Athletes love competition. That’s why you play, right?
But for some athletes their love gets lost in the shuffle when pressure situations appear. Why is that? Why do some athletes excel in pressure and others seem to choke?
There are many reasons why this happens, but the reality is that dealing with pressure situations is key to mastering your sport.
The state you should aim for, while playing your sport, is one where during the most pressure-filled moments you are working with ease and grace and confidently conquering your most challenging moments.
Some of the feelings you may feel prior to big competitions and pressure situations are:
These are all normal behaviors. Even professional athletes and olympians feel some of these sensations. The difference between executing in pressure situations successfully versus unsuccessfully depends on how you handle these feelings.
Some athletes, when hit with pressure situations deal with them in a way that leads to even more problems such as:
Sometimes more pressure leads to more tensing, which leads to more panic, which leads to more pressure. And the cycle continues in competition to where the athlete gets stuck or frozen and can’t perform at all. Or they mess up or choke.
In the book entitled, “Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To,” authored by Sian Beilock, details what happens when the body cracks under pressure and gives some insight as to how to conquer this phenomenon. Sean
If this has happened to you, keep reading.
The athletes that perform well under pressure have learned how to handle the normal physiological occurrences that take place before and throughout competition.
Here are some of the tips and tools when you get to feeling the pressures of the moment but want to continue to perform at a high level.
The best performers are those that prepare. Do you have a competition strategy? Have you had a chance to think about all the scenarios that could possibly happen and what you will do to handle them?
Know what you need to do to perform at your best. Being prepared allows you to play with more confidence. More confidence prepares you to more easily get in a state of calm when the pressure situations show up.
Nothing can slow the mind and heart down like breathing can. Before the game or before a big moment, collect your breath. Slow it down and get to a calm state. This may take some practice. And it may require a couple breaths depending on the circumstance. For example if you just ran up and down a basketball court and now you have to shoot a game-winning free throw, it may take a couple of breaths to slow your body down to a focused and calm state.
If you are in competition for the pole vault, you may have a little more time in between jumps. Your breathing may look a little different than the basketball situation, but the outcomes are the same. Performing at a high level means you are in a state of calm in a pressure situation, where you can focus on the task you are performing.
Why are you here? You play because you love it. You play because you are good at it. You play because it brings you fun. This opportunity, though under a little pressure, is why you love it. Embrace the opportunity to play in intense situations.
For two seconds when competition has stopped, take a trip back to when you first began playing your sport. You loved it and wanted to put everything you had into it. And here you are still loving it. Have fun with this pressure situation. Let it bring you the joy of competition.
Even if you are an individual sport, you have a team. That team wears the same uniform you do. For example, in tennis, you might be a singles player, but you have a team and coaches behind you supporting you.
You might have parents, grandparents, or other family members encouraging you to do your best. They may attend your competitions, brag about you to their friends, make meals for you, trek you around to the competitions, and support your efforts in sport.
You might have friends who love the fact that you are an athlete and who support and encourage you as well.
Don’t forget to thank these people who are thrilled that you play the sport you play.
Also be grateful for the athletes that played your sport before you did. Learn how the great ones became great. Read and learn about them. They all have stories and they are all telling these stories. You can find many former athletes on social media or just by surfing the internet.
We talked earlier about loving to play your sport, but have you ever thought about loving the actual sport itself? Yes, I mean love the sport. Love the ball. Love the match. Love the pool. Love the course. Love the rules. Love the nets. Love the bases. Love all of it.
If not for all those things, your sport would not exist. Love the way you have to score. Love the way you have to defend the other team. Love the lines that are the boundaries of your sport. Love the obstacles you have to get through to win your sport. Love the competition. Love the crowd. Love the noise your shoes make. Love how you look in uniform. Love the shoes you wear or the fact that your sport doesn’t require shoes in the case of a swimmer.
There is so much to love about your sport. Love and embrace all of it.
When are the times when you felt confident in your sport. Remember the time when you hit the big shot, or broke a personal record with a time or a jump. Remember when you won a game, match, round, or tournament. What did that feel like?
You were on top of your game. You were on top of the world. You were unstoppable. Remember what that felt like?
How would you describe yourself in one of those instances?
You may have felt some of these:
Now put this sentence before all of the words and phrases above:
You describe those moments for you and come up with some words that you can say to yourself in competitions.
Other affirmations you could try:
With some practice, these words and the sensations they bring will come to you when you call on them in competition. There are so many words you can choose. Pick some and start practicing saying these words to yourself daily and in competition.
Just think of all the time you have put into your sport already. You have sacrificed family, friends and even down time. You have had to make decisions about when to do homework, chores, and social life around sport.
Celebrate your sacrifice and your commitment to being the best you can be. It is already paying off for you. Allow it to drive you forward and make you better.
All you have to do is practice. It’s hard to practice pressure. For many athletes practice is practice and games are completely different. But if you are a true competitor, who wants to win, you learn how to bring the game, and your competitive state, into the practice setting.
Make your own pressure in practice. Set up your own competitions so you have to work harder to reach a goal or outcome. Be hard on yourself only to attempt putting pressure on the situation you are in.
For example, some athletes, when given a time to run a sprint, will coast at the end of the race when they know they have seconds to spare. But as an example of how to challenge yourself, if the coach says to run the sprint in 25 seconds, give yourself 24 seconds. If the coach says do 3 sets of 8 reps, try doing 3 sets of 9 reps. If you have to make 5 free throws, in a row, at the end of practice, tell yourself you have to make 6 in a row.
Try to get yourself in the game situation that you expect to experience during competitions – the ones that you know you’ll feel the most pressure. Win those in practice.
A group of teammates talk about how being an athlete empowered them for life beyond sports.