The late Chuck Noll, former Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame coach and four-time Super Bowl champion, was once quoted as saying that “you only feel pressure when you don’t know what you’re doing.” While Noll was not a psychologist, his words actually offer great wisdom for athletes trying to increase confidence, while simultaneously decreasing anxiety. Playing with confidence while controlling anxiety is a huge variable linked to on-field success, and Noll’s simplistic view of sports pressure provides a solution for athletes looking to gain an edge on the competition. For Chuck Noll, mental toughness started with one very important message: Know your job and role on the team, and pressure will be reduced dramatically.
The science behind Noll’s philosophy
Delving deeper into Chuck Noll’s words of inspiration and we can see that most scientists would agree that his message, while basic, was actually right on point. Human anxiety (pressure) is often driven by a lack of preparation and uncertainty, and knowing what is expected of you is the best way to mitigate those concerns. When we don’t know our job, we usually spend unnecessary energy over-thinking, worrying, and directing our focus toward factors that are irrelevant and/or uncontrollable. Put simply, not knowing what to do creates a fear of the unknown. Our uncertainty in these situations trigger biological, “fight or flight” responses that can play out physiologically through shallow breathing, rapid heart rate, increased perspiration, and stomach butterflies — all conditions that can interfere the natural rhythm and synchrony athletes long for during competition. While Chuck Noll may not have been thinking about his quote in this way, science does, in fact, support his claim.
Tips to overcoming pressure
Building from Chuck Noll’s expert advice on minimizing pressure, additional tips and ideas athletes can use include the following:
- Develop a pre-game routine. Have a pre-game plan that allows you to collect your thoughts, calm your mind and body, and get your emotions in a healthy and positive place. Your pre-game routine can include deep breathing, stretching, using imagery, or listening to music — or anything else that puts you in a good place to compete.
- Take control of your surroundings. Stress is inversely related to control, meaning the the more you feel in control, the less you experience stress. Knowing your plays, having your equipment ready to go, being on time, and having your focus solely on the game are all things that will provide comfort, and ultimately lessen anxiety.
- Learn to moderate arousal and direct thoughts. Even for athletes who generally stay calm during competition, there will always be the threat of nerves and anxiety disrupting focus. It is for this reason that athletes should learn arousal moderating techniques that allow them to stay calm during pressure situations. Imagery, deep breathing, positive self-talk, and progressive muscle relaxation are examples of techniques athletes can use that will tamp down nerves and allow for maximum effort and efficiency.
Sometimes the best advice in life seems so simple that it just can’t be effective — but in this case, Chuck Noll was onto something. By not worrying about lack of planning and uncertainties, athletes can direct focus toward relevant factors, experience success, and continue increasing self-confidence for even more future success. On the other hand, unprepared athletes worry about being exposed, play defensively and conservatively, and tend to experience less-than-optimal results. The great news is every athlete, regardless of talent, can learn his or her role and prepare accordingly — and by doing so prevent pressure from becoming a burden.