Performing Under Pressure
Whether in school, sports, a job, or some other aspect of life, we have all experienced the difficulties of performing under pressure. Fortunately, there is no shortage of research that has been conducted on the effects of coping interventions to help individuals overcome the pitfalls of pressure and develop the ability to perform their best under even the most stressful conditions! Athletes perform best when they can balance both physiological (physical) and psychological (mental) states, and coping interventions can help enhance their ability to balance the two. Through this regulation, athletes can enhance their ability to concentrate and perform under pressure (Jensen and Wrisberg, 2014).
The Journal of Sports Science and Medicine published a study in 2018 which produced results showing success with multiple techniques in improving performance under pressure. Through relaxation and self-appraisal (self-talk), participants were able to help alleviate both physiological and psychological stress related responses. In fact, through three different studies athletes were able to reduce tension, nausea and regulate their emotions with relaxation and self-talk.
Two relaxation tools athletes can use include progressive muscle relaxation and guided meditation. Progressive muscle relaxation brings awareness to the individual’s body. A common routine for this would be starting in a comfortable sitting position with your eyes closed. Take a few deep breaths – in though the nose, out through the mouth. Start at the top of your body, squeezing all of your facial muscles, 25% to 50 % to 75% to 100% and back down. This exercise makes you more self-aware of how tense your body really is. From the face, you continue the same progression down your body: shoulders, arms/hands, abdomen, buttocks, legs, feet/toes. Make sure you are breathing deeply while doing this exercise. If there is a specific area you notice more tension, you can repeat that area multiple times. A more detailed guide to this exercise can be found here.
Guided mediation follows a similar routine without the tension. There are several great free resources online published by universities showing the effectiveness of this technique. Guided meditation helps individuals “center” themselves and calm their minds. As humans, we all have things going on all-day every-day both physically and mentally that can wear on us, and guided meditation helps calms our minds and bring stress levels down. This technique helps you focus on your breathing and become more aware of your body and surroundings. This is a great tool to combine with progressive muscle relation as it allows athletes to become more aware of the physiological affects of stress, training individuals who practice both of these techniques to recognize when their body is tense and take measures to alleviate the stress before it becomes overwhelming. This YouTube video can help you through your first guided meditation.
Self-talk can help improve confidence, and confidence is KEY when performing. The moment an individual begins to question their ability to perform, they give their opponents a leg-up on them. Self-talk comes in many forms, but the one we are most familiar with is motivational. Cheering teammates on or giving yourself a pat on the back makes a bigger difference than most people realize and can give a significant boost to an athlete’s confidence, as well as to the confidence and self-image of his teammates, so celebrate the small victories!
The study from the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine also found that simulation studies helped expose athletes to high pressure situations and was the most consistent in helping them improve. Placing yourself in a simulation situation allows you to practice coping mechanisms as well as demonstrate to yourself your ability to perform, enhancing your confidence. This is as simple as “practice makes perfect” and the research shows the best way to improve performance is through “game-like” situations. So, don’t just practice at the your game of choice, but practice those 1 on 4 engagements, practice those round 3 fights, and practice any other situation you might find yourself worrying about!
Everyone has and will struggle to perform at one point, which is why enhancing your mental skill set can give you a huge advantage over your competition. Even when you do struggle, you are not alone in being unable to perform. It happens to even the best, but a combination of these coping techniques can help minimize these pitfalls, and make for a better performance, and a healthier mind and body.
Sofie Kent, Tracey J. Devonport, Andrew M. Lane, Wendy Nicholls, Andrew P. Friesen. (2018) The Effects of Coping Interventions on Ability to Perform Under Pressure. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine (17), 40 – 55.
Jensen P.R., Wrisberg C.A. (2014) Performance under acute stress: A qualitative study of soldiers’ experiences of hand-to-hand combat. International Journal of Stress Management 21, 406-423.