-taking experience in 1996.

Yet this time it was a very different story, with England earning a place in the quarter- and semi-finals rather than going home defeated. A very large part of this is down to how the team has been trained to handle stressful situations – in particular the high-stress scenario of penalties.

The term 'stress' is commonly used and discussed. But there is still much confusion from professionals and individuals alike as to what it really is, what causes it, and how it can be mitigated. Stress is almost always seen as a negative thing. And while it certainly can be this is not always the case; stress can also be positive.

There is no official definition of stress, but a growing volume of multi-disciplinary research has focused on three perspectives:

  • What kind of stress causes harm to the mind and body
  • Which triggers cause harmful stress
  • Individual differences in resilience to harmful stress.

The accumulated key conclusions from this research are:

1) The same triggers or challenging events may create opposite effects in different individuals i.e. harmful effects in some and beneficial in others. The decisive factor is how our minds perceive the potential challenge. If it is seen as a threat then it may cause harm. But if it is perceived as a challenge that can be overcome, then this will have a beneficial effect on the body and mind.

2) This type of 'positive stress' is also called the 'challenge response' as opposed to the 'harmful threat response'. The two types of responses have different hormonal profiles that can be measured by analytical biochemistry.

3) The challenge response is often observed in professional people with demanding jobs – such as pilots, surgeons, athletes, etc. – and science importantly shows improved skill to overcome the challenges successfully compared to people who do not show this response.

Being able to harness a positive stress response is obviously hugely useful, not just in the world of sport but across all areas of life including the workplace. The latest research into stress shows that positive stress can be trained and developed in individuals.

Training the positive stress response

The basic principle of training and improving the positive stress response is to challenge yourself in areas where you are vulnerable. Performing tasks in these areas may also impose unpleasant mental reactions because it may remind you about earlier 'social defeats' where you could not perform to the standard required. You may also have a history of giving up or lack of self-control in the areas you want to improve.

A typical programme to improve a positive stress response will start with a downscaled version of the specific challenge and undertake it repeatedly until you feel confident with your own performance. This is exactly the approach Southgate has taken with the England football team. There was a time when practising penalty shoot-out scenarios was seen as a waste of time; but now the opposite is true. The England team has been dedicated in its preparation, practising and practising for a penalty situation, focusing on the process and helping to develop mental resilience.

It has certainly paid off for England and the same approach can help individuals handle stress in the workplace too.

Jorgen Folkersen is a doctor, stress expert and author of Understanding Stress – The Good, The Bad and The Hidden