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Coping with Pressure- Managing Expectations in Elite Sport:

Updated: Jul 17, 2023

Managing Expectation is a great way to deal with pressure Some athletes love pressure. They thrive on it and in it. They identify it and they raise a gear. For most though, its very different.

But for any athlete, pressure is clearly a normal part of sports.

There are different kinds of pressure for an athlete to do deal with, which is for another article.

As you get better as an athlete, you naturally become a better competitor.

You become more competitive, you start to train harder, eat better and naturally pressure seems to increase.

The more you invest, the more you want a return. For many athletes, this can be fine in the beginning but can slowly start to become an overwhelming aspect of the athletic journey experience.

Ask any athlete, they have felt pressure. You would be very hard pressed not to find athletes which totally shy away from it.

At some point, an athlete will have to acknowledge and make some type of reference about pressure they felt and how its affecting performance and their overall life.

If you remove the physicality away from an athlete, the best way to differentiate how good a player is…is by seeing them perform under pressure, under severe stress.

The better athletes perform better under pressure plain and simple.

But why?

Is it more experience, is it maturity? Is it the way they train?

The answer is yes to all three – and they all play an important part.

But the foundation setting underpinning all of that is how they cope with pressure and what mechanisms they enforce to quell pressure’s stronghold on the human brain.

You have to learn how to master your emotions firstly and part of that is to manage expectations.

This is so because athletes respond to pressure in variety of ways.

So you need to have a strong base that is immovable. The athlete needs to learn how to become a centred human being first and foremost.

The athlete needs to be like a mountain. Doesn’t matter if an earthquake hits or there are howling winds. The mountain stays strong and centred. That is masculine energy. Strong, centred and calm.

But one also has to acknowledge that pressure has different sources, has different affects, and of course, we with people, both men and women who have different energies and hormones. Every person is wired differently, and thus pressure is therefore perceived differently, and affects athletes in different ways and triggers different responses.

Let’s examine a few types of pressure.

One type of pressure that all athletes will face regardless if they are in team or playing an individual sport is ‘scoreboard pressure’.

Most athletes, as a response so scoreboard pressure, tighten up, become anxious, play for survival and ultimately may fold under the duress of what the scoreboard is telling them.

What actually is happening is that the player starts to focus on the score, the consequence of ‘what if’ so to speak.

The brain is triggered to worry about the scoreboard so much that there is a shift in concentration and focus toward outcome and consequence instead of process and flow.

The other type of pressure that is felt is the pressure to perform your role or when your teammates are heavily relying on you in a certain situation.

Typically, this type of pressure is mostly experienced by one of the more experienced players on the team, or a seasoned campaigner who is expected to perform, or an athlete who just moved into the starting role, or an athlete who enters a contest late in the game expected to become a ‘game changer’.

In an individual setting it may be an athlete anchoring a relay in athletics or swimming, an athlete who is the favourite to win the tournament or an athlete expected to score high in an event to help out their team, or even a player who is taking the last shot in a game, taking a penalty or something alike

Internally, its mayhem. But the better athletes, you will never know it or see it. In poker its called bluffing – not giving a tell. The athlete needs to adopt a similar philosophy

For players in these different types of circumstances, there is a weight of expectation, they may feel as if they need to carry their teams on their shoulders or they feel pressure to outperform previous performances.

Coaches and the athletes need to understand that most of this pressure is generated intrinsically - high standards drawn from the perception of excessively high expectations. This can sometimes have a negative affect which can take an athlete mentally out of their game. The state of fun and play is removed.

Ultimately an athlete who doesn’t know how to manage this will feel the weight of excessive expectations (externally and internally) and the pressure to perform (internally and externally) and will inevitably try to do too much.

This leads to what we call overtrying, which is the state of trying to be perfect, avoiding mistakes and feeling that’s the only way, I can play in this moment. There is no room for failure, imperfection or anything else.

In team sports, the weight of expectations can be felt at the pointy end of the season or tournament. Playoffs, finals, etc. But just remember, when the tough gets going, the tough get going. What is the trick to reverse this state of play?

There is no trick. You have to learn these skills.

You have to embrace it and realise that there is no need to be or do a anything special.

Performing under pressure is what sport is all about. It requires that you “play within yourself”. Regardless of the scoreboard, the amount of people watching, how much you earn.

It doesn’t matter if it is regular season game, playoffs or a championship competition or match.

Performing under pressure is about realising that you are allowed to fail, you don’t have to be perfect or be a hero.

You just need to do the basics well, for longer and play within yourself.

This is so because everything around you is called perceived pressure.

Shane Warne, arguably the greatest cricket of all time, talks about this also. Creating something that is not there. He would do this to increase the pressure for the batsman he is bowling too.

The same concept applies in general sport. In order to cope with perceived pressure, try and change the way you view it, and use to help you not let it work against you.

A way to do this is by reflecting on competitions or games in the past that you performed well in and examine the mindset that you carried into that competition.

Review why you performed well. How did you handle pressure?

What were your expectations leading up to that competition?

You see most of the athletes we collectively coach at AthleteIQ on the mental game - when I pose these questions perform at their best is when they don’t carry high expectations into the competition.

They just go out there and play. They try to play their game and ultimately as a bi product they have the most fun, they enjoy the competition. It’s a great way to handle pressure. Learning to enjoy it is key to thriving in it.

The Key Principles

A way to focus on enjoying the challenge of pressure and expectations is by placing a few key principles in play and reminding of them often, before and during competition and in your review process.

The first principal acts as a crucial foundation to cope with pressure - that is to only focus on you.

Learn to develop a coat of armour to protect yourself. Remove the care in what others think or perceive you, try to not care about what others think about your game when performing, whether it be parents, coaches, fans, and friends. It's hard to do, but the more you ‘practice’ that sort of focus – the better you will become at it. Play the game for yourself because you love it, not others principally. In this way you can really enjoy moments in the game.

You can become present and let go of the expectations you perceive from others and actually focus on the execution of the game plan, the process of one play at a time.

A great excerpt is by Boston Celtic Kyrie. In the midst of the NBA playoffs whereby the pressure to perform can be heightened for athletes, he talks about certain things which illustrates what we have talked about. Whilst Irving within the NBA is considered one of the better players and arguably the best player on his team, he was asked if he felt an extra burden and feeling more pressure after losing Game 2 in their second-round playoff series to the Milwaukee Bucks,123-102. Irving responded in the interview with a categorical “No!”

IRVING: “There’s no extra burden. This is what I signed up for. This is what Boston traded for me. Being able to go back, get back in the trenches, get ready for another battle on Friday, that’s what you live for. Basketball is fun when it comes like this and you have to respond, and this is the type of basketball you want to be playing this time of year”

For the up and coming athlete, there is a lot to learn out of that statement.

You see Irving, who only scored nine points and had four assists in Game 2 had a quite game. However, he bounced back with 29 points and six assists in Game 3. That’s what mentally tough players do. They bounce back. Fascinatingly, Irving averaged 33 points per game and 6.9 assists during the regular season. Everyone’s expectations that he would repeat those numbers in the playoffs. The lesson is beneath this though and the reason why those numbers are significant is it signifies that Irving played within his game, resisted the urge to try to do too much and played within himself.

Irving had a great perspective when it comes to feeling pressure and performing in the playoff series.

IRVING: “It’s the playoffs. We’re playing against a great team. They’re No. 1 in the Eastern Conference for a reason. They finished the regular season strong, came out and did what they were supposed to do in the playoffs… I’ve been in too many battles going back and forth to get too high or too low… This one would have been great to [win], but we didn’t so now we go back home and reset our mindset going in and just have fun playing the game of basketball. Game 3, I’m looking forward to it.”

The key for any athlete is that you are going to have up and downs and times when you play great or bad. But always know that you can’t keep heaping expectations upon yourself and perform freely.

Free yourself from that pressure and just play the game by focusing on the next play or opportunity to perform.

There’s no other way of putting it. We are human. It’s huge ask to think you need perform and win all the time or carry your team and be the go-to all the time.

Being the one to hoist your team on your back day in day out is unsustainable mentally and physically when it comes to carrying them to victory.

For an athlete, yes performance is important. But enjoyment is more important.

Performing under pressure is a matter of;

- staying focused on yourself,

- knowing the process,

- knowing your game,

- playing within yourself and

- keeping the fun, front and centre.

‘Coping Mechanisms and Interventions’ within Pressure situations when expectations are high is the key.

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