Do you rise or fall in the presence of big-game-pressure?
- How we identify, absorb and control the imminent nervous tension of big games (finals, try-outs etc) is a major contributor to sporting career success.
- Perception is not reality! You control the ability to negatively or positively perceive high-pressure situations but it takes practice.
- Pressure and anxiety can negatively affect your nervous system excitability which results in a sense of fatigue and lethargy often before the game has even started!
- External pressure; coaching staff, teammates, family, friends
- Internal pressure; often stemming from self-inflicted expectations to produce a certain outcome as a direct reflection of your personal worth and value.
- Mimicking the conditions of a big game or increasing the stakes (using punishment or reward) in training drills, can better prepare us for optimum performance.
- Following a structured psychological prep routine (including visualisation & imagery) leading up to a big game will further optimise physical performances.
- Stay in the moment! By recognising the physical impact of ‘stress’ and controlling it, you can focus on what matters (i.e. the next passage of play, playing your role, enjoyment!)
Why do some athletes compete consistently well in big games when the stakes are at their highest – while others tend to really struggle or go missing? A major contributing factor to these contrasting outcomes involves our ability to absorb, control and use pressure to shape performance.
Perception of Pressure
How we perceive the ensuing pressure of a big game can largely shape how we performance under its stressors. For instance, if an athlete perceives pressure negatively, then negative thought processes will ensue – self-doubt and a loss of confidence, destructive self-talk, poor concentration, or indecision and “freezing up”.
Conversely, if an athlete perceives pressure positively – understanding that with pressure comes the physiological feeling of nervousness, which in turn, actually increases arousal and alertness, heartrate and breathing efficiency – then positive performance outcomes are more likely to follow.
External Sources of Pressure
Increasing or reducing external sources of pressure can also positively assist in shaping our performance. For instance, coaches, teammates, family and friends can unknowingly pass on their feelings (be it positive or negative) concerning a big game. If their feelings are ones of doubt or panic, then it may not bode well for our subsequent performance. In such cases, it may be worth distancing ourselves from such external sources (in the short-term, at least – sorry mum!).
Train the Way You Play
Experiencing pressure not just on competition day, but in training too, can better prepare us to absorb the pressure that is present in big games. Being exposed to pressure at training allows us to make mistakes, learn from them, and then rectify those mistakes, all well before the actual competition takes place.
Once we learned a skill correctly, and increase the intensity and quantity of which we complete it at training, then it is worth including some additional pressure into the training environment. This can be in the form of teammates – placing token pressure on you throughout a drill – as to mimic the conditions of a big game.
Follow a Routine
Following a structured routine can also help mitigate potential feelings of overwhelming pressure. From completing a light mobility circuit, to eating certain meals at certain times on game day, completing a pre-game routine can help alleviate any potential feelings of anxiety, in that it provides us with a familiar environment that has bred successful performances in the past.
Visualise Worst-case Scenarios
Pre-game visualisation can better prepare us for the pressures of any big moment in a game. Rather than visualising the perfect play in a big game, try visualising what may go wrong, and then, how you are going to fix it to the best of your abilities. Through adopting this “worst-case scenario” visualisation technique, no situation on game day should catch you off guard.
Identify Internal Triggers
Experienced big game players have openly described their ability to quickly recognise the symptoms synonymous with pressure, which they believe goes a long way to using that pressure to optimise their performance. As previously mentioned, with pressure comes an increase in heartrate and breathing, as well as that infamous feeling of “butterflies in your stomach”. Big game players recognise when these symptoms ensue, and control their arousal accordingly. If they have exceeded their optimum arousal levels pregame, then they implement simple breathing techniques to reduce such levels.
Pro tip: next time your nervous energy is “red lining”, try inhaling through your nose for a count of 4 seconds, holding that breath for a count of 2 second, and exhaling gently through your mouth for a count of 6 seconds.
Be Where Your Feet Are!
Additionally, big game players have also described narrowing their focusing on to the next passage of play specifically – not on what has occurred beforehand, or what might occur in the future. If you make a mistake, then at least you still have another chance to start and try again, almost immediately. This technique also reminds us of what parts of our performance are actually under our control. Try not getting caught up in focusing on the outcome or results, but instead, focus on process that will get you there – the next big tackle, gut-busting run or explosive attempt on goal.
Nervous energy is just that… energy! You can let that energy throw your mental cognition into overload until the point that you’re completely exhausted or you can harness that energy you’re your physical contribution to the game. If you’re currently using technology (such as GPS) to track your total running distance or high-speed-running, why don’t you compare your stats in a high pressure games to those of a low pressure game (against similar opposition) to see how well you manage pressure!
Stop guessing… start measuring!
The SPT Lab