The New England Patriots recent come-from-behind Super Bowl victory once again highlighted the importance of dealing with pressure. Amazingly, the Atlanta Falcons choked and blew a 25 point lead to the Patriots in last week’s Super Bowl. Looking back, one team (Patriots) handled the pressure of being behind extremely well, while the other team (Falcons) looked like an entirely different team the second half trying to safely inch themselves to the finish line of the game. Sports pressure had a lot to do with the final outcome of this year’s Super Bowl, making it a topic worthy of discussion for athletes and coaches of all levels of sport.
What is “pressure?”
Pressure is experienced as a cognitive/emotional/behavioral response to challenging situations that we struggle to find the confidence in our abilities needed to succeed. People feel life pressure in a variety of ways, from trying to successfully parallel park their car in a tight spot, to providing the right answers during an important job interview. While responses will vary among people, common symptoms associated with pressure include the following:
- Impaired, sometimes irrational thinking
- Becoming overly-excited in situations that interferes with thinking and behaviors
- Experiencing a host of physiological hurdles, including shallow breathing and tight muscles
Pressure applied to sports
Athletes commonly experience their own unique sports pressure, and last week’s Super Bowl gave the world a glimpse at how important dealing with pressure is when it comes to outcomes of games. Tom Brady, arguably the greatest QB to ever live, calmly led the Patriots to the greatest Super Bowl comeback in the history of the NFL. The Falcons, however, were clearly impacted by the pressures of holding on to a lead, and in the end their conservative play resulted in a shocking upset for the ages. To the degree in which sports pressure impacted the outcome of the Super Bowl can be debated, but dismissing sports pressure as the main reason for the shocking outcome would be short-sighted in my opinion.
Sports pressure isn’t just something experienced by teams playing in the Super Bowl, as each day literally millions of athletes worldwide find themselves doubting their abilities and failing to live up to their full potential in sports as a result. Coaches routinely refer to these types of players as great “practice players,” implying that they play to their potential only in non-pressure situations (like practice).
Sports pressure concerns
Athletes who succumb to sports pressure usually experience a fairly predictable set of cognitive and behavioral symptoms. Probably the easiest cognitive, or thinking issue, occurs when an athlete shifts her thinking from playing to win to playing to avoid losing. Seemingly a subtle difference on the surface, this cognitive shift results in an entirely different mindset on the field. A vivid example of this phenomena occurred in the Super Bowl where we witnessed the Atlanta Falcons play very differently in the second half (scared and reserved) than they did in the first half (confident and focused).
In addition to changes in thinking, our bodies respond with similarly disruptive responses when succumbing to sports pressure. Typical increases in anxiety are witnessed by increased heart rate, shallow breathing, tense muscles, and stomach butterflies. Often what happens is that when an athlete begins to experience these symptoms, the necessary mind-body synchrony needed for muscle memory movements is disrupted, and the athlete begins thinking about “what if” in terms of losing, not winning.
Beat sports pressure
The good news is that athletes can improve dramatically when it comes to handling sports pressure, but it does take an open mind, objectivity, and a willingness to learn new mental toughness skills. Athletes need to first recognize that sports pressure is a hurdle they struggle with, then learn the latest sport psychology training skills and techniques that can dramatically reduce the negative stress experienced during games. Some of these skills include focus techniques, self-talk and cue word utilization, imagery, and behavioral techniques including deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation (click here for more help).
Sports pressure can be an athlete’s biggest opponent, sometimes even bigger than the actual competition faced on the field. Unfortunately, athlete’s don’t usually improve in how they handle sports pressure simply by chance, so take advantage of what we know about controlling anxiety so that you can see your game improve for the future. Are there specific tips/techniques you have used to beat sports pressure? Please feel free to share your advice so others athletes can benefit as well.