Think back to the last time you felt under pressure. It probably was not too long ago… and this article is all about accepting that it is ok, it comes with life, and you are most definitely not alone with it. But since this is a sport psychology website let’s focus on sport. Sport is practically synonymous with pressure. The better you get the harder it is going to get because the pressure that is being put on you is only going to increase. The stakes are only going to increase, what is at stake if you lose a competition/game at school? academy? national? international championships?
But let’s start at the beginning. What is pressure?
Hendrie Weisinger made a really key distinction between stress and pressure in his book (Weisinger & Pawliw-Fry, 2015). Pressure refers to a situation when you perceive that something is at stake depending on your performance, whereas stress is when there are too many demands (e.g. a training or class that runs late, or a long list of emails) but not enough resources – time, money, energy. Thus, the aim of dealing with those two feelings are somewhat completely different. When you are stressed the aim is to reduce the stress, but when you are under pressure the aim is to perform! But how can we do that when our heart is pounding, our mind is all fuzzy and we can’t think clear?
1. It is ok
Let’s accept and acknowledge that there will always be a competition/game/training or a life situation that will put you under pressure. And that is ok.
2. Challenge or threat? It is a matter of perception
How you look at the pressure situation is vital. It is all about your perception of the situation. Use pressure to your advantage, think about as it is great opportunity to show everybody what you've got! Because you simply would not be performing at that competition at that level if you didn’t deserve to be there.
“Pressure is nothing more than the shadow of a great opportunity” (Michael Johnson)
3. The red and blue model
Dr. Ceri Evans proposed the red-blue model when working with the All Blacks (Evans, 2019). Threat stimulates the red system which is primed for survival, it is your gut feeling. The blue system is about potential, it is your thinking, decision-making and logical brain. But, the red system is much more powerful than the blue, so in pressure situation you want the blue system firing while the red system is also firing. Because, when we lose our blue control, we end up reacting impulsively.
4. Control the controllables
As simple as it is. There is no point in thinking and worrying about things that are out of your control, such as how your opponent is going to play, and the outcome of the game because again that depends largely on your opponent. But what you can control is things like your effort, your attitude, and technical elements to your position. Say “I’m going to give 100%” rather than “I am going to win” because a - you can’t control that, b - what happens if you have given it your all but lost?
This way you are focusing all your attention to the right things because here is the thing, your brain has a limited capacity to take on new information so if it is being taken up by worries then there is no space for e.g. decision making. Think technical, the position of your foot, your arms, where you’re looking. If you think technical, then you are staying in the moment. And that is so important to focus on what can I do NOW to make a difference? Not about what happened in the last game (you can’t change that) not about what is going to be the outcome of the game (you can’t control that) so control what is happening NOW.
“There is a lot of pressure put on me, but I don’t put a lot of pressure on myself. I feel if I play my game, it will take care of itself” (LeBron James)
5. Failure to prepare is preparing to fail
The easiest things can give you confidence to know that you don’t have to worry about those – reducing the opportunity to feel under pressure. Have a pre performance routine prepared that starts the day before an important race. Have a very specific plan and stick to it. Get your outfit ready, prepare your snacks, know how you are going to get from A to B. Prepare your coping strategies, know what you are going to do if the unexpected happens. Have plan B's.
Lastly, some specific coping strategies to handle those pressure situations:
Progressive muscle relaxation
Blog posts about these strategies will be hyperlinked.
Evans, C. (2019). Perform under pressure. New Zealand: Thorsons.
Weisinger, H., & Pawliw-Fry, J. (2015). Performing Under Pressure. New York: Crown Business.