We’re all aware of how important it is for athletes to deal with the potential pressure that surrounds their respective games, performances and expectations. Michelle Paccagnella, an Australian Sports Psychologist, described pressure as a feeling which is created by one’s reaction to performance within sporting situations, potentially influencing the mind. Pressure is mentally conceived and can naturally be channelled in different ways with both positive and negative effects. Clearly, athletes can use pressure to gain an edge in motivation, concentration and enjoyment, whilst conversely it could have a detrimental effect and stress can influence an athlete’s mindset.
In recent weeks, we havewitnessed these two sides of pressure. During the recent Euro 2016, with so much expectation and media exposure, England’s anxiety and capitulation against Iceland was painfully evident. And less than two weeks later, Andy Murray excelled and managed the pressure and expectation against an opponent that he was comfortably expected to beat. So, what was happening here?
Pressure has many layers to it. At one level, it can be internal as in the beliefs we hold about how we are likely to p erform. This can also include distancing ourselves from repeated errors or a more recent difficult memory that will no doubt impede performance. At another level, pressure is external and will be heavily linked to the environment which we find ourselves in so within the sporting arena, this may be the crowd effect, our team colleagues, opponents, and much else. Though we cannot completely reduce the multitude of pressures in a scientific manner given how many confounding variables are likely to be at play, it remains crucial for athletes to have coping strategies and mechanisms in place. Invariably, a situation of pressure is likely to arise which requires athletes to be able to access the mental tools and capacity to cope.
There are far too many explanations of the origins of pressure including parental expectations, one’s own wishes in relation to the outcome (i.e. result, reward, selection, financial), others’ perceptions (i.e. team mates, coaches, friends),press/media, physical/mental preparation, crowd/audience/fans, specific content/context of the game (as in the perceived importance and difficulty of the game), physical/mental strength/preparation, previous performances (successful and unsuccessful), competing life circumstances (i.e. relationships, lifestyle, other work/study), and much more. Sometimes, it is simply acknowledging these potential pressures.
If athletes are to deal with pressure and expectation, they may need to diminish this arousal state and anxiety, and almost return to a more basic and primitive appreciation of their activity. Of course, most athletes would have entered their particular fields for the love of their game and this frame of reference may be a key tool in removing them from a potentially difficult circumstance. There have been so many examples of teams demonstrating this capacity. Football fans will recall that Liverpool coming back from 3-0 down in a Champions League final to win the game. Their players remained calm and collected in these high stressful situations and may have simply returned to the more fluid and pre-conscious enjoyment that was critical in their initial exposure and motivation which brought them both to the game and their success.
Given that pressure is self-imposed, we may need to learn to manage it by thinking of it as an illusion. It is a feeling constructed from one’s perception of a situation and not governed by reality. Above all, we can control it and shift our negative energies into more positive ones. For many individuals, this capacity to shift is more straightforward given a whole range of different personality characteristics, whilst for others, it is challenging and may require coaching and individual work to facilitate movement. We need this mindset that can deal with pressure. It will become even more essential when an athlete has the insatiable desire and expectation to remain at the top of their game.
With the help of experts in the field, athletes may need to use marginal gains or additional factors to help enhance both their own and their team’s opportunity to succeed. Marginal gains may include factors unrelated to their game such as nutrition, psychological welfare, mental focus and much more. Such factors may well provide certain athletes with that significant but often slight advantage over others.
Of course athletes always encounter pressure in their career. If athletes can master the use of coping mechanisms, then they will be able to deal with situations and effectively the world is their oyster. One can only speculate what went right for Andy Murray in a pressurised situation and what conversely went wrong for the England football team. Clearly, though Murray is partaking in an individual sport, and football represents a more complex game with group or team mentality at its core, both are comparable in terms of pressure management. Let’s think about how England may have been surprised to have been trailing 2-1 to debutant minnows Iceland in the last 16 of Euro 2016 when it was almost seen to be an eventuality that England would be progressing to the quarter finals and beyond. They were thrust into an escalating pressurised situation and the players failed to respond to the challenge and faltered both individually and as a team. Indeed, one can only speculate that they responded to the pressure with dread and fear. Less than two weeks later, headlines of Andy Murray’s second Wimbledon championship had almost been assumed before he had even hit a ball in the Men’s Final, but seemingly he came on the court against his relatively inexperienced opponent and chose to embrace the situation and elevate his stature and performance. Of course, this is a clichéd and oversimplified appraisal of two situations but both point to the integral presence of pressure and expectation, and how mental skills, training and resources were used differently in order to manage and control. In Murray’s case, and so many other ones, athletes have learnt and mastered the skills and tolls to respond in the appropriate way. Of course, we cannot predict all the factors that may need to prepare for but we can reflect widely on what may come our way. Athletes will always feel the strain from the media, their peers, their fellow athletes, and the public, but as Jenson Button, the racing driver and former Formula One champion once said “The greatest pressure comes only from myself”. It is how we control and channel the pressure into a performance that maximises one’s strengths and minimises the weaknesses.
So what tips can be used for athletes to allow pressure to be a positive force?
- Stay in the present and let the outcome take care of itself
- Treat all practice and training as the best preparation for the real performance and maintain the level.
- Always stay committed and hungry even when things go wrong.
- Always focus on the right thing at the right time, regardless of other distractions.
- Slow down even when under pressure.
- Stay relaxed, calm and focused.
- Only use positive thoughts and eliminate negative ones.
- Don’t try to achieve perfection, instead go for excellence
- Always remember and recall what you have practiced and the rest will pay off.
- Maintain your belief in yourself, no matter what the situation.
Dr Saul Hillman is a counsellor/hypnotherapist/NLP coach with specialised training in the sports arena. He is based at Belsize Health and can work both locally and further afield.