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Athletes Performing Under Pressure

Pressure is a perceived expectation of the need to perform well under challenging situations. Athletes in particular are known for either choking or excelling under extreme pressurized circumstances. Often, fear of failure is tied to pressure and can either fuel or exhaust athletes’ efforts. A few examples of how fear plays into an athletes’ performance:

  • Fear of disappointing others (coaches, parents, fans)
  • Fear of feeling embarrassed if they blow it
  • Fear of losing their place on the team if they underperform
  • Fear of not performing perfectly; of making mistakes
  • .
    An athletes’ level of experience, confidence, and self-belief play a vital role in how well he/she performs under pressure.

    Some athletes have to overcome beliefs set upon them by parental pressure such as unspoken thoughts of, ‘win or else I’ll withhold love and approval.’ The athlete must overcome that mental pressure by challenging their own thinking about the expectations they have adopted from their parents. They need to develop their own set of internal values and motivators.

    Sometimes the external pressures mixed with internal conflicts cause an athlete to not only make playing errors, but lose focus to the point that he/she loses interest in the sport altogether. It also seems that pressure-choking by an athlete comes into play when the athlete focuses too much on the intricacies of his skill or feels intimidated by the higher playing level of teammates or competitors.

    Sports psychologists serve an important role in helping athletes overcome the pressure so the athlete can focus on improving his/her skills so the skills become ingrained and automatic. Sports psychologists can also work with doctors to help the athlete successfully heal physically, mentally, and emotionally from injuries.

    Sports psychologists help athletes identify the trigger points for pressure and how the athlete can use that pressure to work for him instead of against him. Even stellar athletes feel pressure before a big game or match, but they’ve learned how to channel that pressure into positive intensity to boost performance.

    After the pressure trigger points are discovered and acknowledged, sports psychologists can then work with an athlete to identify what he/she should really be focusing on – performance – the next play, shot, or basket. An increase in successful moves or scores increases adrenaline flow.

    Unnecessary pressure hinders an athletes’ ability but adrenaline prepares the body for action. It increases oxygen flow to the bloodstream and also improves or extends the athletes’ physical performance capabilities. Now, that’s what we want to see on the field or court!

    Do you think athletes can permanently prevent pressure-choking with mental strength? I’d like to hear your thoughts.


    Image by Keithallison

    Image by Jurvetson

    3 Responses to Athletes Performing Under Pressure

    1. greggswanson June 2, 2010 at 2:39 pm #

      Michelle…you used my favorite phrase…”mental strength.” Since I am a mental strength coach I know that by using various techniques, including visualization, breathing, VMBR (visuo motor behavior rehearsal) and affirmation that not only athletes, but tactical athletes, i.e. police, military, etc and corporate athletes, i.e. sale people can dramatically reduce this perceived pressure.

      See, there really is no external pressure…a person can’t see the pressure. The pressure, stress and anxiety are all created in the mind. When an athlete can gain control over the thoughts that are creating the perceived pressure, they’ll then perform better “under pressure.”

      So it might not be that the perceived pressure never goes away, but the athlete learns how to perform better in spit of the pressure.

      Great post and this is fantastic topic!

    2. John Haime June 2, 2010 at 10:33 pm #

      Yes – this is a great topic – because it really separates the average and elite athlete. Those that can manage the pressures – will do well – those that can't manage the pressure – won't. Our emotions and emotional memory play a huge part in this and the emotions in turn shape our thinking. With negative emotional memories storied in the banks – thinking can go south in a hurry. Remember fear is an emotion. From my experience in working with some of the world's top athletes, unless these negative emotional memories are dealt with and managed – no amount of visualization, breathing etc. will be beneficial to the athlete – they are simply a band aid. I go in to the detail of this subject in my book “You are a Contender! Build Emotional Muscle to Perform Better and Achieve More … in Business, Sports and Life.” The book has some good solutions for athletes to get to know them selves better and then enable the key competencies characteristic of high performers.

      Thanks Michelle – well done.

    3. Maltese Joe June 11, 2010 at 5:05 pm #

      In order to effectively overcome an athlete's mental weaknesses/challenges, it's important to first accurately identify the key issues to address. Without scientific psychological performance assessments, like, one can only guess what specific issues are holding back an athlete from reaching his/her full potential. From there, trained sports psychologists can zero in on the problems and treat appropriately.

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