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  • Writer's pictureTaylor Cook

Playoffs and Performance Pressure

man with head down and hands on railing in football stadium

One topic we talk about often with athletes is performance pressure. “How can I perform at my best during critical moments?” This is especially highlighted as teams approach playoffs, when every game counts. Even as I write this, it evokes a lot of those feelings and I can feel that pressure begin to seep into my body because I’ve been there before and odds are that you reading this right now have experienced this before too and you will likely experience it again in the future.

Performance pressure does not only affect athletes at the highest levels of their sport. It impacts athletes of all ages and skill levels. Whether you are a high school athlete, university athlete, a professional or Olympic athlete - you are susceptible to the impacts of performance pressure.

For some it’s a regular experience. They may feel they are able to perform during practice or friendly games but when the ‘real’ competition begins, their performance tanks. For others, it shows up specifically in relation to the type of competition - the high stakes competitions. That can be playoff rounds and championship games or competing on the international stage.

But first I think it is important to understand what performance pressure is at its core before diving into how athletes can work to build the mental skills to combat and manage it.

What is pressure?

“Pressure affects coordination, focus and judgment, increases your heart rate, speeds up breathing and creates unwanted tension. These factors can negatively affect performance, causing an athlete to panic and rush”. - Cited from an article written by Simon Boulter.

It’s clear that there are multiple variables that go into performance pressure. But there is one main factor that stands out from the rest and that is perspective. Hockey great, Mark Messier sums it up nicely by saying “The only pressure I’m under is the pressure I’ve put on myself”. That is, pressure is an internal experience created by the athlete.

From a psychological standpoint, the brain views these events as life or death situations - even though they are not. The brain’s job is to keep us safe and alive and uses past experiences to try and predict whether it is safe for us to do. In other words, will we succeed or fail?

When athletes experience this type of performance pressure, when they feel dreadful and anxious about stepping out to perform, what they are doing is predicting failure and putting their minds and bodies in an unresourceful state. How do they combat this? By trying harder. But the harder they try, the worse they perform.

Is pressure bad?

Pressure is not inherently bad or inherently good. Rather, it depends how you relate to and use pressure in your performance.

“Under pressure you can perform fifteen percent better or worse” - Scott Hamilton, Olympic Figure Skater. 

A certain level of pressure is required to perform at peak levels. Ken Ravizza is a sports psychologist who published a study on the experiences of athletes during their greatest moment in sports and he found that "more than 80% of athletes felt no fear of failure. They were immersed in the activity, they were in the zone. The probability of achieving an outcome you want increases when you let go of the need to have it". (Mind Gym, Gary Mack).

How to manage feelings of performance pressure

Proper preparation.

The way you prepare your mind and body to perform play a significant role in how you will feel as you step out to perform in your respective sport. Take a look at your routine and ask yourself if it is serving you and your performance.

Focus on the process.

When athletes are intensely focused on the outcome of their performance rather than being immersed in the moment, they are taking their energy away from the task at hand. When I played in university we had a team mantra that helped bring me back to the present moment whenever I felt my attention drifting toward uncontrollable factors that would negatively impact my performance:W.I.N. What’s Important Now. 

Trust yourself.

Let go. Remember that you have done this hundreds of times before now. You have spent hours training and practicing to become the athlete you are today. Trust that you are capable of performing at your best

Take Your Performance to the Next Level

Want to learn more about mental performance training? Book a complimentary consultation to answer any questions you have for yourself or an athlete you know.

This newsletter is in association with The Athletic Mind podcast. For the full episode, listen here.


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