Photo: Peter Yang
Stress and anxiety are a natural part of sport and life. Making the game winning shot, speaking in front of a big group, or writing an important exam are all high pressure situations in which we sometimes fail to live up to the moment. Contrary to some beliefs, all humans perform worse under pressure. Research shows pressure significantly affects our performance. For example, statistics from the FIFA world cup have shown that players taking penalty shots to keep their team in the tournament in the knock-out stages average 30-40% conversion rates, compared to the group stage, where conversion rates are 70-80%. Similarly, statistics from the 2003-2006 NBA season show that season averages for successful free throw percentages are 76%. However, when teams are within 1 point of each other and there is one minute left in the game, those averages drop down to 69!
Pressure affects our physiology, as well as our psychology. When we are stressed or feel under pressure, our heart rate rises, blood flow increases, our breathing becomes shallow, which sends less oxygenated blood to the brain which of course affects our cognition. This results in being distracted, high arousal, loss of concentration, and reduced performance.
The following “Pressure Solutions” are scientifically researched tools to utilize whenever you feel under some pressure. Pressure will affect your performance, but by creating an action plan it will increase our chances of success when faced with it. They are in no means a long term solution to your anxiety or confidence issues, but can be a very effective short term method of:
Reducing feelings of anxiety, stress, fear or embarrassment
Avoiding distractions and increase concentration
Regulating your arousal levels (biofeedback)
Strategies to direct your thinking to focus on the task at hand.
Use these pressure solutions to help you DE pressurize your next performance!
(1) RE-FRAME THE MOMENT
All the top performers see pressure situations as a challenge rather than a threat. When you start to see these moments as something to overcome instead of something we can potentially fail at, we re-frame our arousal into enthusiasm instead of fear. Think of your next game or presentation as an opportunity and you will soon develop a positive mind-set. Your body will release adrenaline which preps you for the challenge, instead of nor-adrenaline which makes you want to flee the situation, much like our ancestors had to when faced with potential dangers.
(2) THERE ARE ALWAYS MORE OPPORTUNITIES
Oprah was fired from her first news anchor job. Spielberg was turned down by Arts school several times. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team. Depressurize your next moment by telling yourself you will have other games, interviews, etc. This is not your last opportunity!
(3) SHRINK THE IMPORTANCE OF THE EVENT
When we tell ourselves this is the most important event in our lives, the more pressure we feel. Pressure distorts our perceptions and we often think irrational thoughts, such as that we have to succeed, or that this is the biggest game of our lives. Even if the situation IS of great importance, sometimes under exaggerating and downplaying the moment can help to minimize thoughts of the significance of it.
(4) FOCUS ON THE PROCESS, AND NOT THE OUTCOME
When we get too caught up with the results or the outcome of the event, it can get overwhelming and distract us from what we are actually doing. By breaking it down and dividing it into smaller steps can help you stay present and focused on the process which will eventually lead to the outcome.
(5) EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED
The more we are able to become aware of, anticipate and understand the potential challenges and obstacles in the way of our performance, the greater our chances of effectively coping with them. Top Olympic and professional teams regularly go through bizarre scenarios that could go wrong such as a broken down bus, or change of hotels in order to minimize the effect the unexpected has on our arousal levels. For your next “big” moment, ask yourself what-if questions. “What if something bad or unexpected happens?” So next time your power point slides don't work, or you forget your shin guards, you are better equipped to deal with it.
(6) VISUALIZE YOURSELF PERFORMING WELL
Recall a past performance in which you successfully completed the task or activity. NBA MVP Steve Nash says “Before I shoot a foul shot, I think of the thousands I’ve made, and do it the same way.” The same pathways in the brain are activated when we visualize, as if we were actually doing the activity. So take a few moments before a performance to sit down, and mentally re-play scenarios, including all the senses, in which you were successful.
(7) BE PRESENT
We all have heard the cliche saying, “stay in the moment”. Not only physically, but mentally. Stress and anxiety come from thinking about something bad in the past, or thinking about something yet to happen in the future. But if we are fully present with what is in front of us, there is no pressure. Tune into your senses and pay attention. What are you feelings right now? What do you see? What are the sounds you are hearing? These sorts of questions can help anchor us to the here and the now. It can also distract us from the negative thoughts and feelings that naturally accompany high pressure situations. There are no “big moments”, only the next moment. Think like this and you are on the path to mastery.
(8) FOCUS ON WHAT YOU CAN CONTROL
There are so many factors beyond our control. We cannot control how well someone else is going to perform, the weather, accidents, our height, etc. But we can control how we react to these problems. Next time you feel the heat of the pressure, make a list of all the factors that you cannot control, and those that you can. You will start to feel like a weight as lifted off your shoulders because you no longer have to put cognitive energy into changing or dealing with factors outside of your scope of control. The more you practice this, the better you are able to become aware of when and where you are challenging unnecessary energy.
Ever catch yourself singing a song in your head when you are under stress? Good! Listening to music is a great tool to utilize in high pressure moments. Research has shown that music helps us focus and distracts us from feelings of unease, and negative thoughts. When we listen to music we are less self-conscious and can bring ourselves to the present. If you don’t have access to your favourite tunes, hum or sing that song in your mind before you step onto the field, interview, or exam.
(10) USE A CUE WORD
If I tell you; don’t think of a pink elephant, what do you think happens? You think of a pink elephant! The same thing happens to our brain when we tell it to NOT do something, such as “Don’t miss!” or “Don’t screw up!”. Our mind focus on that negative image and we tend to do that exact thing we're telling it not to do. Instead, give it something more positive and concrete to focus on. Think of words that accompany your performance such as “smooth”, “balanced”, “clear the mechanism”, “focus” or “power”. Use a short, and simple phrase that works for you to anchor yourself to what you are doing. If words don’t work for you, use an image. Visualize a stop sign when you have negative thoughts or a metaphorical image. Cue words can be a clever distraction and keeps you focused!
(11) SIMULATE STRESS
Navy seals, SWAT, and other high stress jobs consistently train being in high pressure situations so that when the time comes, they know they have the tools to cope because they have been there before. Research has shown that the more we are accustomed to a scenario, the better we perform. Anxiety comes from the feeling of uncertainty a situation brings, so train yourself to become familiar with the pressure and being uncomfortable. Make practises as close to game-like situations as possible by inducing stress like stopping practise to have random free throws, or shoot-outs when everyone is watching. Or practise your presentations by pretending you only have half the time originally given to present.
As silly as it sounds, some research has shown that clenching your left fist, or squeezing a ball, can reduce anxiety. In a high pressure situation, anxiety is triggered by wanting to do well, alongside a fear of failure. These emotional reactions boost activity in the language area in the left-hemisphere of our brain. This increases self-focused attention and self-consciousness. When we first learn a new skill, this area is the most active. However, when we become good at something, the skill moves over to the right-hemisphere which is associated with fluent, automatic and unconscious performance. In other words we don't have to think about it, and our thinking doesn't get in the way of the performance. So researchers found that tennis players who squeezed a ball with their left hand when feeling stressed, primed their right hemisphere so that they stopped thinking about what they are doing, and just did it! Paralysis by analysis as we say…
(13) WRITE IT OFF!
Worrying about what could go wrong reduces our brain processing power, as cognitive resources are diverted to unnecessary places. By writing down your thoughts and feelings about a high pressure event you can minimize distractive thinking and gain an insight into the source of your worry and stress. This gives you a chance to re-examine your thought patterns, as the more we are aware of the challenges the better we are able to cope with them.
(14) WATCH YOURSELF
Next time you have a big presentation, or a important match, take your video camera or smartphone and record yourself performing. This will at first increase self consciousness, but over time you will get used to seeing yourself and therefore less prone to worry about how you look or present yourself. By seeing ourselves on camera we get immediate feedback which is one of the prerequisites for performing in a flow state. This is also great for learning a new skill, as you get to correct yourself on the spot.
Meditators have shown to have reduced brain activity associated with worry and anxiety. Even after a few weeks of meditation training, individuals showed altered white matter in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) of the brain which is responsible for better regulating of thoughts, behaviours, and emotions and therefore we are better able to respond appropriately to high pressure situations. Essentially you are training your brain to respond rather than react to an internal or external event which can be the difference between winning and losing, or keeping your cool versus breaking furniture.
(16) HAVE A PRE-PERFORMANCE ROUTINE
All the top performers have some sort of pre-performance routine where they do the same things before every competition. This gets them in the right frame of mind to perform as it tells them they are ready and focused on the task. Routines can help distract you from the worry of the upcoming performance and instead bring you back to the present. Visualization, deep breathing, going over your “checklist”, or wiggling your toes are all examples of something you can use. However, keep your routines short and simple, and don’t let it move into a ritual. Rituals are a mindless activity that is repeated for the effect of bringing you luck, which gives you the impression that you are not responsible for your performance.
(17) SLOW IT DOWN
Have you ever heard of speed kills? Well in the world of sport and business it might not kill you, but it definitely can affect your performance. When we get nervous and stressed our heart rate goes up, which affects our breathing and consequently the blood flow to the brain. A study done with PhD professors and students showed that the professors took longer to get started on solving complex problems compared to the students. They consciously took their time to think about the problem before trying to solve it. Same goes with sports, when we feel like we need to rush a play. In most cases taking a step back and slowing it down both physically and mentally can help you regain composure and presence. Slowing down reduces arousal which in turns helps your think more flexibly and creatively.
(18) BREATHE NATURALLY
When we get anxious we tend to breathe a lot quicker and shallower, or we tend to hold our breath. The first step is to notice that you are actually doing this, and then start to do some deep breathing. Inhale with the nose to a count of four- one, two, three, four. Then slowly exhale through your mouth for a count of four, and hold the empty breath for another count of four. Breathing also distracts us from the pressure as it gives your mind something to do and focus on . Your mind and body will thank you, and you might get back to the task at hand attentive and in control.
(19) GO FIRST
Some studies have shown that soccer and hockey teams that go first in a penalty shootout have a statistical advantage to succeed. The athletes who went first also reported to feel less pressure than those who went second. It makes sense as if you go first you don’t tend to compare yourself to your competition who might have scored. You don’t have to focus on the result since you just have to focus on yourself, which is a sure way to depressurize the situation.
(20) SHARING YOUR THOUGHTS
Studies show that the act of communicating your feelings of distress and pressure can help diminish the feelings of anxiety. We all feel better when we’re not the only ones who failed the math test right? So same thing applies here; when we communicate the fact that hey I am nervous right now, it helps you examine these feelings, challenge them, and be more realistic. If someone else shares the same thoughts this can help you even more in seeing that you are in this together, since it’s not just me!
Again, these are only short term fixes to pressure situations. With time you will get better at the ones you practice, but you need to get to the root of your confidence, anxiety, or worry issues if you want to effectively manage stress and pressure in the long term. To help you develop strategies to direct your thinking, get in touch with us for our individual flow 1:1 training for personal sessions.
Also, be sure to get a copy of "Performing Under Pressure: The Science of Doing Your Best When It Matters Most" by Hendrie Weisinger and J.P. Pawliw-Fry, where they explain these tips in more detail!