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Sports Psychology – How to handle pressure

Gareth Southgate’s missed penalty, Euro ’96… Jordan Speith’s collapse, Masters 2016… Jimmy White’s missed black, 1994 Snooker World Championship… Tottenham Hotspur’s failure to take 3 points from the last three games to finish above Arsenal for the first time in more than 20 years, Premier League 2016… (I’m biased but really…). What do all these events have in common? A failure of a team or an individual to hold their nerve and perform at their best in crucial, high pressure situations. So how can we avoid these slip us? Whether it’s 5-a-side with your mates on a Tuesday evening or serving for the Wimbledon title, your mental game is vital for success.

With that in mind, here are my top tips for keeping your head in the game and not letting the pressure get to you:

  • Keep Control
  1. Control the Controllables: this might sound clichéd but it’s so important to focus on what you can control in these high pressure situations. Focus on yourself and your own performance rather than worrying about what your opponent might do.
  2. Control your Emotions: people often think that they cannot control their emotions – but you can! Emotions are essential for maintaining performance – we all need some emotion to allow us to play at our best:  Graph (002)

However, when we have too much emotion and we start to lose control, that’s when problems can arise (think Eric Cantona vs. Crystal Palace in 1995…). One great trick for bringing your emotions back under control is the 4-7-8 breathing technique. Here, you place your tongue behind your top teeth, breath in for 4 counts, hold your breath for 7 counts and then breath out for 8 counts. This will help bring your emotions down a notch and allow you to make more rational decisions.

  • Set Goals

Goal setting can seem really trivial – however if it’s used effectively it’s one of the best ways to ensure you perform well under pressure. In particular, setting yourself process goals which focus on specific technical elements of your performance will really help you to focus on playing to the best of your ability regardless of how high pressure the situation is.

  • Self-Talk

A human brain is notoriously bad at trying to do two things at once (yes even yours ladies). Don’t believe me? Trying reading this section of poetry (and really reading it, taking on the meaning etc.) whilst singing Happy Birthday out loud:

IF (002)

Not easy is it? (10 points if you can tell me why that poem is relevant to sport…). The key thing when facing a critical situation in your sport is to keep focussed and remain ‘in the moment’. Unfortunately, our brains like to go through all 101 reasons why we are going to fail at that precise time. So by giving your brain something useful to think about all those negative thoughts are much less likely to be able to get in and disrupt your performance. Instructional self-talk is a great way to do this. By repeating a key phrase or even just a word over and over in your head it stops other, unhelpful thoughts from getting involved. It might be something simple like ‘watch the ball’ or it could be more personal like ‘relax your grip’ or ‘power’, ‘push’ etc.

So there you have it! My quick fire tips for dealing with high pressure situations – keep these in mind and there will be no risk of an England meltdown a la ashes in 2013…

 


BY - Suzie Monk

15 July 2016