There will be times during your journey, when you as an athlete are tested. It could be a tough God workout that you already failed a dozen times or even a competition with a big crowd in attendance. No matter the reason, performance pressure can really challenge your mental strength. Especially when you’re one of the world’s greatest goalkeepers. Training specialist Christian Soetebier looks into the science.
The effects of pressure on sports performance
What happens when we are put under pressure?
In general, you will feel a certain degree of excitement or even anxiety. You might start to sweat or even shake, asking yourself: “What if I can’t make it?”. Or you might hype yourself up, thinking “Let’s see if I can pass this challenge”.
There are multiple factors that will determine how well you cope:
- External situational factors (i.e. an audience, prize money)
- Internal situational factors (i.e. your own and other’s expectations, the perceived importance of the challenge)
- Your personality traits (i.e. your tendency to feel anxious or self-conscious, to be a perfectionist, how afraid you are of failure, etc.)
- Your emotional state (i.e. what you make of the situation)
Physical and psychological effects
Your surroundings, your personality and your mindset will determine how you react when you are put under pressure. It’s basically about whether you manage to be amped up enough without becoming too nervous to perform. Let’s explore what might happen on both the positive and negative end of the spectrum.
On the positive side, if you’re able to perceive the situation as a welcome challenge, you might be able to:
- Keep your focus on the task, i.e. be fully aware of what to do and how to do it
- Block out distractions, i.e. narrow your focus so outside factors don’t distract you
- Feel a surge of energy that spurs you on, i.e. be just excited enough but not too nervous.
However, should you feel overwhelmed with the situation, you might experience some negative effects:
- Difficulty focusing your thoughts
- Feeling jittery or shaking
- Inability to perform on your usual level
So how can you make sure to experience the positive rather than negative effects?
How to stay calm under pressure
We must look at two perspectives here: Your long-term journey as an athlete and your actions in the moments when the pressure is on.
Regarding your long-term development as an athlete, you need to make sure that you develop a mentality that does not easily succumb to pressure. If your life is only focused on performance in sports, the pressure will be higher compared to when you have multiple avenues to focus on. Your journey must be bigger than just working out.
During the challenge itself, we could face two situations:
You could be either too distracted to perform well, or too focused on what to do, so you overthink it. Most beginners get distracted, while experts tend to overanalyze themselves when the heat is on. What can we do here?
If you find yourself too distracted, go with a pre-performance routine (PPR). This is a set of thoughts and actions that get you in “the zone”. These could be self-affirming thoughts (“I can do this”), cue words (“It’s on”) as well as a specific warm-up routine that you always use before challenging workouts.
If you find yourself overanalyzing, go a different route: use analogies during training to help reduce pressure, making yourself less detail-focused (i.e. “legs like springs” during jumps). Another thing you can try is listening to music or counting backwards.
Lots of things can go wrong when the pressure is on. But you can do quite a lot to prevent that from happening. Get yourself in the sweet spot of excitement to transform anxiety into anticipation. Become the best version of yourself – no matter how tough the challenge.