What changes about sport competition and on-field success when athletes go from practice to game situations? Obviously the rules stay the same, as do the field dimensions, and even the equipment (as illustrated in this classic scene from the movie Hoosiers), yet for many athletes the skills they display in practice seem to be completely lost when the lights shine. The simple answer to this question is the direct impact pressure has on sport performance, but what is pressure, and why do so many athletes experience pressure? And perhaps most importantly, can athletes succeed in pressure situations? If so, how?
Defining sports pressure
When athletes lose their focus and succumb to fear they dramatically increase the risk for performing below their potential. In some rare instances otherwise talented athletes have been completely overwhelmed, as in the case of athletes who experience the “yips,” a slang term for pressure that is witnessed in the most extreme instances of sport pressure — as in cases where baseball infielders can no longer make easy throws to 1st base.
Sports pressure — or the “yips” — is a form of heightened anxiety driven by fear (often irrational fear) that dramatically interrupts important mind-body synchrony (muscle memory), forcing athletes to spend more time and energy trying to gather themselves than focusing on their tasks/roles on the field. Sports pressure is experienced in unique ways with each individual athlete — in some cases athletes experience nausea, tense muscles, butterflies, increased heart rate and perspiration, or even all of these symptoms at once. While the symptoms of sports pressure are very real, the source of sports pressure is arguably the most important part of the equation and something that if improved upon, will lead to a decrease in pressure-related symptoms.
Beating sports pressure
In almost all cases of sports pressure we commonly see a fairly predictable stimulus-response pattern. When athletes experience fear, often played out in irrational ways (i.e. fear of failing, fear of letting everyone down, etc) the body responds with a host of physiological symptoms described a moment ago. Additionally, otherwise appropriate focus is replaced by trying to be perfect, or self-instruction to not screw up (rather than playing to win, the mindset turns to playing to avoid losing). Fortunately, there are several things athletes can do if they are serious about improving the ways in which they handle sports pressure:
- Take ownership of situations. Rather than getting caught up thinking about the opponent, try to instead focus on things that you control and are relevant to your success. Our minds can’t simultaneously think about messing up and doing well at the same time, so it really does come down to a conscious choice where to place your focus at any given moment.
- View games as challenges. Again, it is up to you how to frame situations in life, so choose wisely. When we decide to view competition as a challenge, only then will our minds and bodies work together in synchrony and allow for successful athletic movements. When we decide to view the competition as better than us, our fear-response kicks in and pressure takes over, limiting on-field success.
- Learn arousal-reducing strategies. Even if you struggle with taking ownership of situations and viewing the competition as a challenge, you can still beat sports pressure by learning arousal-reducing techniques. Skills like imagery, deep breathing, self-talk, cue words, and progressive muscle relaxation have all been found to be quite effective at both calming the body and improving focus.
The old saying forewarned is forearmed suggests that by expecting certain things to happen in life, we can prepare for them. It’s a wise move for athletes to prepare ahead of time for sports pressure, as there’s a good chance every athlete will experience sports pressure at some point in life (and some, sadly, will see their sports careers derailed by it). With that said, it’s a responsible to learn as much as you can about sports pressure, including specific strategies to minimize anxiety symptoms when they develop.