Performing under pressure

Imagine the scene; you step onto the track of the 100 metres final. How would you feel? Wracked with anxiety? Filled with the sense that this was your moment, your time to show how good you are and ready to take home the prestigious Olympic Gold Medal? If you are in the Olympic final, the chances are you have spent years training for this moment; you spend hours training per week to hone your ability to perform in one race lasting around 10 seconds.

We know that in presure situations, intense emotions such as anxiety can invade our thoughts, disturbing our normal flow or thoughts, and as such, disturb our performance. Elite athletes need to manage these emotions; they tend to have just the same as you and I, but the different is they manage them, see them differently, and possibly even welcome them!

So the key question is how do you learn to manage anxiety? Emotional conditioning or re-programming your mind habits involves challenging thinking habits associted with negative thinking. The disturbing effects of unpleasant emotions are often built on a habit of negative thinking.

In the Olympic final or in an exam or job interview, where the task is new and important to you, then you can expect to be anxious. The anxiety is telling you; “this task is important, and if you don’t get your finger out, you will miss out”. In short, the message your emotions are telling you is one that you need to prepare. When we start looking at it that way it becomes easier to re-interpret the signal anxiety is sending. It is not one of doom and gloom, but one of necessity for action.

What you need to do is start conditioning your interpretation of anxiety. A strategy that is useful for this is something called if-then plannig. If-then planning has been found to be an effective method of changing thought processes in a number of scientific studies. If-then plans work by identifying the barrier to poor performance and then placing teh opportunity to overcome this barrier beside the problem. You then put the if-then plan together.

During the learning stages, people repeat the if-then plan daily until it is over-learned. With if-then plans you can re-structure negative thoughts and turn them into postitive thoughts by having pre-prepared statements.

If (barrier to performance) Then (solution to the barrier)
If I notice my heart rate pounding as I walk out to perform Then I will take a deep breath and focus on the word ‘relax’ as I breathe out
If I notice my heart rate pounding as I walk out to perform Then I will remind myself of the times when I was successful and say to myself: “I can do this”.

So…form a habit starting step by step and model yourself on the expert. Repeatedly practising the new skill (mentally and physically) until it becomes habit. You wil learn to recognise that anxiety and trying to achieve important goals natural come together, but you can interpret these symptoms as meaning ready to perform.

To find out more about EROS or Emotion Regulation of Others and Self, check out theirwebsite here.

If this is an area that interests you, then have a look at the links below to see if you could be:

  • sports and exercsie psychologist – studying the mental and emotional effects of taking part in sport and exercise.
  • dietitian – using their scientific knowledge to help people make informed decisions about their lifestyle and food choices.
  • performance analyst – providing objective feedback to performers trying to get a positive change in their performance.
  • sports coach – teaching sports skills and techniques to individuals and teams from all sporting abilities, from beginners to top international professionals.
  • sports and exercise scientist – using their knowledge of scientific areas such as physiology, biomechanics and psychology to help clients to improve their sporting performance and general health.
  • sports professional – skilled and talented sportsmen and women who are paid to compete in their chosen sport.
  • heatlh trainer – advising people about healthier lifestyle choices to improve their general health and wellbeing.