Psychology: Under pressure

How an athlete handles pressure is vital to a good performance, as Steve Mann explains

Posted on January 15, 2014 by
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Start in blocks (Mark Shearman)

The pressure of an event can affect an athlete massively. If the athlete is at a critical point where the next performance or technique can either win or lose a championship, they may feel like the weight of the world is on their shoulders.

Many athletes thrive on pressure and this can help motivate them to perform at an even higher level. However, a great number can break at this level. They may find it difficult to perform the skill needed due to mental and physical pressure combining to virtually stun them.

How do these athletes overcome this pressure, let it drop away and perform at their highest standard?

First, we need to look at both the mental and physical stresses and then the ways to destroy these.

Many athletes thrive on pressure and this can help motivate them to perform at an even higher level

Attacking physical pressure

Two main techniques are used for this – progressive muscle-relaxation and breathing exercises.

Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is about identifying tense muscles that could interfere with performance and learn how to release these so you are relaxed. This process can sometimes take weeks to master, but here’s a basic process to understand how to use it at a low level.

You first need to be aware of a tense muscle. This is difficult without full PMR training, but as we don’t have weeks to train you’ll need to mentally scan your body for tension. This may take a minute or two, but once you’ve found some, the work can then start.

You tense that muscle group for five to seven seconds and then allow it to relax for 20 to 30 seconds. Don’t try to make it relax, but just let go of the muscle and allow it to relax slowly, paying attention to how it feels. With a few weeks training and becoming aware of how the muscle feels, you should be able to progress on to naturally relaxing the muscle.

The next technique is breathing. You may be surprised at how many people forget to breathe properly when under pressure and how much different breathing patterns can help to relax the body.

Breathing from only your lungs isn’t enough. You need to breathe from deep within your diaphragm. This really opens up the potential for the lungs. Breathing slowly so that your muscles have time to relax also helps.

Attacking mental pressure

This involves psychological skills covered in previous articles to help decrease mental pressure. One of the key psychological skills is visualisation or imagery. This is different from mental rehearsal. The athlete would picture a relaxing setting. The eyes would be closed for a minute or two to experience this.

An example is imagining a beach with warm sand and the sound of the shore, while feeling the heat of the sun. It’s important to have physical sensations such as heat and sounds to help make this image more real. We’d then start to naturally relax as we begin to feel more chilled about the pressure.

Be careful not to get too relaxed though as this may negatively affect your performance. Take five minutes to imagine a relaxing setting, building it from your images, then the sounds and then the physical sensations. Use a past memory at first to help develop your visualisation skills.

Relaxation skills need to be used carefully due to their potential to relax too much. It’s always best to contact someone who is qualified to take it further and learn a lot more on combatting pressure.

» Steven Roy Mann, BSc (Hons), MSc, PGCert, MBPsS, is a performance psychologist

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