Although many people do not consider exercise to be stressful, high to moderate physical activity causes the body to activate a number of stress response mechanisms. Fortunately, the brain can downplay stress responses by regulating the amounts of internal stress signaling molecules (1).
One signaling molecule, dopamine, is released during emotional responses and pleasurable experiences (1). A significant increase in dopamine levels affects our decision-making abilities during intense exercise and competitions.
The brain regulates the amount of dopamine by orchestrating its release and removal via enzymes. One of these enzymes is known as cathechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT) (2). By affecting the amount of dopamine that is present after an event that makes your heart race, COMT affects how the body responds to stress and exercise (3). Research evidence suggests that a specific variation in your genes affects how COMT functions.
The genetic variation in COMT appears in the population in three different forms. The three forms of COMT result in three different levels of COMT activity (low, medium, high), and in turn, three different amounts of dopamine while at rest or stressed. A more active version of COMT removes dopamine more quickly from the brain, while a less active version takes longer to clear dopamine, resulting in longer reward and motivational effects. At rest, high levels of dopamine are optimal as they allow for efficient information processing and improved attention (4). During periods of high stress, what is optimal reverses; dopamine levels that are too high actually negatively impact cognitive functioning (5,6).
To understand the possible implications of these variations on athletic performance, we can view the low and high COMT genetic variants as being associated with either Strategist or Warrior archetypes. The third, medium COMT variant demonstrates traits from both Strategist and Warrior playbooks, making them a hybrid of these personalities.
Strategists are likely better able to maintain optimal alertness at rest due to high levels of dopamine, but excessive levels of dopamine during stressful situations can interfere with conscious control and emotional regulation, which can result in poor in-the-moment decision-making.
Warriors may have lower levels of dopamine and attention at rest, but an influx of dopamine during stress can push you to an optimal state for decision-making (6).
The hybrid Warrior-Strategists are less-well characterized. Warrior-Strategists typically express qualities of both the Warrior and Strategist and demonstrate the ability to find optimal decision-making both at rest and under stress.
Figure: The activity of the COMT enzyme has a direct and inverse effect on how much dopamine is in the brain, which influences maintaining focus at rest and during stress. Strategists have a less active variant of the COMT enzyme, Warriors have the most active. Hybrid Strategist-Warriors have a version of COMT that falls somewhere in the middle. Gift: You may have a genetic advantage that can help you stay focused. Opportunity: This is an opportunity to conquer your DNA by knowing where you may need to train your efforts to remain focused and calm. Having both a gift and opportunity indicates a mixed response that can draw from either the Strategist or Warrior playbooks.
What effect can these profiles have on us in real-life situations? For a Warrior, maintaining focus during stressful competitions can be extremely beneficial, but losing focus during regular, repetitive training can result in overtraining and injury, or disengagement and boredom. A Strategist might struggle to avoid the negative impact of stress during competition, over-thinking and underperforming, while being better able to perform during training.
Though the effect of the change in COMT has been well documented in the scientific literature, the effect of one genetic variation cannot completely account for major differences in our personalities. Individual behaviors are the result of complex interactions between our genes and environment. Nonetheless, being aware of possible contributing factors to your ability to maintain focus and avoid stress is valuable to optimize your mental fitness and be your best. Whether you’re a strategist, warrior, or somewhere in between, we recommend focusing on technique optimization, mindfulness, visualization, stress-reduction, mental resilience techniques, and proper training to maximize performance from walk-through to game day.
(1) Finlay & Zigmond, 1997. “The Effects of Stress on Central Dopaminergic Neurons: Possible Clinical Implications,” Neurochemical Research 22(11):1387–94.
(2) Tortora & Derrickson, 2013. Principles of Anatomy and Physiology, 14th Edition, Wiley Global Education.
(3) Malhotra et al., 2002. “A Functional Polymorphism in the COMT Gene and Performance on a Test of Prefrontal Cognition,” American Journal of Psychiatry 159(4):652–54.
(4) Voelcker-Rehage et al., 2015. “COMT Gene Polymorphisms, Cognitive Performance, and Physical Fitness in Older Adults” Psychology of Sport & Exercise 20(C): 20–28.
(5) Hernaus et al., 2013. “COMT Val 158 Met Genotype Selectively Alters Prefrontal [18F]Fallypride Displacement and Subjective Feelings of Stress in Response to a Psychosocial Stress Challenge,” PLoS ONE 8(6):e65662.
(6) Diamond et al., 2007. “The Temporal Dynamics of Emotional Memory Processing: A Synthesis on the Neurobiological Basis of Stress-Induced Amnesia, Flashbulb and Traumatic Memories, and the Yerkes-Dodson Law,” Neural Plasticity: Article ID 60803.