Written by: Rick Sessinghaus
Doctor of Psychology
Pres-sure: a: the burden of physical or mental distress
From a mental standpoint pressure is usually perceived as a negative force that affects thoughts and behavior. I have heard many elite athletes explain that pressure is self-inflicted. What is pressure for one athlete is not for another. There are 4 methods to reduce the negative affect of pressure and turn pressure into an ally. This article will review Redefinition, If/Then Visualization, Cue Words, and Breathing Techniques as methods to provide your athletes with mechanisms to deal with pressure.
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Method 1: Redefinition
The first goal is to help the athlete define pressure as something neutral instead of something to fear. Pressure triggers words such as “failure” which can make us feel nervous and anxious. Failure can be switched to “results”. This removes the negative connotation on things if they don’t work out as we might wish. We can then evaluate results and decide how to improve, instead of labeling them as failures which stops many from learning.
The first technique is to define the situation in a different way. This reframing will switch the perceived pressure to clarifying what is in the athlete’s control in the event. The greats in sports look at pressure as a positive. When they feel pressure it means this event is important and they are looking forward to the opportunity to show their skills. Rather than say, "I am tense and anxious", say, "I am excited, I am ready!”
Method 2: If/Then Visualization
The next technique is an If…Then visualization exercise. Most athletes under pressure are worrying about the outcome. Having the athlete visualize different scenarios before the actual event and seeing their desired behavior with each scenario will help the athlete gain control over the “what ifs”. When an athlete keeps focusing on the potential outcomes the focus shifts away from the process and stays on the potential negative outcomes. Actually visualizing potential pressure situations will reduce the anxiety in the future as the athlete imagines ways to perform. This preparation helps the athlete gain confidence that they will be able to handle whatever situation arises.
Method 3: Cue Words
When the athlete is in the present, pressure doesn’t exist. Pressure only exists as worrying about the future. This is where training with focus cues will bring the athlete back to the present moment. For golfers I ask, “What is the lie of this ball and how will it affect the ball flight?” For a batter in baseball it is watching the release point of the pitcher to pick up the pitch. Going back to process cues in the athlete’s routine is a great way to switch focus.
To training focus cues have your athletes identify keys to success in performance. These will inevitably be focused on process. As the athlete goes through training, have them practice using performance cues to build comfort and confidence in the routine.
Method 4: Breathing
The other affect that pressure can bring is tension. The simplest, yet most powerful tool to combat tension is breathing. Being aware of tension is a skill and then using deep diaphragmatic breathing is the tool to bring the athlete back to a desirable arousal level. Thinking of the breath will also shift focus to the present. By training present state focus and breathing the athlete can get back to what matters most, the present moment.
Practicing breathing requires that that athlete take a few minutes each day to THINK about the action of breathing. To simulate the physical symptoms of tension, suggest your athletes take an ice shower after practice. The cold water will increase their heart rate. This is an excellent place to work on diaphragm breathing, quickly reducing heart rate, and making the athlete comfortable with the technique during competition.
Though it is impossible to create a high tension situation equivalent to that found in game competition in practice, the techniques highlighted above provide a foundation that your athletes can lean on when facing high pressure situations. The key to the success of these techniques is repetition. Only through consistent repetition of the technique can it be successfully used to reduce the impact of pressure on performance.