Why Do You Come Apart Under Pressure?



What is pressure exactly?

There is one easy way to sum up the word pressure.

"Pressure is a word that is misused in our vocabulary. When you start thinking of pressure, it's because you've started to think of failure." - Tommy Lasorda, baseball manager

Here are examples of pressure causing us to think of failure:

  • We start to feel pressure when we are afraid of not living up to the expectations of ourselves or others.
  • We feel pressure when we don't have enough time to get everything done that we think needs to get done.
  • We feel pressure when we might not get the thing we desperately want.
  • We feel pressure when we might not reach our goal.

These skills apply to life as well as sport. Sport is a highly concentrated emotional environment where all of these experiences are heightened, but luckily under controlled circumstances, so if we can learn the skills for sport, they also help us in real life.

Correct thinking and focus are the hallmarks of champions

People tend to think that a champion never has a bad thought or ever gets distracted.

That's not true.

The difference is the champion doesn't let the bad thought take root. She immediately redirects (refocuses) on the tasks that move her forward, rather than the things that hold her back.

This is a learned skill. You can learn it too.

If you focus on the pressure (and therefore on failing), it causes tension, stress, and inaction. Focus on taking action on the tasks that move you forward. 

Even with this strategy, you'll still make mistakes. You'll still backslide. Simply refocus and keep moving forward. 

What matters is not that things went sideways, but rather how long you wallow in that state before looking for solutions and moving forward.

Busy hands and idle minds have knitted many a sweater; Busy minds and idle hands have knitted many a brow.” — Mary Rosewood

Ask yourself: what is the tiniest thing I have control over? Then start by doing that.

Pressure can be a good thing

You don't feel pressure when you don't care, so pressure isn't always a terrible thing.

It can be a very good thing.

Controlled pressure can cause you to be activated and ready. It (usually) causes your focus to narrow.

The adrenaline fueled *fight or flight* response can give you superpowers — strength and speed and focus you don't normally have, like the woman who lifts a car off of a trapped child.

Some people perform better under pressure, and pressure can cause great leaps in performance and creativity, because you are less inclined to analyze and judge the outcome (left brain) and just focus on the performance (right brain).

However ...

Too much pressure is NOT a good thing

Too much pressure will cause you to break down mentally and physically over time.

It causes your focus to become too narrow so you miss important things, or to become too wide which results in overwhelm.

So it is important to find wells to fill your well and take the pressure off.

But studies have shown training with a little bit of pressure in practice helps desensitize you dealing with a lot of pressure in competition.

Make a plan. Be okay with letting certain things go. Detaching from the expectations of yourself and others helps you to control the amount of pressure you are feeling. 

[Join me for my 2-part live webinar series HOW TO TRAIN FOR — AND DEAL WITH — COMPETITION PRESSURE! Still a chance to catch part-2 live!]

You can control the pressure you feel to a large degree

Pressure is something you create in your own mind.

Therefore it is something you can learn to control to your advantage, by being aware of your inner dialogue, the expectations you are feeling from yourself and others, and the direction of your focus.

Other people may put pressure on you, it's your choice to accept it or not.

You may not always have control of your circumstances but you always have a choice about how you are going to react to them. It won't always be easy. It won't always feel good. But over time, you break the cycle. The trigger of their expectations will have less power.

Pressure isn't JUST about your mental game

Most people think of mental game and training as two separate things. They think they collapse under pressure because of their mental game. 

But the truth is you can't have one without the other—your training helps create a great mental game, and a great mental game allows you to showcase your full talent and skills.

"Under pressure, you don't rise to the occasion. You sink to the level of your training." (attributed to unknown Navy Seal)

There is a whole element to performance that goes way beyond simply learning skills.

Mental game isn't about becoming something different at a big event, it's about maintaining while everyone else's performance deteriorates.

And if you don't incorporate that into your training, if you don't train at the highest level, you won't be ready for a lot of the extra pressures competition throws at you.

Just because you can play a piano piece well in your living room by yourself doesn't mean you are ready to audition for a great music school.

Michael Phelps won an Olympic gold medal under impossible conditions. His goggles failed at the start of the butterfly gold medal final and he had to swim essentially blind. But he had trained to handle goggle failure in practice. As a result, despite hoping for more, he managed to break a world record, and instinctively add a half-stroke to touch the wall and beat his rival by 1/100th of a second.

You can have the best mental game in the world, but if you haven't trained your performance skills to withstand the strain of competition, you'll still come apart under pressure. You CAN'T be fully confident without feeling good about your skills. And you can't show those skills off without a great mental game. 

And you don't suddenly turn on your mental game at the big event. Mindset is a lifestyle, not just something you turn on for competition. You can practice it in rush-hour traffic or with your spouse. And certainly when working with your dog.

Mindset needs to be part of training. Every. Single. Time.

There's a saying:

Most competitors are happy to get skills right. Winners train so they can't get them wrong.

Which one are you?

Join me for my 2-part live webinar series HOW TO TRAIN FOR — AND DEAL WITH — COMPETITION PRESSURE!


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