How Stress Affects Hockey Performance

Stress begins in the mind and ends in the body.

The accumulation of fatigue can come from many sources physical, mental, emotional, environmental, nutritional, hormonal, thermal among many others and even more combinations of all of the above.

Fatigue accumulation cannot viewed inside the lens as the amount of physical activity performed each week. It is much more than that and I have already gone over much of this within my other blog posts. But something I didn’t touch on with the amount of respect it deserves is how chronic stress affects both your health and your performance out on the ice.

To start this off here’s a good study ( done showing the effect of chronic stress on recovery. If you have read my previous articles you know you can only make progress based on what you can effectively recover from. If you’re not recovering, you’re not making gains.

In this study participants did 6 sets of leg press to failure. The group with low stress was recovered and back to full strength two days later, whereas the group with high stress took as long as four days. Twice as long to recover and were sorer and more fatigued in the days following the exact same workout.

I wanted to start here because this is a very visual example for those of you who aren’t into all the physiology stuff I normally write about. Individuals in a stressed out state in this study took up to twice as long to recover from exercise than the control group. This is huge, imagine yourself and your buddy hitting a leg work out together on Tuesday but you’re under much more stress than your buddy. You may not even be fully ready to rock come Friday when it’s game time, whereas he is going to be good to go.

Moving from here, he is going to want to train legs again next Tuesday because he had no problem with it whereas you are more than likely not effectively recovering. Which will lead to habits such as increased caffeine intake throughout the day trying to tough it out when really addressing your stressors is the ideal route to take in this case to actually improve your performance on the ice.

There is a reason stress doesn’t feel good inside your body, it creates a lot of physiologic problems. It’s not comfortable at all when under stress and you feel like total crap. In small doses, this actually isn’t such a bad thing. The problems are primarily rooted in chronic stress.

Why Stress Affects Athletic Performance

It’s important for the Hockey Training audience to understand the how and why towards stress’s negative implications towards your health and performance so that you may be better armed after reading this to go out there and make the right moves.

When dealing with chronic stress you are dealing with a myriad of hormones and physiologic processes, but few of which more important than cortisol.

Cortisol, as many people know is a stress hormone. It is created from the adrenal cortex in the HPA axis and is considered a primary hormone in the body. Primary hormones are hormones that are necessary for survival.

For example, if you see a silverback gorilla coming at you full speed that just broke out of his cage, you’re not going to be thinking “Hey I hope I can sleep with my girlfriend tonight”. You’re going to be thinking “AAAHHH!”


Basic Overview of Adrenal Anatomy

This is the difference between primary and secondary hormones. When you see a gorilla coming at you full speed your body is going to secrete huge amounts of stress hormones like epinephrine (adrenaline), nor-epinephrine and cortisol to put you into “fight or flight” mode to save your life because that is your bodies main job, to keep you alive in any stressful scenario.

Whereas when you’re thinking about your girlfriend, libido hormones come second.


Because libido hormones like testosterone, follicle stimulating hormone and luteinizing hormones don’t save your life. Reproduction can come later, for right now, your body needs to create stress hormones.

This is a major problem with today’s society. We are subjected to too much stress that our bodies are constantly creating this “2nd grade” adrenaline hormone called cortisol. Not quite adrenaline, but a stress hormone nonetheless.

Things like E-mail alerts, text alerts, scheduling, forgetting something, traffic, awkward conversations, stressful work environments, finding a damn parking spot, the list goes on and on about certain scenarios that cause our bodies to create this stress hormone cortisol.

All forms of stress create this cortisol whether it be mental, physical, environmental or emotional. These stressors do cause some stress hormones to be higher than others due to variance in hormone output. Each stressor creates its own “stress signature” within the body where variance within the stress hormones have different ratios within each other. What this means is that although all stressors create similar hormones, they do not create them in the same amounts or in the same ratios from one stressor to the next.

Cortisol being a primary hormone in the body; will then down regulate the production of many other hormones so it can do its job.

Here’s the thing, cortisol is not a bad guy. It is simply doing its job within the body just like every single other hormone, to maintain homeostasis. When your body thinks it’s under stress, these things are released to save you and keep you alive another day.

The real problem is, too low of cortisol, or too high of cortisol is a very bad thing. Complications for increased cortisol levels include: osteopenia, sarcopenia, syndrome X, cognitive decline, immunological compromise, fractures, frailty, cardiovascular disease, memory loss, infections complications and many more.

Let’s talk about some major factors within health and performance that the hockey athlete should be concerned with and have on his/her radar when trying to become the best they can be.

First off, it can lower immune system function.

A large part of your ability to build muscle mass is a function of how strong your immune system is.


Because if you have a good immune system, your ability to effectively recover from exercise is much better which leads to greater overall gains. If you have a poor immune system, so if you’re always getting colds or getting sick, your ability to put on muscle mass is much weaker.

Cortisol effects immune system function through suppressing your white blood cells ability to effectively work and do their job. Chronic stress can actually act as a signal to stop immune system cells in their track.

In short bouts of stress cortisol can actually stimulate immune system activity, which is good. But long term, prolonged exposure to stress does the opposite and wreaks havoc on your immune system by increasing overall inflammation and decreasing immune system activity.

Good examples of prolonged exposure to mental or physical stress and its effects on immune system function are college / university kids around exam time and professional athletes. College and University students are always getting sick around exam time because this is a very stressful time in their life, with that stress comes increased cortisol and with increased cortisol comes decreased immune system function.

Same with professional athletes. UFC fighters in particular always seem to catch a bug prior to a big fight simply because they have been so hard on their body for so long during training camp that their immune system simply can’t keep up.

Beyond immune function, chronic stress can lower your testosterone levels.

Cortisol runs quite antagonistic with testosterone. Meaning when testosterone levels are high, cortisol levels are normally low, and when cortisol levels are high, testosterone is normally low. Improving the ratio at which testosterone is with cortisol is vital to performance, muscle building, fat loss and optimal health.

The way in which cortisol lowers your testosterone is through various different mechanisms involving decreasing your quality of sleep, increasing inflammation and decreasing the absorption of vital nutrients in the GI tract from gut issues.

But at a cellular level, when you’re subjected to too much stress your body opts to make cortisol instead of testosterone because testosterone is a secondary hormone and cortisol is a primary hormone (The body will always prefer primary hormones over secondary).

Why your body doesn’t just create both is because they both use the same raw material; cholesterol and pregnenolone. Through a variety of biochemical processes cholesterol precedes and is converted eventually into pregnenolone. From here your body has two choices, it can use the pregnenolone to create testosterone, or it can use it to make cortisol.

Your body is very biased in using the pregnenolone to make more cortisol if you are subjected to any type of stress and which you learned above, can come in the form of pretty much all of life’s problems.

To put it simply, our bodies unfortunately will produce cortisol instead of testosterone so high exposure to stressors and high levels of cortisol = lowered testosterone levels. Which is the last thing guys like us want when it comes to athletic performance, muscle building or fat loss.

Something important to keep in mind here, acute stressors are not to be worried about. Small stressors are a part of life and are unavoidable. Chronic stress on the other hand is when these things that I’m talking about begin to arise. The longer you allow yourself to be stressed, the greater hole you’re digging.

On this chronic stress note, chronic stress is an overwhelming contributor to poor sleep quality within the athletic population.

Chronic stressors have many of the impacts they have on the body due to their ability to decrease neurotransmitter levels. Neurotransmitters are what your body uses to communicate from one tissue to the next and they are also very heavily involved in how you act as a person.

Neurotransmitters create feelings and thoughts like happiness, motivation, focus, drive and are involved in everything from speed of thought to speed of movement. How it effects your sleep is it decreases your overall neurotransmitter pools, which, in turn, decrease your body’s ability to get into a deep REM sleep level. Neurotransmitters such as serotonin and GABA are vital to a good night’s sleep and when your overall pools are low then your sleep quality is going to be low as well.

What happens when you have low sleep quality is a whole other blog in itself (which I have wrote and highly recommend you go check out for more information) but just to give you a quick breakdown on how huge of an effect chronic poor sleep quality can have on your body you can concern yourself with the following:

– Decrease thyroid output
– Decrease Respiratory Exchange Ratio (RER) [sourcing of fuel for physical activity] – Impaired glucose regulation
– Reduced fatty oxidation
– Decreased leptin (your “feel full” hormone)
– Increased ghrelin (your “hungry” hormone)
– Increased Body Mass Index (BMI)

Cortisol’s effect on just your sleep alone can result in any one, or combination of these issues. Sleep is one of the first things I discuss with my 1-on-1 clientele to make sure we are good to go. If not, that’s where I begin the coaching process. Improving sleep quality through smart supplementation and proper meal planning.

Beyond the, what seems to be million reasons I have outlined above to avoid a high stress lifestyle this discussion can actually continue believe it or not involving much more. This is scratching the surface. But I believe you’ve probably had enough of this for now and I REALLY don’t want to stress you out about it.

I have met a lot of people in my life doing what I do.

The one connection I find between the most successful people I know, is that they are positive. This does not just go for muscle building or hockey performance. This goes for doctors, businessmen, trainers, coaches, anybody who has truly found success and happiness, is extremely positive about life.

They never look for the negatives in things and when the rain does come, they find what positives can come from it and what perhaps they can learn from it as opposed to sitting around sulking and being negative.

I try to live my life this positive way and I’m sure many of you would echo this statement:

Being positive is one of the best things you can do for your mind and your body.

Think about the people you like to spend time with.

How many of those people are assholes? None of them I hope.

They are more than likely happy, positive people who are fun to be around. This is the type of attitude the healthiest people adopt and is the type of attitude that will serve you very well. It can be sometimes tough to connect stress and positivity towards how you play on the ice but when the physiology is all laid out, it begins to look like one of the most important factors.

Which it most certainly is.

I hope you have learned some of the detrimental impacts stress can have on your state of health, body composition, performance, productivity, sleep quality and mind set. Being positive about life will bring down stress, bring down cortisol and allow you to be a much happier person.

Yes I do understand that this is an online blog about hockey training, which is why I am discussing mindset. Having a positive outlook on life TRUMPS any type of stress that comes your way.

Very few things in life that we allow ourselves to become stressed by actually have any consequential status.

Who actually cares if there heavy traffic? It’s not going to change, so there is no sense in getting mad about it.

Who cares if your internet is down? Literally nothing bad is going to happen.

Here are my top tips to reducing your stress levels:

1. If at all possible, avoid stressful situations.
2. Minimize your time on social media, or just wasting time in general (i.e. TV).
3. Practice some form of meditation.
4. When you feel yourself start to get stressed out, close your eyes, take 5-10 deep diaphragmatic breaths, inhaling and exhaling 5-6 seconds a piece.
5. Spend more time with friends and family or engaging in a rewarding hobby.
6. Don’t dwell on past mistakes and failures.
7. Get organized.
8. Train hard.
9. Prioritize a good night’s sleep every night.
10. Be a positive person.
11. Eat right and supplement smart.

If you’re ready to take your hockey game to the next level check out our Hockey Training Programs for a training program that fits your needs!

About the author

Dan Garner

Dan (or Coach Garner) is the head strength and conditioning coach and nutritional specialist at He holds 12 of the top certifications in both training and nutrition, as well as a formal education in both functional medicine and health science. Dan specializes in hockey performance, having worked with hundreds of athletes from the youth leagues, right up to juniors, AHL, KHL, and NHL.

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