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IMGCA Article - The Mental Game of Stress


The Stress Of Transitions In Life And Sport

How Both Stressors Impact Your Performance

Bill Cole, MS, MA

“Disenchantment, whether it is a minor disappointment or a major shock, is the signal that things are moving into transition in our lives.”
William Bridges

“Any change, even a change for the better, is always accompanied by drawbacks and discomforts."
Arnold Bennett
“Change is the only constant.”

“Growth means change and change involves risk, stepping from the known to the unknown.”
“When you're finished changing, you're finished.”
Benjamin Franklin

All throughout the year, but every August and September in particular, I receive many emails and phone calls from parents asking for mental help with their sons and daughters as they move into new schools, new coaching staffs, new living arrangements, new team mates, new coaching styles, new techniques, new playbooks, and many other new demands.

For over 40 years, I have been very successful helping young people manage these pressures and in helping them regain their confidence. I have a unique insight into this process, because I saw this phenomenon "up close and personal" as a Division I Head Coach at two west-coast universities and then also as a mental game coach.

The key word is transition. All of the situations described here in transition require adaptation and change. That takes a lot of mental strength, and a lot of good old-fashioned problem-solving. The athlete is not only facing new challenges, but they are leaving behind former support structures and trusted support people that were always there for them. Now they can feel very alone.

These are larger pressures for newer college athletes and they often become derailed in trying to figure out how to cope in the face of multiple new challenges, many of them happening all at once.

Transitions That Cause Stress In Life

Even life transitions that are positive can be challenging to deal with, because newness requires extra focus, better planning, improved systems and sharper mental organization. Life events that are positive and joyous can cause stress and can demand news ways of coping. For example, these are all "happy" situations that have caused plenty of people stress when experiencing them:

  1. Marriage of a family member

  2. Gaining a new family member via birth, adoption or remarriage.

  3. Major business readjustment.

  4. Retirement.

  5. Major change in financial condition.

  6. Changing to a new type of work.

  7. Getting a new job.

  8. More responsibility at work.

  9. Outstanding personal achievement.

  10. Changes of personal habits (dress, manners, association etc.).

  11. Change in residence.

  12. Major change in usual type and/or amount of recreation.

  13. Major change in social activities.

  14. Major change in sleeping habits.

  15. Major change in number of family get-togethers.

  16. Major change in eating habits.

  17. Christmas and Thanksgiving.

These above items are adapted from the Holmes-Rahe Life Events Stress Scale, also called the Social Readjustment Rating Scale (SRRS). To read and score yourself on the full life version:

This scale was developed by Dr. Thomas H. Holmes and Dr. Richard H. Rahe. It examines the stress factors in your life and the likelihood of stress related illness or accident. All of these variables can cause upset and stress and may result in your feeling "out of balance", and unable to cope effectively with the situation.

Transitions That Cause Stress In Sport

Now on to the sport-specific examples of life events that can make you feel "not yourself". How many of these transitions have you been experiencing in the last year? With even just a handful of these you can feel out of balance and pressured.

  1. Moving to a higher level of competition.

  2. You used to be a big fish in a little pond. Now you're a little fish in a big pond.

  3. You used to have lots of status, but now, you're just another journeyman player who no one knows.

  4. Playing under a new coach.

  5. Playing under a new coaching staff.

  6. Playing under a far more demanding coaching staff.

  7. The coach is not paying attention to you.

  8. The coach does not give you enough feedback.

  9. The coach gives plenty of feedback, but it's either negative or confusing.

  10. The coach forces you to play their way, and they don't allow you to use your former technique, so you're in limbo and you've lost your confidence.

  11. The coach is not praising you.

  12. The coach is not playing you.

  13. The coach does not believe in you.

  14. The coach does not listen to you.

  15. Joining a new team.

  16. Moving from obscurity to public notice.

  17. Moving from being a star to being a back up player.

  18. Playing a new position in your sport.

  19. Playing under new rules and regulations.

  20. Playing on a bigger field, stadium or venue.

  21. Playing in front of larger audiences.

  22. Less contact with your prior, trusted private coach back home.

  23. New practice, training and learning processes and procedures.

  24. Moving up in a new weight class.

  25. Moving up in a new age group.

  26. First time living away from home.

  27. First time living with a roommate.

  28. Living far away from home.

  29. Missing the comforts and routines of home.

  30. Moving from playing for fun to the pressure to win.

  31. Your parents are putting a large financial investment into you and you feel pressure for it to "pay off".

  32. Less structure academically, requiring better time management and more self-discipline.

  33. Playing at a higher level of team competition for playing time, where teammates are out for themselves more, and not so supportive.

  34. Starting to travel to compete out of town.

  35. Playing with or against people you have admired.

  36. Defending your new ranking or championship or status for the first time.

Answers To These Stressors Caused By Transition

Coaches will often tell the athlete experiencing stress from these situations, "Grow up and accept your new reality". This is true, and for some young adults, this works. For most other young people, it fails. They still are confused, they feel out of sorts, they've lost their mojo and they doubt whether they really have what it takes to succeed any longer. They wonder where that great athlete they used to be in high school went off to. They feel alienated and beat down. They've lost their way.

This is where I come in. I help these talented athletes regain their bearings. I help them realize how good they STILL are. I help them calm down, focus and buckle back down to developing themselves as an athlete so they can succeed at this new, higher level.

I help them see the situation in perspective, and I help them view it as a growth experience. It absolutely is an opportunity to be a stronger, more resourceful person.

I help them find their way again.

“Change is the essence of life. Be willing to surrender what you are for what you could become."

Bill Cole, MS, MA is one of the world's leading mental game coaches who consults with athletes of all levels including amateurs, professionals and Olympians. He has been mental coach or consultant to Olympic athletes who have won bronze, silver and gold medals and has coached thousands of recreational, junior high, high school, college, professional, world champion and world record-holding athletes. Mr. Cole is the founder and President of the International Mental Game Coaching Association, the global leader in certification of mental game coaches:

"... an authority on sports psychology... He is one of the top peak performance coaches in the country...Bill's peak performance system helped us tremendously in our march to reach the finals of the College World Series."
Stanford University Baseball Team

" of the top peak performance coaches on the ATP Pro Tennis Tour."
Israeli Davis Cup Team

"A world-renowned peak performance coach."
British Broadcasting Corporation (The BBC)

"Bill Cole is a leading author on sports psychology."
Yahoo! Sports

Copyright © Bill Cole, MS, MA 2017 All rights reserved.

This article covers only one small part of the mental game. A complete mental training program includes motivation and goal-setting, pre-event mental preparation, post-event review and analysis, mental strengthening, self-regulation training, breath control training, mental rehearsal, concentration training, pressure-proofing, communication training, confidence-building, breaking through mental barriers, slump prevention, mental toughness training, flow training, relaxation training, psych-out proofing and media training.

For a comprehensive overview of your mental abilities you need an assessment instrument that identifies your complete mental strengths and weaknesses. For a free, easy-to-take 73-item executive leadership skills assessment tool you can score right on the spot, visit This assessment gives you a quick snapshot of your strengths and weaknesses in your mental game. You can use this as a guide in creating your own mental training program, or as the basis for a program you undertake with Bill Cole, MS, MA to improve your mental game. This assessment would be an excellent first step to help you get the big picture about your leadership mental game.

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