By Nico de Villiers
Posted: Updated:

In a previous article, Direct your strength training for rugby with Auto-Regulation Part 1, I mentioned that the human body can only handle a certain amount of stress before it breaks down and that the body cannot interpret between various forms of stress.

I came across this concept reading some of Keir Wehnam-Flatt’s work on his site, He wrote a summary of a presentation he attended at the Boston Sports Medicine Performance Group seminar. One of the speakers was Professor Robert Sapolsky, a professor of biological sciences and of neurology and neurological sciences. Sapolsky has spent more than three decades studying the physiological effects of stress on health. He spoke about the content of one of his books, “Why Zebras don’t get ulcers”, and gives very interesting insight on how the body adapt to stress.

I did some reading up on the topic and the following points where of interest:

  • The human body always strive to be in a homeostatic state.


  • Stress alters the body’s homeostasis (body temperature, blood pressure, pH, glucose concentration) and the body responds to this to re-establish homeostatic balance; it’s called the stress-response.


  • Stress is an involuntary response to our survival. It happens in anticipation that our homeostatic will take a knock


  • Stress is supposed to be acute, a once off, and prepare us to adapted or overcome our threatening circumstances.


  • Onset of stress have the following physiological effect:


  • Mobilise energy sources (adrenaline, glucose and fats)
  • Improve delivery of these sources via cardiovascular system (Increase heart rate and blood pressures)
  • Shut down all long term survival systems like the digestive system as we don’t need long term benefits of food digestion in an emergency
  • Increased functions on short term systems with immediate survival benefits- increases in immune function, improved cognition and memory, physiological adaptation.


  • As humans we have somehow developed the ability to BS ourselves regarding stress. Most of the stresses we experience are not external, but internal stress that we build up in our head; psychological stress (house mortgage, problems at work, being dropped from team or worried about exam outcome etc.). The body was never designed to handle psychological stress, especially not chronically, but rather short term stress that would lead to survival or building adapting mechanisms to overcome in the future


  • What happens if the stress response is turned on too long and too often purely for psychological reason?


  1. Stress hormones causes catabolism of muscle proteins, thereby decreasing the muscle strength. Further stress hormones induces oxidative damage in the skeletal muscle and thereby interferes with it quality and function
  2. Stress induced high blood pressure
  • Stress impairs stomach wall and causes ulcers
  1. Diverts energy away from regenerative processes like tissue repair and immune function leading to sickness and poor recovery from injuries.
  2. Traumatic stress during childhood can have extreme effects on growth. Children are essentially long term physiological building projects and chronic stress can stunt growth. In cultures with physically painful routines like circumcision, there have been report of adults having gone through with these routine being 2 inches shorter than those who did not.
  3. Decrease in testosterone levels. It was found that US marines, who undergo some of the most strenuous, training routines out there, have a significant drop in testosterone levels after the first few weeks of training.


What it comes down to is that most stress in our lives is psychological and our ability to cope & resist stress lies in our brain. If we have the ability to create the stress, we also have the ability to handle it. Prof Sapolsky revered to a couple of coping mechanisms that can help with coping.

The first was to have a feeling of control. If we can predict the stress and have prior warning to it, we can formulate a coping method to deal with it. Also, if we experience a regular and predictable pattern of stress, and we believe we have a method to deal with it, our physiological response is significantly reduced.

The second coping strategy is to have an outlet. Get a hobby! It could be playing golf, building puzzles or bug fighting (apparently popular hobby in Japan). And then thirdly is to have adequate social support network. In his book “Slump Busting”, Dr Alan Golberg, one of the leading sport psychologist and metal coaches in the word, have several other coping mechanisms for athlete. I would write a review and some of Dr Goldberg’s strategies on another day.

So what is the implication for coaches and how should we approach the way we train our athletes?

  • The body can’t discern between physical and mental stress, it has the same physiological response. Optimal training is therefore only possible if we removes or reduce non-training stress.
  • If we want optimal adaptation from our training, we should also minimise our mental stress.
  • Recovering from injury can be significantly influenced by the stress the athlete experience. Rugby is a team sport filled with team spirit, unity and friendships. Being injured is solo. It’s a lonely road that rugby players that are used to working in a team can find very stressful. Remember this when you are trying to get your athlete back on the field.
  • Chronic stress will influence your ability to develop motor skills and cognitive processes like decision making and learning.
  • It’s been shown over and over again that a happy squad of players makes quality life decisions and improve the coaching environment. If you have ever attended a seminar or workshop by Paddy Upton you will know the profound work he does within the team environment to reduce stress and empower players and the positive effect it has on performance.

Remember that there is much more going on in our athletes lives than just being or attempting to be pro-players. Everything has a physical toll on them and must be accounted for when we prescribe training. There is not much we can do about their personal lives, but we can at least attempt to monitor stress and their response to training. If you do not, you run the risk of “over stressing” the athletes.


Related Posts

Supplement usage for rugby players has often lead to heated debates amongst trainers, coaches,...

In the previous article on this topic (Recovery strategies part 1), we had a look at the possible...

In recent years the term recovery has been the buzz word in the conditioning world with a lot of...

Leave a Reply