In the last article on pressure we discussed an interesting fact: that in the entire history of high school and collegiate sports, the most important individual and team championship skill is often the skill that is practiced the least…namely the ability to perform extremely well under pressure. We discussed how many athletes and coaches approach the development of great pressure performance with the mantra ‘we’ll just continue to practice the play or skill ‘till its automatic under pressure.’ And while there is a small element of truth to this strategy, continuously practicing a skill in a ‘practice’ environment, i.e., outside of the intense heat of a championship tournament, only ensures greater proficiency of that skill in that ‘practice’ environment and only marginal to decent improvements in ‘pressure’ situations. A more direct approach takes us directly to the source – training the 3 ½ pounds of electrical energy between our ears….our mind. In Part 1 of this series we discussed the importance of developing the correct clutch attitude and how our minds can be our own best friend or our own worst enemy under pressure. We also discussed why our level of emotional arousal must be a perfect balance of poise and aggression in pressure situations, and how we achieve this balance in the clutch.
Part 2 of this discussion will focus on understanding how pressure grows in the mind of the athlete, in addition to smart ways to reduce pressure in the mind and maximize performance in those key moments that often determine the outcome of the game or competition.
How Pressure Grows:
One of the fundamental things to understand about pressure is that it will always grow in the gaps between expectations and confidence. If an athlete is facing high expectations (both internal expectations and external expectations), and yet has doubts that he/she has the ability to meet these expectations, then pressure will often grow in the mind of that athlete. The bigger the gap, the more that pressure will grow. Let’s take a case study to illustrate this example. Michael Jordan is typically revered as one of the greatest winners and pressure performers in the history of his sport, yet he had the weight of tremendous internal expectations (very high personal standards and expectations) and tremendous external expectations (the fans and media expected greatness and near perfection from Michael in every pressure situation). So why is it that Michael did not appear to succumb to pressure and ‘choke’ more often? Why was Michael so consistent in so many pressure situations? The answer is that Michael’s incredible confidence levels matched the incredible levels of expectations. He not only believed he had the ability to come through, make the play and compete to his potential in these situations, but he believed he WOULD make the play. There is a big difference between these two types of belief. Pressure often breaks the superficial confidence most athletes fake with their body language until all that is left is the ‘true’ core belief of that athlete. Very few athletes believe they have the ability to come through in any pressure situation and that they WILL come through in that situation.
Another case study is the team that makes the NCAA tournament as a ‘Cinderella’ entry (ie few expected them to be in the tournament and even fewer expect them to advance in the tournament). Every now and then we watch with awe as these teams dismantle big BCS schools on national TV in the early rounds of the tournament. An interesting phenomenon in so many of these games is that the small school sometimes appears to play aggressive, loose, and almost carefree, while the big BCS school appears tight and underachieves in the game. This year’s NCAA Men’s Division 1 Basketball tournament is a classic example, chocked full of ‘bracket busting’ teams and games. What happened in these games? Did one team enter the tournament more confident than the other? While this is sometimes the case, the bigger culprit behind one team feeling more pressure than the other team is the greater sense of expectations facing the BCS school vs. the other. Remember that pressure grows in the mind when there are gaps between expectations and confidence. One team plays like it has nothing to lose and so plays to win (loose, aggressive, and confident), while the other team feels more pressure and instead of playing to win, it plays like it is trying not to lose (tight, apprehensive, and unsure of itself). What is just as interesting is watching the Cinderella team enter the Final Four, a round of competition where they are no longer ‘sneaking up’ on their competition. They have already achieved greatness on national television and some are even picking them to go all the way and win the tournament. Now, expectations have changed considerably, and for some teams the increase in expectations is even greater than their increase in confidence levels as they advanced through the tournament. The result for that Cinderella team is sometimes an increase in pressure, and they are often not the same team that they were in the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight.
The First Part of the Solution:
So what should an athlete and team do to mentally prepare for these situations? Should an athlete and team demand less of itself in order to reduce expectations in their mind, and close the gap between expectations and confidence? In short, heck no! However, an athlete and team should attempt to reduce expectations WITHOUT actually demanding less of themselves. How is this possible? There are two things that need to be done to achieve this. First, teams should encourage their athletes to not watch any of the sports shows, or read the sports section of any paper or on-line blog/article pertaining to the tournament. This simple but harsh requirement sends a message that external expectations will have zero impact or relevance until the tournament is over. In national tournaments and competitions, athletes and teams should realize that they will have millions of people to please, yet truly only themselves, teammates and coaches to answer to. This simple concept is abused in so many national tournaments with athletes getting caught up in the hype that surrounds the competition and feeling the weight of trying to please the millions of opinions and expectations that will continue to gather momentum throughout a tournament. Second, athletes should focus all of their internal expectations on ‘process’ vs. ‘outcome’ goals in a game. When you focus on the variables responsible for outcome (ie process goals such as poise, executing the play, visual focus etc) vs. the actual outcome (ie thoughts of winning or losing), you will have greater focus and poise in pressure situations. Athletes tend to choke more when they focus on outcome on a particular play. This is a very hard lesson for some who consider themselves winners, because winners focus on winning, and that is an outcome goal. Yet, focusing solely on
the variables responsible for winning does not mean you are not a winner. In fact, this type of focus makes you more of a winner. The true essence of WIN is W-hat’s
I-mportant N-ow. Focusing on the things that are critical to execute a play and come through under pressure will always bring an athlete much closer to the success they want to achieve and the win they are working so hard to earn. Notice how choosing not to focus on any external expectations and at the same time switching our internal focus to process vs. outcome goals is a shift in mindset vs. an attempt to require less of ourselves. Yet, this shift in mindset and focus will reduce expectations in the mind of the athlete and team, closing the gap between expectations and confidence, reducing pressure in the mind of the athlete and improving performance under pressure.
In next month’s newsletter, we will discuss ways in which we can further reduce the pressure and the gaps between expectations and confidence by using skills that increase confidence in pressure situations.