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Observations from a Sport Psychologist: Focus on the process = Thrive under pressure

I recently had the opportunity to attend the Swimming Age Nationals, which was held in Brisbane at the Sleeman Sports Complex – Brisbane Aquatic Centre. Sporting events, such as Age Nationals, are a great opportunity to observe athletes in competition and in particular how athletes handle the pressure of a competition. What I observed was that some athletes appeared to rise to the occasion whilst other athletes perform below their capabilities and/or expectations. Of course there are many possible reasons as to why such a differences in performance exist. However, the mental component of sport becomes a significant factor on competition day.

Leading in to a performance (whether an exam or competition) individuals know what they have to do. They have been training for it. They have been refining their technical skills as well as improving on varying physical factors such as strength, power, fitness, and speed leading in to the event. To perform on the day is to essentially bring all their hard work together and simply perform what they have been training. It seems simple enough. However, on the day an athlete’s emotions can be very influential. The differences that typically exist between athletes when they are about to compete are in their ability to deal with pre-competition nerves, their level of determination, and their ability to handle pressure. In performance arenas like sport, pressure is inevitable. On the day, an athlete’s ability to manage their emotions and handle pressure is a key factor in helping them perform.

How do we know whether an athlete is thriving or crumbling under pressure? The telling signs on the day from my perspective are the athletes’ thoughts and actions leading in to their performance.

I have observed athletes crumble under pressure. In my experience, one of the key reasons for this apparent lack of ability to handle pressure is a sole focus on the outcome, the end result. More often than not, self-doubt creeps in when an individual and/or team appears to focus solely on the possible consequences (i.e., outcome) of the performance. Typical triggers are ranking, other’s expectations (e.g., parents, coaches, friends), sickness, and previous performances. Pressure comes from within. It is very much driven by a person’s thoughts about their performance and in particular thoughts about the outcome. This focus on outcome tends to be in an unfavourable light related to failing rather than succeeding. Thoughts like, “What if I lose?”, or “What if I don’t medal?”, or “We have to win as everyone is expecting it”, can increase pressure, anxiety, and doubt. With these types of thoughts, athletes often forget all the work they have undertaken leading in to their performance. Of course the outcome is important and athletes should be reminded of it. The outcome helps individuals know where they are going and what they want to achieve. However, only thinking of the outcome can actually take an individual/team away from achieving the outcome. The reason being that an outcome is considered low in controllability by the individual. For example, a team may have the outcome goal of winning the game, however they may not win even though they played extremely well but they were simply out-performed by the other team.

In addition to thoughts, which an athlete may or may not voice, there are some obvious signs in their behaviours that will give you a good indication of how they are handling pressure. What are they like in their warm up? They might still do their warm up but there has been a change in intensity or effort level. Are they talking to others or are they keeping to themselves? The level of communication is a telling sign. Some athletes who like to talk a lot will actually withdraw or give one-worded answers while others who are usually quite can sometimes do the opposite and talk a lot. This is different to some athletes choosing to self-isolate to calm them selves down or making an effort to talk to others about unrelated topics to distract them (strategies to help handle pressure). Are they voicing their concerns? You may find that some athletes will tell people around them that they are nervous or worried they aren’t going to perform well. What do you notice about their behaviours just before they compete? In my experience you can tell a lot by how an athlete carries themselves, their body language before they compete. At Age Nationals, I watch for confidence and/or calm behaviour before a race through taking note of behaviours such as heads held high, shoulders back, looking down the lane rather than all around, and the number of times they touch their goggles or cap, just to name a few.

On the other hand, I have observed athletes handle pressure and thrive on it. Two key factors involved in thriving are the belief they have in themselves and their ability, and the fact that they know how to achieve the outcome. One of the primary focuses of my work is getting athletes to identify, train, and follow the process! Thriving athletes have set routines and race plans to help recreate the way they want to feel when they perform well and trust in following the process to achieve their outcome. By focusing on the process helps individuals perform because it comes down to what is most in their control – what they think, feel, and do. When athletes follow the process they perform their ‘A’ Game (i.e., ideal performance state). Additionally, by knowing how builds and maintain confidence. The process reminds them of what they can and have been doing leading in to a competition and for a performance. Examples of the process are the execution of a technique (e.g., diving off the blocks), the race plan, and the pre-performance routine. Specifically, knowing how to execute a race plan is the process. For swimmers, making sure they know their race plan and having a pre-race routine that manages their emotions and gives them structure and control.

The first step is to identify the process and then the individuals need to trust that following the process helps them thrive under pressure whilst moving them towards the outcome.

“We practiced our game plan every week for 26 weeks so when we got to the semi finals there was a huge amount of confidence in what we do.” “In the years we didn’t win, one of our problems was that we weren’t able to reproduce our game plan under pressure that is exerted at finals time. We didn’t get it together consistently throughout a season and then we folded under pressure”
– Rugby League Coach Wayne Bennett, (p. 207, Man in the Mirror).

One way we get people to trust the process is by setting goals for training related to key performance areas within each of the technical, physical, tactical, and mental aspects of training. By following the process and achieving these goals in training, the identified performance areas improve, which add to the sources of confidence. Furthermore, these improvements are putting the individual in a better position to achieve their outcome goal. Along the way athletes see and experience progress. Coaches, parents, friends, and colleagues can help build sources of confidence, which in turn help the individual/team thrive under pressure by reinforcing the fact that following the process is success!

Admittedly I could talk on and on about training “the process”, as this is a word I use everyday in my work as a sport psychologist. My goal with this blog is simply to get you thinking about your own process and start training and trusting it. I know that with hard work, commitment and determination, the process puts you in the best possible position for achieving the outcome.

Mental Note: Accept that pressure exists but choose to thrive under it.