Performing Under Pressure
By Seth Quealy
The difference between people who can perform under pressure and those who crack under pressure is simple. They have put themselves in the situation before, either in practice or in games, they have been willing to fail and in so doing have learned a valuable lesson. They’ve learned that it’s just another shot and they have a much better chance of making it when they are relaxed and can trust themselves. More importantly, they have developed the mental ability to do this!
Getting back to the last second shot, we all know that potentially it’s not just another shot, it could mean winning a state or national title, an Olympic medal or the NBA Championship. The difference is, those clutch performers have learned or taught themselves to think differently, to create their own reality so it is just another shot they would take in practice. They’ve been there before, they’ve made it before and they can trust and believe the ball WILL go in the basket. I always tell my clients, “you have to make practice like the game so when you get to the game it’s like practice.”
I want to talk about seven mental skills that will help you develop your mental game and become a clutch player under pressure. These mental skills are: 1) Awareness; 2) Breathing; 3) Managing the Moment; 4) Thought Stoppage; 5) Positive Self Talk; 6) Preparation and 7) Attitude.
Awareness – This is the base or foundational skill in the mental game. I’m talking about body awareness and mental awareness. Our bodies are very good indicators of what’s going on in our heads. How many of you get sweaty palms when you’re nervous, or your hands get cold? What about butterflies or a tight stomach? Maybe you yawn like Apollo Ohno or get headaches because your stress is manifesting itself as tension in your neck and shoulders. These are great keys or indicators that you can use to remind yourself to breathe, calm down and get your thoughts on the appropriate things.
If you are aware of what’s going on with your body and your thinking then you can start to control it and be proactive about getting your game back on track. I always say, “you can’t be in control of your performance until you are in control of yourself.” It’s all about compensating and adjusting. You can’t get back on track if you don’t know you’re off! So start recognizing these indicators and get control. The first step to correcting a problem is recognizing that it even exists!
Breathing – Now that you are aware of those mind and body indicators use your breathing to get control of yourself. Breathing is the easiest skill; you already know how to do it so use it to your advantage! There are two types of breaths 1) Release Breath – Take a big breath and let it out, this gets more oxygen in your body and gets the tension out. 2) Trust Breath – This is a more calm and gentle breath and helps you feel more in control. As you focus on your breathing and slowing it down you will be getting back in the moment and in a better place to think properly.
Managing the Moment – Managing the moment is one of the most crucial parts of playing with confidence and performing under pressure! When faced with a pressure situation like taking the game winning shot or clutch free throws, we can be drawn into thinking back to prior mistakes or what we think “should” have happened. Then we start thinking and believing it’s going to happen again, this is called self-doubt. We also think ahead about what we “think or feel” has to happen. When you think like this it is like trying to make two free throws at once and we all know that’s not how the game is played.
These types of thoughts cause tension about things that are out of your control. They take you out of the game and the moment and almost guarantee you will miss. Be aware, slow down and breathe! Have the mentality to play “one shot or possession at a time.” Michael Jordan said “I never looked at the consequences of missing a big shot . . . when you think about the consequences you always think of a negative result.” Play in the “NOW” this play, this shot as it’s the only play that matters and the only one you have any control over. I heard Stephen Curry say after a poor first half shooting effort, “I have to have a short memory when it comes to that…” He went on to score 17 points in the second half and made two 3 pointers in the final seconds to give his team the win. He said, “I think every shot I take is going in.” The success of Jordan and Stephen Curry is due to the fact that they are not concerned with what was or might be, only with what is!
Thought Stoppage – This one is easy. Once you have recognized that your thinking is not what it should be you simply say STOP. Think of a stop sign and don’t think that thought anymore. Recognize what’s going on, say stop, slow down & breathe.
Positive Self Talk – Once you have stopped the thought replace it with something productive and positive. The mind can only think of one thing at a time so decide to be positive and turn it around. For starters, you could just say the opposite of what you were thinking. Replace “I missed the last one so I’m going to miss this one” with “I’ll get the next one” or “I’m a 50% shooter. This one’s going in.” Studies have found that positive, confident thoughts improve motor skills. Therefore the opposite is true, negative doubting thoughts make you play/perform below your ability! In the late 1800′s, the psychologist William James said, “The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitudes of mind.” Choose to alter your life and game by choosing to be positive! I guarantee you will be astonished at the result and the surge of confidence you will feel.
Preparation – Coach Joe Paterno said, “The will to win is important, but the will to prepare is vital.” What he is saying is that will and talent alone are not enough. If you want to be great you must be willing to prepare and work harder than your competition. By preparing the right way you can go into battle knowing you have done all you can to be ready. This is a great source of confidence and power. Trust in your preparation and let the challengers come.
During the Vancouver 2010 Olympics I witnessed an amazing example of the power of trusting in your preparation in Lindsey Vonn, the 2010 downhill 0lympic gold medalist. Talk about handling pressure, her husband said, “they basically hung the gold around her neck before the race.” Add to that the fact that two weeks prior she had a nasty crash and sustained a serious shin injury. She hadn’t skied on it since and wasn’t sure she would be able to ski at all. After her incredible gold medal performance she said that she just “trusted in her preparation and what she had been doing all year” and went for it. Her ability to be confident in her preparation and abilities helped her perform her best when the pressure was on.
Attitude – Fortunately, you get to decide how and what you think. The author and concentration camp survivor Victor E. Frankl stated, “…everything can be taken from a man but one thing: The last of his freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Nowhere in the rulebook of life or sport does it say that because you didn’t get the job done or you made a few mistakes, you must meltdown and be discouraged. Keep your head up and focus on what you can do. Attitude is a decision! Lou Holtz said it best, “Ability is what you’re capable of doing, Motivation determines what you are willing to do, Attitude determines how well you will do it.” Decide to do it well, whatever it is. Commit to giving everything you have and never give up on your chances. Choose your own way!
These seven mental skills are ones we can all master to help us develop and maintain confidence under pressure. Ultimately empowering us to perform our best on a more consistent basis. However, these mental skills must be practiced and developed just like dribbling, shooting, passing and rebounding. A coach I recently worked with said, “When you spoke with our team it helped us realize that the mental game is something we have to practice just as much as the physical game. It gave us great insight as coaches.”
Remember, performing under pressure takes confidence. Put yourself in tough situations and be willing to fail and succeed. Be the one who wants the ball when the game is on the line. Believe & trust in your preparation, your abilities and your chances! Have a shooters mentality Like Stephen Curry by thinking, “every shot I take is going in.” Dare to be great!
Performing under pressure takes confidence. Put yourself in tough situations and be willing to fail and succeed
Congratulations to Seattle Seahawks fullback Derrick Coleman on making his dream come true and playing in the Super Bowl. Despite being born deaf, Derrick has persevered his entire life and proved everyone wrong. Now he is a Super Bowl Champion!
In Another’s Words…
“Never let the fear of striking out get in your way.”
– Babe Ruth