With competition season beginning or already in the swing of things for many sports, it’s important that we talk about the most overlooked aspect of competing, which is the added pressure.
People say that Michael Jordan performs better under pressure, and a lot of us think we do too. I used to always say that I performed better in a stressful exam than I did just doing homework. Some people will say that the pressure drives them to make better choices on the fly – but the reality is we don’t actually perform better when under pressure. Evidence actually tells us that no one performs as well as they might if they were in a less stressful environment. Even Jordan.
People that stand out in those moments of pressure, like Jordan, are usually able to navigate the environment OK because they are able to dull the negative effects of pressure (but they’d still perform better without it). Also in cases like MJ, the rest of the team performs so much worse under pressure so that it miraculously look like he is the only person who can handle it. In reality, his baseline just started at a higher level.
According to “Performing Under Pressure: The Science of Doing Your Best When it Matters Most” (Weisinger & Pawliw-Fry 2015) the follow things can help your athletic performance when you’re feeling the heat:
1. Focus on the task not the outcome.
Focusing your mental power on the outcome of the game is not helpful for athletes. In fact, it can be quite distracting. Trying to centre your mind into the moment will help to reinforce the idea that you need to focus in on the task at hand.
2. Mentally prepare and plan for the worst
In your down time, think about your strategy. Come up with ideas to help you even if the worst case scenario happens. Replay it over in your mind. Drill techniques that would be answers to situations and have an action plan – “if this happens, then what?”. Becoming proficient at being a problem solver will ease your mind and your body when the moment of pressure hits you in competition.
3. Focus on the factors that you can control
As an athlete there are many things that we can control. We can control our technique, our speed, our body language. What we can’t control is our opponents next move or the crowd screaming from the sidelines. Focus in on only the things that you know you can change and control. This will easy your mind and put your head in the right place. Use the tools that you have mastered and drown out the excess noise.
4. Think back to past success
Try and remember back to when you were in this situation before. How did you handle it to get the job done? Another benefit of doing this is that it has been shown to increase confidence in athletes and eases doubt in their minds. Use the tool of self reflection to remind yourself of your past success.
5. Slow down your thought process
When it starts heating up on the court or on the mat, it’s likely that your mind is going to start racing a hundred miles an hour. Usually as a result of adrenalin pumping through your body and the millions of different stimuli around you, it’s going to be hard to calm your mind.
Try and practice mindfulness techniques during training and also when you’re resting. Try and focus on the task at hand and nothing else. Put everything else out of your mind and go into autopilot. Becoming efficient at using mindfulness has been shown to increase mental toughness and will help you stay controlled under pressure.
6. Think of these moments as fun challenges and not as a life or death threat
Going hand in hand with a lot of the other points, is the idea that we want to try and control our body and mind when the adrenalin hits. The problem with adrenalin is that it sends very strong signals to our bodies and sometimes it gets a little out of hand. Our blood is pumping, our pupils are dilated, our mind is racing, we start shaking and occasionally our body can’t handle it. You’ve likely heard of “flight or fight” mode, and this is exactly what we want to control. We want to utilise adrenalin for a good, purposeful reason, so we need to try and tell out bodies that this is not a life or death situation, and we cannot run from it.
The easiest way to do this, is to try and see the situation as a challenge that is fun and enjoyable. Tell ourselves that it is not life and death and we have all the tools necessary to get the job done.
“seeing pressure as a threat undermines self confidence; elicits fear of failure; impairs short term memory, attention and judgement; and spurs impulsive behaviour”
The most important thing that you should take away from this is that performing at your peak will never happen under pressure. Likely, you will be better in practice in the comfort of your training environment. What we can change however, is the baseline in which we start at (improve techniques so that when under pressure you can execute them effectively) and the way in which we control our mind and bodies when faced with these situations.
Hope this helps.