Performing Under Pressure: Is it really about positivity?

“Be positive” – probably one of the most used sayings in performance in any setting. Preparing for a race? “Think positive!” Just lost a race? “Cheer up, be positive!” These phrases reinforce that we should aim to feel and think positively.  We are told, “don’t be scared”, “relax”, “be brave”, “cheer up”, “get over it”, etc.

What message is this sending?

We have been reinforced throughout our lives that anything that we perceive as ‘negative’ is bad and we should not feel or think these things. It is taboo! It negatively impacts performance. Anxious? “Need to get rid of that.” Scared? “Better start to feel confident.” There are major issues with this.

For starters, I could almost guarantee that every single person reading this has felt the following: fear, joy, happiness, sadness, frustration, nervous, &/or anxious. You get the point. As humans, we all experience a range of different thoughts, feelings, and emotions. It is completely normal. Check out Andrea’s article about the movie Inside Out for a little more about this.

So, the question is, if we all feel these things if it is normal, why the fuss about positivity? I have nothing against positivity, when we feel good it is amazing! We feel motivated, ready to go like we can conquer the world! The issue is if our performance is dictated by the presence of positivity. If we believe that we can only perform when thinking and feeling positive, then we are essentially saying we can perform, but only if our thoughts and feelings are at the ‘positive’ end of the spectrum.

Sport and performance settings, as well as life, are designed to put you under pressure, to put you in uncomfortable situations. When we start fearing fear, being anxious about anxiousness, or stress about being stressed, we spend our time avoiding these things at all cost, because hey – that is what we have been taught all our lives! When this happens, we lose focus. Our attention and resources go onto trying to control our thoughts or feelings (which can be a massive uphill battle) and not on what we need to do in that particular moment.

Positivity is not necessarily about our internal experiences. Positivity is about displaying consistent positive action towards our goal, no matter what is going on internally. The notion that there is a desired internal state to perform well can limit our performance potential. Essentially, we are saying that we can only perform under these certain conditions.

It would be like a marathon runner saying that they can perform as long as they do not get lactic acid. Crazy, right! Like the physical side of performance, we need to build our capacity to perform under all types of stress, both physical and mental. This is the nature of resilience, mental toughness, and consistency. It is the ability to perform consistent positive actions in the face of adversity. Savour and enjoy those times when our thoughts and feelings are harmonious, but be ready to perform no matter what.

If you want help to be able to build your ability to perform consistently under pressure, please get in contact with us, we love working with you to understand what mindset helps you to consistently perform.

Kai Morris | Psychologist BSocSc Psych Hons MPsych (Sport & Exercise)
Get in contact with Kai –  Kai is based in Queensland and provides face-to-face consults at Queensland Sports Medicine Centre and Allsports Physiotherapy as well as virtual sport and performance psychology services to athletes nationwide.