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Performing under pressure – how do athletes do it?

How do athletes keep their cool under extreme pressure? Dr Philip Clarke, Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Derby Online Learning, discusses pressure management in sport and tactics to help.

By Dr Philip Clarke - 9 February 2018

In sport, the difference between success and failure depends on an individual’s ability to successfully execute motor skills under heightened levels of pressure. The formula for performing under pressure is something that athletes, coaches and researchers alike are all striving to understand. One of the main barriers, yet one of the most exciting aspects of sport, lies in its unpredictability; you can’t really control the outcome of the sporting event, but can only control how you react to the event in giving yourself the best chance at winning.

With the Winter Olympics beginning this week in Pyeong Chang in South Korea (February 9-25), this provides athletes an opportunity to perform and succeed at the pinnacle of their sport, and with that comes an awful lot of pressure to perform. This is further emphasised by the fact these athletes have spent the last four years working towards this one competition that, in some cases, can last only a couple of minutes (for example bobsleigh). Therefore, it is important that these athletes grasp the occasion with two hands and don’t let the event get the better of them. So, with this in mind, we can look at some strategies that athletes can use to help perform better under pressure, which can also be applied to any performance environment such as exams or work.

Controlling the controllables

One of the most common principals with sport and performance psychology is controlling the controlables. As humans, we like to feel we have influence over our success and outcomes, and when we don’t, it can provide additional stress and pressure. For instance, in high pressure environments it very easy for us to focus our attention on things that are completely out of our control such as the competition, the outcome, opponents, the crowd and even the weather. These factors only distract us from the task at hand, and means we miss key cues that we should be focusing on. The only thing you do have control over is your performance, so concentrate on how you respond to these uncontrollable factors and the mindset you have towards these. An example of this can be seen from Olympic Gold medallist Michael Johnson, who says:

I have learned to cut out all unnecessary thoughts…on the track. I simply concentrate. I concentrate on the tangible…. On the track, on the race, on the blocks on the things I have to do. The crowd fades away and the other athletes disappear and now it’s just me and this one lane.

How you view competition

In any given situation, people will either view it in a negative or a positive way.  Research shows that individuals who view competition as a challenge are more positive and confident of their performance, than those who view it as a threat who are likely to experience anxiety. Therefore, work on viewing every opportunity as a chance to learn and showcase your abilities rather than an opportunity to fail. This change of viewpoint means that you are more likely to be engaged and positive with your performance (i.e. playing to win) and taking more risks rather than playing negative and defensive (i.e. playing not to lose).  An example of this comes from the most decorated Olympian of all time (23 Gold Medals) Michael Phelps, who said:

You can look at pressure in two different ways. Its either going to hurt you or help you. I see it as something that helps me. If their pressure on me or someone thinks I can’t do something it’s going to make me work even harder.

Be where your feet are

When the pressure is on, it is very easy to start thinking about what has happened in your past (i.e. previous performance at an Olympics) or thinking about the future (needing one good shot to win Olympic gold). This links in with the first tip of controlling the controllables; you can’t control the past, you can’t control the future, but you can influence it by remaining in the present and giving your full attention to the task at hand so you don’t get distracted. This is again epitomised by golfer Doug Sanders, who missed out on winning his first major competition:

I made the mistake about thinking which section of the crowd I was going to bow to! I had the victory speech prepared before the battle was over…. I would give up every victory I had to have won that title. It’s amazing how many different things to my normal routine I did on the 18th hole. There’s somethings for psychologists there, the way that the final hole of a major championship can alter the way a man thinks.

So, in essence, be consistent (with your routines) and be present.

Prepare your brain

Your brain can be your greatest ally or your greatest enemy therefore you want to view your brain as a muscle and, like any muscle, you need to train it to get stronger and act in a certain way. Look at your mental routine and try incorporating some psychological skills into your performance routines. This can include imagery, self-talk or relaxation to help get you to your optimal zone. Working with a sport psychologist can help you develop your mental skills and provide you with the mental reps to make your brain more effective in those pressure situations.  For example, ex-Irish rugby player Ronan o’Gara spoke how important imagery was in helping him score the winning kick to win the first six nations for Ireland in 63 years in 2009:

I picked out three numbers in the stands behind the posts. I can still picture them perfectly. That was my target. I visualised the ball going through and kept that image. I played it in my mind a few times… this what it comes down to now. One chance.

Get comfortable being uncomfortable

Whenever you are competing in sport, especially at an Olympics, you are going to be performing in a high-pressured environment so you want to get yourself as best prepared for this by training in situations that are as close to that environment as possible. Thus, you can start to become as comfortable as possible in the uncomfortable pressure environment. This is almost where the analogy of practice makes perfect comes from. However, practice is not enough, its perfect practice makes perfect. When planning your training in the lead up to a competition remember the 7 P’s: ‘Proper Practise and Preparation Promotes Personal Peak Performance’. By doing so, individuals develop a greater level of mental toughness and resilience due to be almost used to these conditions. This is further emphasised by the Australian women’s Hockey team who won gold at the 1988 Olympics. The team’s coach revealed the team practised under adversity such as gamesmanship (especially verbal sledging or name calling) and bad umpiring decisions in preparation for the finals.

Are you preparing for a sporting event? What works best in controlling the pressure for you? Comment below and let us know.

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About the author

Dr Philip Clarke
Senior Lecturer in Psychology

Dr Clarke's area of expertise is in performance under pressure and the psychological predictors and mechanisms that are associated, specifically for 'choking' and 'the yips' within sport.

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