How Competitions Help Students Understand and Manage Stress

This suck! It’s too hard! I can’t do it! These are just a few of the common lines we hear from our students as they face difficult, stressful challenges. Kids naturally want everything to be fun, but a part of growing up and learning to be a functioning, capable “adult” is in fact in large part about handling stressful situations.

Stress is no fun. No one likes it, no one wants it, and no one truly enjoys having to deal with it. But it is a fact of life and something that we all face at one time or another. However, many scientists believe that not only is too much stress bad, but also that too little stress leads to poor performance (think of a bell curve.) This theory is also known as the Yerkes-Dodson law. Children should be taught that stress is indeed a part of everyday life, and should not be feared or totally avoided, but dealt with in an efficient manner.

The good thing about all of this stressful talk about stress is that we can learn how to handle it. In fact, recently more and more educational professionals are arguing that we should be training our students to handle stress and other emotions as part of our school curriculum.

For parents, of course the natural inclination is to protect their children from anything unpleasant and potentially harmful; things like stress. However, while the intention may be good, the end-result is not. Children can’t learn how to deal with stress in their future lives if they don’t experience it and learn to work through it as a child.

 

The difference between finite and infinite stress.

In 2013, philosopher and theologian James Carse published his book “Finite and Infinite Games.” The major conjecture in his book is that there are two types of games we play in our lives, “finite” and “infinite” games. As defined by Carse a finite game is one where there are defined boundaries and you play to win (sports etc…). An infinite game is one where you are playing to stay in the game (i.e. maintaining a job, a relationship, or just life itself).

When considering the framework that Carse laid out in terms of stress rather than the games themselves, we can also see that there are what can be considered finite and infinite stressors. Finite stressors are those that come from defined competitions or games. They are typically of a high intensity with specific boundary conditions to the stress. In a basketball game, players feel the finite stress of needing to win, needing to make the next shot, or needing to defend the other team’s star player. Finite stressors will have a specific structure and goal defining the stress itself.

On the other hand, infinite stressors will come from overarching concerns or challenges that have little to no definition of how to win or conquer the stress. Infinite stressors are ones where there is no definite set of boundary conditions. There are no defined rules to the game creating the stress and there is no immediate solution to reduce the stress. These can be things like worrying about money, health concerns, family or relationship struggles, or concerns within a community or society such as war, famine, or social justice.

 

Training for Stressful Situations: finite stressors can be good for us.

In the heat of the moment, if your child misses the big shot at the end of the game, and they lose the match, they’re likely to head home with their head down, not talking much, and all in all seeming very dejected. They might even say, they’re never going to play again! However, the structure of defined competitions actually provides a great training ground in which our students learn to handle all kinds of stress. And more often than not, they’re going to pick themselves up, go to practice the next day, and get back in the game.

As a parent, educator, or coach, it’s not our job to help students avoid the stress, but to recognize it, and learn that it is okay. Over time our students will become more accustomed to what these finite stresses feel like and how to manage them. They will learn how to transfer these skills to the less defined infinite stressors in their lives and become more resilient and well-rounded adults.

What’s important is to not let a finite stressor become an infinite one. If a student starts to define their self-worth as being connected to the results in a finite competition, those stressors will start to add to the infinite stresses rather than making them easier. We need to help students maintain the “finite” status of these stresses in defined competitions.

“In finite games, you compete, and then you let it go, and you have rest and recuperation – that’s actually really important for kids,” said Po Bronson, co-author of Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing. “It’s the continuous sense of pressure that is unhealthy for them.”

“In academic settings, things like chess competitions, math competitions, and science fairs seem to be really great for kids,” Bronson said in an interview with KQED. “Very quickly [the students] are learning in a couple of weeks, more advanced math than they would learn in an entire semester in a regular class,” he said.

 

How to Educate Your Kids to Handle Stress:

So with all of this said, we thought about a few rules of thumb for educators, coaches, and parents to help kids learn to manage stress:

 

  1. Maintain Finite Stress

Having low-level, finite stressors in our lives is good for us. This has been shown to be beneficial for our performance and understanding the “finite” bounds of the stressor helps us separate our self-worth from the stressor itself. So don’t shy away from having your students or children engage in challenging competitions. Whether they’re sports, or academic competitions, learning to manage the finite stresses will help them when faced with more complicated stress in the future. Try getting your kids involved in any of the hundreds of academic competitions to help them maintain healthy finite stressors in their lives so they can learn to manage long-term infinite stressors they’ll be faced with in the future.

 

  1. Remember the Bell-Curve of the Yerkes-Dodsonlaw.

There is an optimal level for stress to maximize performance. This is not standard across all personalities, nor is it standard across all types of stress. This makes it difficult for a coach, parent, or educator to determine when a student may be becoming overly stressed.

 

Yerkes-Dodson Law, describing the bell-curve for optimum stress Levels.

 

However, there are some tell-tale signs that your student is becoming overly stressed. According to the American Psychological Association, “acting irritable or moody, withdrawing from activities that used to give them pleasure, routinely expressing worries, complaining more than usual about school, crying, displaying surprising fearful reactions, clinging to a parent or teacher, sleeping too much or too little, or eating too much or too little” are all signs  to look out for and if you notice them, work to either dial the stress back a little, or at least help to understand it better, and try to convert some of your kid’s “infinite” stress into “finite” stressors that can be handled.

 

  1. Separate Self-Worth from the Stressors.

Don’t let your students’ self-worth be dependent on their perceived stressors. Self-worth should be an independent internalized value. Dr. Jennifer Crocker, a psychologist at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research notes that, “college students who based their self-worth on external sources--including appearance, approval from others and even their academic performance--reported more stress, anger, academic problems, relationship conflicts, and had higher levels of drug and alcohol use and symptoms of eating disorders.”

If you see students starting to base their self-worth on factors related to stressors from competitions, or other competitive parts of their lives, it may be time to sit them down and help them remember that this is not the case.

 

  1. Make time for un-structured Play.

Study after study (here and here for example) have shown that having enough unstructured play at all ages does wonders for the development of healthy, well-rounded young adults. However, more and more students are failing to get enough unstructured play-time. As an educator, parent, or coach, make sure your students are finding time to have these unstructured explorations. If you are coaching your students through academic challenges, try to build time into your clubs or classroom sessions for unstructured play, no matter what age your student are.

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