Pressure…What Pressure? Athletes in Sport

Podium Sports Journal have recently published – Pressure…What Pressure? Athletes in Sport.

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Pressure…What Pressure?

Simon Hartley

Be World Class

“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, LA Dodgers Coach.

There is no such thing as pressure.

It is one of the great secrets in sport psychology that even the professionals often get wrong. Most sport psychologists and coaches talk about ‘managing pressure’, which makes the mistake of assuming that it exists. It doesn’t exist, so managing it is a non-sense. In fact, by trying to manage it, we start to believe it might be real.

“Pressure is nothing more than the shadow of great opportunity”. Michael Johnson

Let’s start with the basics. People create pressure for themselves (Beilock 2010). The only way we can ever experience ‘pressure’ is to create it in our own minds. It is a product of our imagination. If we experience ‘pressure’ it is because we are projecting an imaginary view of the future (Markman et al 2008). Normally we feel pressure when we perceive that there is an expectation on us. Like pressure, expectations are also figments of our imagination. They are also imaginary projections into the future. Any view of the future must be produced in our imagination, there is no-where else it can come from (Markman et al 2008). Therefore, expectations are normally a product of your imagination or someone else’s. Either way, expectations are not real. Normally, we feel ‘pressure’ when we start imagining what might happen if we don’t achieve the outcome we desire or that we expect. “What if I don’t win?”… “What will the press say?”… “What will the coach say?”… “What will people think?”…

Some teams and individuals habitually under-perform when they reach major world events. The reason for this may well be because the athletes feel pressure to perform for their nation (Gerrard 2010). For example, when athletes compete for their country, in their national sport, there is normally a lot of media hype. This is true in New Zealand for the All Blacks Rugby Team (Huw 2010) and true in England for the England Football Team. In the 2010 FIFA World Cup, England performed well below par. There were several possible reason’s given for the performances. On a number of occasions Fabio Capello sighted “fear” and “pressure” (Christenson 2010). Many people would logically deduce that this was linked closely to the media coverage and the hype that had been created in the lead up to the event. However, the media coverage and the hype will only be perceived as ‘pressure’, if players buy into it. Just like any other expectation, it’s born out of the imagination. In this case, it was the imaginations of the journalists, the public, The Football Association, the sponsors and possibly even the players and staff of Team England.

By projecting an image of what might happen, we may start doubting the outcome and feeling uneasy. We need to recognise that our imagination is incredibly powerful. Used positively it can help us to optimise our performance. However, we have to be aware that we also use our imagination to create trap-doors for ourselves. The simple principal is that we should only concern ourselves with reality, not fantasy. Fantasy is a product of our imagination, just as expectations and pressure are. Often people have hopes for us, which they express. We sometimes take those on board as expectations, which we then try to fulfil. If we buy into expectations, we are trying to live up to a fantasy. The best thing to do is to recognise it for what it is and to get on with reality.

Athletes feel ‘pressure’ when they get the job wrong (Lane 2001). Typically athletes think that their job is to win, to climb up the rankings, to secure prize money or sponsorship. However, none of those things are the job. Normally when we get the job wrong, it is because we’re too busy focussing on the outcome. In reality, our job is to deliver the process. By aiming for the result, we set ourselves a job which is outside of our control (Bull 1996). The fact that it is outside of our control means that it’s uncertain. Winning is never certain. Hitting a target is never certain. There is always an element of uncertainty. This uncertainty is what tends to cause us the angst (Boelen & Reijntjes 2009). How can we be completely confident in our ability to achieve something that has uncertainty? If you’re trying to do an ‘impossible’ job or even a job which you have no control over, you will probably imagine pressure because you will not be 100 per cent sure that you can do the job. The job might seem too big or too daunting. If the athlete believes the job is to win the tournament, they might doubt their ability to do it. Even a confident athlete won’t know that they can do that job. There is often a gap between what we believe we can achieve, and what we think we must achieve. That gap manifests as the worry and anxiety we associate with pressure. This is illustrated in Csikszentmihalyi’s (2008) model of the challenge and skills balance. If we create an expectation for ourselves (or take on board someone else’s expectations), we post a target. If we are not absolutely sure that we can achieve that target, we might start to have doubts and worries. If we also give that target some meaning, we will magnify our doubts and worries.

As we’ve said already, we create pressure therefore we can ‘de-construct it’ (Hartley in press). The easiest way is not to create it in the first place. However, if we do feel pressure, we have the ability to dismantle it and start to see the reality rather than the illusion. If you start to perceive pressure, take a few moments to remind yourself why there is no pressure and never was any pressure. Normally this involves a slight reality check and a quick reminder of the job. Once we do that, we are more likely to be able to focus on exactly what we need to do in that moment (Hartley 2010). In reality the job we need to do will normally be pretty simple and something we’re very capable of doing. Rather than trying to ‘serve for the match’ or ‘win Championship point’, we’ll simply be trying to serve. Instead of trying to win the World Cup, the job is simply to take a penalty kick. Rather than attempting to win the Ryder Cup, the job is simply to execute a 3 foot putt (Fisher 1998).

Once performers have got the hang of de-constructing pressure, I like to start stress-testing it with them to see how robust it is. Like many things, it’s easy to ditch pressure in a classroom environment or a training session. It’s a greater challenge in the heat of competition. To put it into a practical setting, I often use ‘pressure training’ exercises (Taylor & Wilson 2005). In reality that is probably a daft name. The aim of ‘pressure training’ is simple. The performer’s task is simply to stick to their simple job, whatever we throw at them. And that’s exactly the same task they face in competition!


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