Understanding Stress

Part One of an Ongoing Series

Through the world travels of the Good Athlete Project, we have noticed one underlying constant in the desires of most people: less stress. It takes different forms and we name it different things, but it consistently looms heavy in the minds of many… stress about work, family, performance in a variety of fields. To have “less stress” is an understandable desire, but a misguided one. Instead, let’s learn to thrive in the presence of potential stress and grow from those experiences.

We would all benefit from reframing and destigmatizing the word stress, and understanding it not as the state of being overwhelmed, but as a necessary component of growth, inextricably intertwined with our success.

Stress is a signal-response mechanism that allows us to exist within the demands of our environment. We need it. The negative relationship we have to the word refers in actuality to chronic stress, which is the real culprit behind much of our pain, and should be avoided. Strategies exist to avoid chronic stress. In order to utilize those strategies, and understand the difference between stress quality and stress quantity (how many potential stressors you have in your life, versus how good/bad they are) we should take a moment to understand exactly what it is we’re talking about.

Photo Credit: ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images

There are three primary systems in the body which coordinate to manage stress: the voluntary nervous system, the autonomic nervous system, and the neuroendocrine system. The voluntary nervous system is the most obvious. It controls conscious movement. It’s the one filtered through the primary motor cortex of the brain and sends commands to the body. Decide to lift your cup of coffee, then do, then thank this system. It gets you where you want to go.

We would all benefit from reframing and destigmatizing the word stress, and understanding it not as the state of being overwhelmed, but as a necessary component of growth, inextricably intertwined with our success.

The autonomic nervous system is slightly more complex and comprised of two parts: the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems.

The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for what we commonly refer to as “fight or flight” responses. It preps the body to respond to demanding stressors without conscious awareness. When you walk into a packed stadium for a championship game and the hairs on your neck stand up, this is why. In the presence of a significant obstacle or threat, your heart rate will increase alongside the rate of your breathing, and your pupils will dilate so you can more accurately perceive potential threats. Glucose levels in your bloodstream will elevate so that muscles, should you be called upon to use them, will have quick and easy access to fuel. Without this stress response, our ancestors would have been eaten many years ago. You – we – wouldn’t have the opportunity to exist (and complain about the stress in our lives).

The parasympathetic nervous system more generously refers to the series of “rest and digest” responses. It is the counterbalance to the sympathetic nervous system. Among other necessary functions (like eliminating waste, reproducing, and repair/create tissue), this is the state in which you recover from the demands of your “fight or flight” actions. Here your heart rate drops, respiration slows to a comfortable pace, and pupil dilation returns to normal. These two systems work like a seesaw, when one is up, the other downregulates, and vice versa. When the human system is functioning well, they balance each other out.

The third system, the neuroendocrine system, works in concert with the others. It produces the hormones – namely, cortisol and adrenaline – which prepare our bodies to manage obstacles and threats. Cortisol has the ability to increase glycogenesis, providing fuel for our skeletal muscular system. It also stimulates brain activation and use of our senses. Adrenaline increases heartrate, blood pressure, and expands air passages, among other performance enhancing functions. When the sympathetic nervous system is activated, these are the hormones it pairs up with in order to meet the demands of a situation.

They are necessary. They are the reason we survive as a species.

[Stress is] necessary. [It is] the reason we survive as a species.

But there is a cost. Every ounce of energy expended produces equivalent exhaust. There is a conversion, a remainder. Think of the exhaust coming out of the tailpipe of a car – that’s what’s left over when fuel has been converted into the energy which propels the vehicle. If a car continually burned fuel but didn’t release exhaust, think of the damage it would do, building up within the vehicle and polluting the system. That’s the problem with modern stress.


We no longer live in an environment where fending off the occasional predator or tracking down the week’s feast is the main priority. We live in an environment designed to hijack our attention and retain it through a barrage of stimuli which keep our pupils slightly dilated, our heart rate slightly elevated, our blood sugar levels at a slight increase. Our environment keeps us slightly stressed, always.

Add chronic stress to significant societal disregard for rest and recovery, and we have a problem. Consider that for a moment. How well do you sleep? For how long, on average? Do you take time to consciously recover from the stressors in your life?

Odds are against it. Americans have been sleeping fewer and fewer hours per night over recent years, down one full hour since the 1940s, to a measly 6.8 hours per night. The CDC recommends 7-9 hours for adults which makes us, on average, a sleep-deprived nation (more on the value of sleep in later articles). Sleep deprivation makes accurate assessment of work, relationships, and other potential stressors far more difficult.

So perhaps it is not the amount of stress in our lives, but our perception of the quality of that stress due, in part, to the way we do or don’t relax. In other words, it is not our overactive sympathetic nervous system, but the lack of balance between sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. Again, not too much stress, but too much chronic activation of “fight or flight” which tamps down the activation of “rest and digest”.

Instead of “less stress”, we should aim for more balance.

A range of strategies will be released in an upcoming series of articles. Today’s performance strategy is simple: work to understand.


Performance Strategy: Work to Understand.

We cannot solve a problem of which we are unaware. Moreover, once we are aware of a problem, accurate assessment becomes immediately important. An easy way to imagine this is through the splinter metaphor. If you have pain in your hand, the first step to solving this problem is the recognition of the pain. The second step would be identifying the splinter as the source of the pain. If you misattribute the pain to dry skin, then your “remedy” might be applying moisturizer. Feedback in the form of continued pain would tell you that your strategy, though well-intended, was ineffective. Only through accurate identification of the problem, the splinter, can you take steps to removing the splinter, keeping clean hands to prevent infection, and ultimately solving the problem. But before you solve it, you have to understand it.

So as you Work to Understand stressors in your life, try this method:

  • 1. Identify the Need
    • What are you thinking and feeling – do you feel overwhelmed? Are you in a state of chronic stress? Might be time to take action and improve your situation.
  • 2. Assess the Situation
    • What are the sources of this pain? Write them down. Whether it’s work, bills, other people or a combination of sources, it’s important to be as explicit and honest as possible about what’s actually going on in your unique situation.
  • 3. Identify the Source of the Problem
    • Be honest. Is your co-worker actually the worst person you know? Do they really have no clue what’s going on and you can’t understand why your boss hired them? Perhaps your negative interactions are the result of a system of complicated, overlapping factors. What of those factors can you control? Are you discounting your personal wellness in hopes of workplace success while unknowingly making workplace relationships more difficult? You’d be surprised how often that is the case.
  • 4. Attempt a Solution
    • Spend a week prioritizing your nutrition. Or physical exercise. Or sleep. Or mindfulness. Based on what you have identified as the source of the problem, give something a shot and stick to it.
  • 5. Create a Feedback Loop
    • Did your attempted solution work? If so, great, move on to the next challenge or opportunity in your life. If not, return to one of the previous steps and see where you went wrong. Did the solution not solve the problem? Try another solution. Did you inaccurately assess the problem? Reconsider the situation and try again. Listen to the feedback.

If the feedback after your attempted solution does not address the identified need, try again. Keep trying. Diligent practice within this model will eventually lead to a desirable result.

When we identify external stressors like a co-worker, too much homework, or an overburdened schedule as sources of our stress, then we hope and hope and hope for less of it, then we will never have the proper, manageable amount of it. Rather, let’s take a close look at the way we interact with stress, and our role in not only reducing it but actively recovering from that which we have.

Try it. With this model, the effectiveness of your actions will improve, just by doing the work of accurately understanding.

Swimmer Strength: an Overview

After many conversations with swimmers, swim coaches, and strength coaches working with swimmers, a common question persists: where do we start? There is no easy answers; everything is contextual, dealing with team dynamics, timelines, and sport-specific considerations. Strength coaches who generally deal with land-based athletes find themselves grappling with a unique set of athlete-performance requirements. So, as entry point, and in an effort to scaffold decision making and program design, we always begin by addressing five progressive steps:


  1. Safety. Do no harm!
  2. Uniformity. A body is a body.
  3. Specificity. Group/Sport considerations.
  4. Appropriate Load. Adapting the science.
  5. Performance. Prepare to compete!

There is plenty of room for autonomy within these steps, and each coach should identify his or her own approach based on the specifics of the athletes in his charge. I propose only this: if a strength program has no scaffold, no core ideals, then it cannot be trusted and just might do more harm than good (see step one). That said, when it is done well, strength and conditioning can be one of the most rewarding coaching experiences in all of athletics.

Step One: Safety

The strength coach has a very clear and primary role: do not harm. In our line of work, keeping the athletes safe takes precedence. That means the strength coach must ensure three things:  emotional and psychological safety while under coach supervision, immediate physical safety (perfect technique and the use of an appropriate load (described in step #4)), and long-term safety by preparing an athlete’s body to meet the demands of his sport. This must be at the forefront of the coach’s mind at all times. A healthy athlete is a happy, productive athlete.

Our coaching staff meets regularly to assess ourselves in the context of safety. We are diligent in our self-reflection, continually asking if we have held students to a standard that will ensure their safety while in our company, and that the strength work we engage in will ensure their safety in the pool and beyond. We are relentless in this pursuit and, in many ways, the following steps all fold back into this core ideal.

Step Two: Uniformity

A body is a body. A flaw of many new (and some experienced) strength coaches is that they continually try to reinvent the wheel. The strength coach should stay on top of the literature, be well-versed in emerging science, and continually push his own competency in the field, but not at the expense of the basics. Too often a coach will look for novelty and neglect a strong foundation (see step one). A human body should have a strong core, consistent posture, healthy levels of mobility, and sufficient muscular structure to support its most used joints. How this is accomplished is variable, but it is always a good strategy to look at the best: I have been in weight rooms all over the country, spoken to professional, elite high school, BIG10, SEC, ACC, and Ivy League coaches, and I have yet to see a program that does not Squat, Clean, and work on upper body stabilization – those weight rooms likely exist, but I have yet to see them, and I would be curious to hear their rationale. Nathan Adrian squats. Katie Ledecky squats. Ryan Lochte squats. Rebecca Soni squats. The difference (and the job of the strength coach) is to determine how (variation and difficulty relative to an athlete’s proficiency) and when (timing relative to peak) that movement will be performed, while paying attention to their volume and intensity.

Undertraining the posterior chain through the glutes and hamstrings is one of the most common mistakes I have seen. It is true that added weight and bulk in the lower half will require more work to stay parallel to the surface (I’m certainly not suggesting swimmers pack on mass below the hips), but without a posterior chain which can activate and snap to streamline position quickly, then maintain the integrity of that posture through exhaustion, the swimmer will do more work overall and times will suffer.  Train the glutes and legs, but be deliberate. The elite high school and college coaches will keep an eye on each individual athlete, since there will be varying degrees of ‘gainer’ (ability to put on mass) within your population. As with everything, find the right balance for your individual team.

The second component to Uniformity is a clear performance expectation. Coaches, you must be relentless with your expectations for each lift (posture, depth, etc.) and be sure those expectations are shared are always met. An overhead squat or a weighted pullup should look the same no matter the performer. Again, this feeds heavily back into step one – so much of athletics is outside of our control – this is within, and we ought to take care.

Train the body first (strengthen), then train for the sport’s demands (specify).

Step Three: Swimmer Specificity

This is where the strength coach flexes his expertise. Tailoring a program to one’s clientele is the secret of the job. At New Trier, we take two components into consideration when designing programs: group experience/ability, and the specific demands of that group’s sport. For example, the varsity swim sessions will look different than the first-year swim sessions, which both look different than lacrosse or field hockey workouts.

After completing steps one and two, we identify the specific demands of our sport. For swimmers, we aim to protect their shoulders. We prepare their shoulders to meet demands in the pool, while ensuring we do not push to the point of overtraining – staying in close contact with the coaches to find out what is going on in the pool is essential to success in that realm. We supplement our weight/dryland training with daily stability band work. We have a routine consisting of Y, T, A extensions, strict-posture triceps variations, and single-leg external rotation. This is an expectation, so common that we simply write BAND AUX on the board and the athletes get right to work. Between these sets, the athletes work on shoulder mobility much like they would on deck (speed skaters, etc.) – for specifics and visual aids for these exercises, see Moving Forward section).

Other priorities for swimmers include ankle mobility, nervous system activation, and posture. Again, each of these refers back to step one.

Step Four: Appropriate Load

High School strength coaches have different challenges than their college counterparts. One of those considerations is developing strategies to incorporate intensity progressions which have been scientifically proven; specifically, we cannot make use of a rep/set scheme that uses, say, 85% of a max load, without an accurate max. Without an accurate max, the 85% is meaningless. We will never ask an unprepared athlete to push to full exertion (we have and never will have a freshman put on a max load); in fact, there is a very small percentage of our high school population from whom we can obtain accurate maxes. Last year we probably had four or five male varsity swimmers in that boat. With that in mind, we use the Appropriate Load Model (more on this in a different article). In short, we take well-tested scientific data and attempt to replicate its essential training purpose. We might give an athlete a rep set which looks something like this: Power Pull (5,5,3,5*) – the athlete will have completed a warmup, and these sets are to be done with full exertion. In this model, the athlete keeps a hyper attentive eye on their own ability; was the first set of 5 too easy? add weight for the second; did form start to waiver on that first set? take some weight off for the next – it is a constant process of self-reflective adjustment, which we have found to yield fantastic results in both performance and in an athlete’s psychology, since they have a high level of ownership in each day’s training. The asterisk after the final set of 5 indicates a distinction – in this case, we stipulate (AL: 8), which means that final set of 5 is performed with the Appropriate Load for a set of 8. The athlete selects his weight and loads the bar for a full set of 8 repetitions, but only performs 5. In these sets, we look for speed and perfect technique, since the load is the lightest it has been throughout the routine. (For more on Appropriate Load models and its success stories, see Moving Forward section).

Step Five: Performance

Taper/perform. This is where we really have fun. Program design in step #5 begins with everything mentioned in step #3, but arrives at the most individualized, sport specific considerations yet. First and foremost, timing. Every strength program should begin with a timeline which identifies where he intends the athletes to ‘peak’ their performance. Our timeline and taper theories are semi-proprietary, but I will share this: the physical and psychological benefits of the taper are widely documented and can be found online. Positive taper effects have been seen anywhere between 6-21 days from competition – finding the ‘sweet spot’ is up to a coach’s discretion and should align directly with the work the athletes are doing in the pool. What I am free to share is one of the models we use in our Performance phase (pre-taper): the Cluster Set, below.


Sample Workout

Warmup x2

Drop-Ins (4×4)

Band Auxiliary (Y,T,A; External Rotation; Kick-Fly) x2

Burpee Pullups (4×4)

Overhead SQ w/Band (4×4)

Cluster Sets

  • DL, AL: 6

Deadlift (4, (:30), 2, (:10), 4, (:20), 1, (:10), 3)

  • PP, AL: 8

Power Pull (4, (:20), 2, (:05), 4, (:10), 1, (:05), 3)

Finish: Core, Flutter Kicks

Sample Workout Explanation

Warmup: 10 continuous reps with an empty bar of Deadlift, Jump Shrug, Jump Raise, and Front Squat

Drop-Ins: from a height of 24-36 inches, athletes hover one foot off a ledge (plyo box, bench) and drop to the floor, quickly rebounding back up into the air – to best activate the plyometric response, tell the athletes that their heels should never touch the ground, and they should spend as little time on the ground as possible (for swimmers, we also ask the athletes to snap into streamline position at the top of the jump

Band Aux: Y,T,A, Triceps Kick/Fly, External Rotation, all completed with perfect posture

Overhead SQ w/Band: In lieu of resistance, the athletes stretch the bands work above their heads and perform strict squats with perfect depth (hip mobility), keeping tension on the upper half of the posterior chain throughout

Cluster Sets: the athlete loads the bar with their appropriate load for the indicated reps, then performs sub-maximal exertions with highly regulated rest periods between sets – the athlete does not leave the bar until he has completed all of the reps. Using the deadlift set as an example, the athlete pulls 14 repetitions over 2:00 with a weight he would have pulled for 6 reps – the total work has increased, so has the quality of the reps, but the athlete never hits 100% exertion. Specifically, I have included what is known as an ‘undulating’ cluster set, since the reps move up and down between 4 and 1. Alternatives include linear models (AL: 6 with repeating sets of 3), ascending and descending models (AL:6 with sets of 1,2,3,4,5 and 5,4,3,2,1, respectively).

At the end of the workout, we will have performed 16 pullups and 28 total reps of the day’s core lifts – as coaches, we note that none of these reps were performed at full exertion, but all were performed with speed and technique.

Finish: Core is a constant, and though we have worked it throughout the workout, we add some sort of “stable core” as a finisher – generally some combination of plank variations

Moving Forward

The overarching message is this: be prepared, but be flexible. The strength coach should have a set of ideals upon which his program is built (we start with these five steps), and plan according to a specific timeline, but never be afraid to change. We have brief discussions with our strength and swim coaches before and after every session. Sometimes we train through meets, sometimes we pull back on intensity to avoid burnout; whatever we do, we take great care to be deliberate – we are not always right (any coach who suggests otherwise is kidding himself), but we are always intentional. We have goals, we have structure, we adjust as necessary and we enter each session with a purpose.

At New Trier, we have a very specific weight room expectation: Train Like a Champion. We adopt the mindset that athletes don’t trip and fall into championships, they develop the bodies and minds of champions, and whatever happens in the pool is a demonstration of that process. We don’t need to win to be successful (although that’s a nice bonus), but we always prepare to be successful, which is a win in and of itself. As coaches, we should do the same. Coach Like a Champion.

For more on Appropriate Load theory or to learn more about specific lifts and how they are performed, feel free to contact me on Twitter @NTStrength.


*This article was originally published in NISCA Magazine, and received their ‘Best of 2016’ Award