This week’s question: How can your child compete comfortably in pressure situations?
All athletes face it: those times when the going gets tough or stakes are high and routine shots, plays, or actions become easier said than done.
It’s especially frustrating when those shots, throws, or actions are ones that the athlete has completed thousands of times in practice or in previous competitions.
It’s a crippling feeling; muscles become tight, myriad what if’s swarm the mind, and quick movements turn to molasses.
To put it simply, the athlete is unable to play freely and pressure is often the cause.
Athletes of all levels experience pressure for various reasons. It could be expectations of self, coaches, or teammates. It could be a fear of losing to an opponent that the athlete knows they’re better than. It could be worries of poor play leading to being benched or cut.
Regardless of the reason, pressure is a part of sport that will always exist…and finding ways to acknowledge it, cope with it, and play through it are key to an athlete finding their extra gear during competition.
Our team spoke with athletes on what helps them complete freely in pressure situations. Here are some common responses and what our mental performance coaches recommend to help your athlete complete freely when the pressure hits.
Feel free to share these tips and advice with your student athlete.
Athlete: I play freely under pressure when I let go of expectations.
Dr. Kirbi Kidd: Expectations can be very difficult for athletes. Not only are there inner-expectations, but there are often expectations from parents, teammates, and coaches. When expectations turn to pressure, the biggest concept that I love to explore with athletes is remember the love, remember the love of the game. Get back to that origin story, get back to why you love the sport that you play. Was it completing that shot, the feeling of hitting or shooting the ball, maybe hitting the ice? Go back to the points that have made you fall in love with the sport that you play.
Use that to help loosen up, and tap into the heart’s inner competitor. It might sound romanticized and you might not have the opportunity to instantly tap into that, but if you can acknowledge that letting go of expectations is also tied to a little bit of anticipatory anxiety, that’s important. When expectations and pressure hit, a lot of athletes play through 10 million scenarios in their head. When you take a moment to acknowledge your thoughts and then take a moment to acknowledge that you’re in the present, think about what is within your control. That can help get rid of the jitters and help you be realistic.
Athlete: I try not to focus on the outcome.
Dr. Kirbi Kidd: There’s a sneaky thing that our society likes to do: wrap our performances up in wins and losses. Yet that’s just a small part of performance. The entire package includes things like fundamentals, how you’re feeling, and utilizing and growing your sport IQ.
I enjoy being able to recognize and call out when the outcome goal has superseded the process goal. It needs to be flipped. In the moment and when you feel that pressure, it’s important to ask yourself, what can I control? You can control your process. There are a lot of variables out there that can impact the outcome that are out of your control, for the better, worse, and indifferent. But the controllables are within the process.
Does your process include that you prepare and take in every controllable moment to build the stamina and endurance needed for big moments? Have you made sure to listen to your coaches and communicate with your teammates in those moments? If you have that, you have the ingredients needed to determine at least a good product. You don’t know what the outcome will be, but by controlling the controllables and acknowledging that, you’ll be able to bring the best that you can offer on that day.
Athlete: I acknowledge that I’m feeling pressure for a reason.
Dr. Adam Gallenberg: You’ve probably told yourself to calm down or recited ‘everything is alright’ in pressure moments. Chances are, it didn’t help you calm down and play freely.
Instead use reappraisal. We interpret our pressure as nervousness and will often go down this road of needing to get rid of the nervousness. Instead, when you’re shaking and nervous because you feel the pressure, tell yourself hey, this is a good thing because it means that you’re feeling something, something is about to happen. That pressure is there because it means that you care. Acknowledge that and remind yourself what is in your control. Even if it’s a playoff game versus a regular season game, the free throw line is still the same distance, the hoop is still the same height.
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