Under Pressure Part 2: Strategies for High Pressure Situations

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Under Pressure:choking

** 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…”

Under Pressure

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Bill Buckner    2004 yankees   Rangers WS

** Please note this post is a copy from my previous blog and was originally posted in January 2014**

Washington Redskins quarterback, Robert Griffin III (RG3), has recently been in the media not because of his play on the field, but because of his remarks on social media. With social media such as Facebook and Twitter, athletes and other public figures are much more available to the public and our opinions. Previously, what people said was kept to a relatively contained environment for the most part; however, now we are online saying these things and the reach is much greater.

 

RG3 recently took to his Facebook page to respond to a disgruntled fan saying: “You think I want it to be national news that I visit a beach? Or shop at Walmart? Or wore red shoes instead of green yesterday? …The ‘attention’ that comes with being a QB in the league is what you are referring to. All the press conferences and talking to the media? Mandated by the league to have a press conference every week during the season and during team activities during the off-season. Oh wait, you must be talking about the commercials? Right? …”

 

On one hand, being under that much scrutiny and constant attention must be difficult – there is no refuting that. However, that is what professional athletes sign up for; that is part of the job. Is it right or fair? I’m not the one to say. I am just saying it goes with the territory.

 

An athlete’s ability to succeed under pressure is what separates the true champions from the rest. The most elite athletes are rarely defined on their talent alone; but rather a combination of their physical and mental abilities. This is what allows them to not only perform, but thrive, when the stakes are high. However, that is not to say that this comes naturally to every athlete. Most have to work just as hard, if not harder, at the mental aspect of the game/sport as the physical side. That is where they can greatly benefit from working with a mental game coach or sport psychologist.

 

Pressure that athletes face can come from a number of both internal and external sources including:
  • Other people’s expectations (i.e. teammates, coaches, friends, relatives, spouses, etc)
  • Press and media expectations
  • Preparation for the competition
  • Effects of the crowd
  • Expectations about the competition and other competitors
  • Importance and difficulty of the competition/game
  • Timing (examples: How much time is left in the game; score)
  • Lack of confidence
  • Mistakes
  • Other areas of life that may compete for attention (examples: family, school, work)

 

Even the best of champions are not always immune to crumbling under pressure, or “choking.” Some of the most famous examples of choking include: the 1986 Boston Red Sox World Series; the 2004 New York Yankees American League Championship; my beloved Texas Rangers 2011 World Series; Rory McIlory’s 2011 Masters; and maybe even Tony Romo of the Dallas Cowboys (sorry Dad).

 

1986 Boston Red Sox – World Series: In Game 6 of the series the Red Sox were leading the game 5-3 in the bottom of the 10th inning with the bases empty and one out. In a string of events, Ray Knight singled on a two strike pitch to score Gary Carter and put the Mets down by 1. Kevin Mitchell then scored the tying run on a wild pitch. Finally, Mookie Wilson hit the infamous slow roller that went through Bill Buckner’s legs, allowing Knight to score the winning run. The Red Sox then went on to lose Game 7 and, therefore, the World Series. The “Curse of the Bambino” lived on.

 

2004 Yankees – AL Championship: The Yankees were leading the Red Sox three games to none; all was in place for the Yankees to advance to yet another World Series. In fact, no team in baseball history had come back to win four games in a row. However, the Red Sox proved it possible to do so. In the 9th inning of the 4th game David Roberts (a pinch runner) stole 2nd base and Mariano Rivera (arguably the greatest closer of all time) went on to blow the save. The Red Sox tied the game and then went on to win on a home run by David Ortiz in the 12th inning. The Red Sox ended up advancing to the World Series and winning for the first time since 1918.

 

2011 Texas Rangers – World Series: In Game 6 of the 2011 World Series the Texas Rangers had multiple opportunities to win their first WS ever; but ultimately failed to do so. In both the 9th and 10th innings the Rangers blew 2 run leads. Also in consecutive innings, the Rangers only needed one strike to win; and both times they failed. First, Neftali Feliz gave up a game tying triple that Nelson Cruz horribly misplayed. Then, in the 11th inning, David Freese hit a home run to end the game. In Game 7, although the Rangers scored first, they ended up losing 6-2. No team in baseball history had ever come from behind twice in the 9th inning and later to tie a WS game or take the lead. St Louis also became only the third team that was one out from elimination in the WS to rally and come back to win.

 

Rory McIlroy – 2011 Masters: Twenty-one year old Rory McIlroy began the last day of the 2011 Masters with a four stroke lead at 12 under. After 9 holes, he was at 11 under but his lead was cut down to 1. A triple bogey on No. 10 led to his collapse on the back nine. He ended up 8 over for the day with a final round score of 80 and ultimately tied for 15th with a total score of 4 under.

Tony Romo – Dallas Cowboys: I know that most Dalls Cowboys fans will agree with me when I say that Tony Romo can be both one of the most exciting players to watch, and also, one of the most frustrating players to watch. Since entering the NFL, Romo has consistently put up some of the best numbers in the league. Since taking over the starting job in 2006, Romo is tied for 5th in fourth quarter or overtime game winning drives with 19 — only Aaron Rogers and Peyton Manning are better since ‘06. Since 2010, Romo’s total QB rating in the first 12 minutes of the fourth quarter/overtime is 80 — 2nd best in the NFL behind P. Manning….BUT his rating drops to a (below-average) 44 in the final three minutes. Romo also leads the league in most fourth quarter/OT interceptions when the score was tied or leading by 7 or fewer points.

Resolution Refresher

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Strive for progress**Please note this post is a copy from my previous blog and was originally posted in January 2014**

“Strive for Progress not Perfection” is one of my favorite quotes because it is a great reminder for me. Learn to appreciate the journey and process, not just the end results. Don’t give up or get discouraged if you aren’t doing “perfectly.”

Here are some ideas, and maybe fresh approaches, to help you get started or keep going on your goals.

Specific and Attainable: Studies have found that those who set specific goals are more successful in achieving their goals. In order to change a habit, you also need to be aware of what it currently looks like and how it fits into your lifestyle. Keeping a journal of your habits is a good way to achieve this. For example, if you want to change your eating and/or exercise habits, keep a journal of what you’re currently eating and drinking and/or log your exercise. After 5-7 days, review it and look for any common trends.

 

Define your goals and then make them attainable. Goals that are too big are daunting and make us feel like we won’t ever accomplish what we set out to. Breaking a bigger goal into smaller pieces is another option. Smaller goals should develop habits that will eventually lead to your overall goal/resolution. Examples might be: exercising three times a week; eating a certain number of fruits/vegetables per day; or eating at home five days a week.

 

Have a Plan: Considering how you are going to achieve your goal/resolution may be the most important step. If you have a game plan/map for how you are going to achieve your goal, then you will actually know how to do it! Create a guide that will keep you on track and monitor your progress. Keep it simple!

 

Hold Yourself Accountable: Write your goals down, tell someone, and/or get a partner. If you choose to write your goals, write them using “I statements.” An example might be: I will exercise for 30 minutes three times a week. Put these statements/goals in high traffic areas in your house and/or office. Set reminders on your phone or in your planner.

 

Tell someone: Social media, apps, and websites can be great tools in getting your goals out there. Sharing your goals with others gives you a sense of responsibility to meet your objectives. Announce your intentions on Facebook or Twitter or join an online support group.

 

Get a Partner: Having a partner can definitely help keep you motivated and on-track. They will help hold you accountable to show up and meet you goals. They can also offer additional motivation and support. Therefore, enlist a friend to get on board with you or look for clubs at your gym or within your community.

 

Prepare for Slips: It is inevitable that there will come a day when you “cheat” or just don’t follow through. Do not fall victim to the all-or-nothing mentality! Meaning, do not derail all the progress you have made up to this point by giving up. If you plan for these moments, they are not as likely to get you off track. Plan for what you can do to motivate yourself to keep going in a positive direction. Setbacks are only temporary and can be great motivation to keep working. If several “slip-ups” happen, it might be necessary to evaluate how your plan is failing you and how you can modify it to get you back on track.

 

Change Your Environment: It is extremely difficult, if not nearly impossible, to quit or alter a behavior without replacing it. Therefore, think of healthy/positive alternatives. Most of us rely on willpower to change behavior. Willpower alone is not sufficient to change behavior. It comes and goes. Examples might look like removing junk food from the house or signing up for a fitness class. Surround yourself with positive support to stay on track.

 

Positive Thoughts and Visualization: Your goals have to be important to  you. The more personally meaningful a goal is, the more likely you are to stick to it. Make it a priority. Be flexible with yourself. Imagine yourself in the near future (i.e. 6 months to a year). What would it look like if you succeeded in your goal? What would that look like and feel like? “Do something today that your future self will thank you for.”

 

I hope these tips and ideas will help you achieve your goal and resolution this year. Now go get started on creating a successful system for yourself! And, remember, don’t just focus on the end result – learn to appreciate the journey too.