** Please note this post is a copy from my previous blog and was originally posted in Feb 2014**
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a blog about how pressure can affect athletes and gave some famous (or infamous, as the case may be) examples. I also included a list of internal and external sources pressure can manifest from (i.e. expectations of others, importance of performance, errors or mistakes, etc). This blog entry follows the same subject, but provides some suggestions for what athletes can do to better cope with pressure and not let it negatively impact their performance.
There are essentially two forms of stress: eustress (positive) or distress (negative). When something is perceived as being eustressful, it can be helpful; however, when something is perceived as distressful, we need more reserves of physical and emotional energy. Therefore, the athlete’s perception of an event (as eustressful or distressful) is key. Which really means that a disciplined mind is the key.
Pressure is created by our own thoughts. Pressure does not have a physical form. Rather, it is simply how we perceive the situations we are in. Once an athlete realizes pressure is something they create, they can also understand that it is therefore something they can control.
Your body and your mind will automatically respond to situations; the challenge is knowing what to do with the physical and mental energy that result from such situations. Too much energy, and you will be over-peaked. Too little energy will leave you not properly engaged. Athletes want to achieve balance between the two so they can hit the “sweet spot.” A disciplined mind is aware of when your body reaches the “sweet spot” and will hover in that area; allowing athletes to perform at their optimal level.
Some suggestions for learning how to reach – and stay in – that optimal performance level are as follows:
Calm Your Body – Learn how to create and maintain a sense of calmness wherever you are, and whatever situation you may be in. One of the most effective ways to do this is through deep breathing, or yoga breathing. Start out by cultivating deep breathing in a calm, comfortable, and quiet place. Close your eyes if you like and focus on relaxing your body. Place one hand on your stomach and one hand on your heart and observe your breath. Place the tip of your tongue to the roof of your mouth, and gradually begin to take slower and deeper breaths through your nose. Inhale until your lungs are fully expanded and you feel the hand on your abdomen rise. Pause for a moment at the top of the breath. Slowly exhale through your nose until the hand on your abdomen falls back to the starting position. I usually like to inhale and exhale to about 8 (slow, measured) counts each. After several deep breaths like this, observe the hand placed over your heart and notice your heart rate gradually slowing to a more relaxed state. Continue for ten breaths. Practice daily. Slowing your breath will physiologically return your body to a more relaxed state, and your mind will automatically connect this exercise with a relaxed state as well.
Focus Your Mind – The natural state of our mind is to wander. Therefore, athletes’ goal should be to increase self-awareness in order to be able to focus the mind and be more aware of their emotional state. This in turn allows the athlete to be more present in whatever activity they are engaged in. One way to increase focus and awareness is through meditation.
Here is a good link with general information and tips about meditation for beginners: http://zenhabits.net/meditation-for-beginners-20-practical-tips-for-quieting-the-mind/
Be Confident: Create a perpetual state of confidence by learning how to guide your thoughts. Learn to be aware of, and control, your internal dialogue (i.e. self talk). First you must have a clear understanding of your internal dialogue. Be mindful of the internal conversation you have with yourself in stressful situations. If your self-talk is positive and supports the direction in which you hope to go, great! However, if the dialogue in your head is negative and destructive, begin by being aware of it and then learn to guide your thoughts to a more positive and productive state. Journaling or logging your thought pattern in stressful situations can be one tool to help change your automatic thoughts and self-talk. Begin by observing your internal dialogue in stressful situations and write it down. Underneath the negative statements, begin to write positive reframes. An example of negative self-talk would be: “My horse hates water jumps. He is going to refuse!” A positive reframe would be, “I know my horse hates water jumps, so we have practiced them at home. He has been doing much better, and will not refuse. This is the same thing we have practiced at home.” Internal dialogue is something that can be difficult to change, depending on how engrained in our psyche it is. Therefore, if this is something you are struggling with, a counselor would be able to help you learn how to reframe your negative thoughts into positive ones.
Some other general tips and thoughts about performing in stressful situations are listed below:
- Pressure exists when you are concerned about the outcome. There are not many differences between practice and competition. It’s the same type of equipment, same strategies, same rules. Nothing has changed in terms of how you play the sport. Therefore, learn to approach high-pressure situations as though they are practice. Train your mind to stay in the present moment and focus.
- Learn to practice at the same level you compete at. Some athletes are under the impression that all the separate successful moments in training will eventually combine together in competition to result in a higher level of performance. This is not necessarily the case. Learn to train as you mean to compete.
- You must practice high-pressure/stressful situations in training. You need to be able to practice your techniques for high-pressure situations, so that they become normalized.
- Identify the actions/skills that suffer most when you are stressed. Put extra time into practicing these skills so that you are confident with them under any circumstance.
- Practice, practice, practice. Train hard
- Learn to focus your mind, regardless of what is going on around you
- Practice relaxation exercises (such as deep breathing, mentioned above). There are numerous articles and books on other techniques (muscle relaxation, visualization, guided imagery, etc.), or a counselor will be able to provide you with numerous options.
- Strive to be the best you can be; not perfection. Learn how to recover from mistakes and bounce back quickly. Perfection is not an attainable goal.
- Focus on technique and strategy. Pay attention to the things you have practiced – they are familiar to you, and are the same whether in training or competition.
There is new research that has been published by the American Psychological Association (APA) that pertains to routines/rituals, and their effect on an athlete’s performance. See my next blog for more information!
I am going to end this blog entry with a quote I really love from Theodore Roosevelt: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how a strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat, and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at best knows in the end triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly…”