In my work with athletes, business leaders and coaches, I consistently see that they feel intense pressure as if it were coming from an external source. For example, a big competition, an important presentation at work or a hard deadline can cause stress to mount. The pressure causes people to get tight, nervous, and to fear failure. Self-doubt creeps in and the belief that the outcome they want is out of reach becomes an inevitable reality.
But wait, what is pressure really? And where does it come from? Is it really an external force?
The great news…pressure is actually a manifestation of how we think about and perceive a situation. Which means we are in control over whether a situation causes pressure or not, and also how we respond when we think there is pressure. We have more power than we realize. One saying I love is, “Pressure is a privilege.” If you are in a situation that has pressure that means you have done something to get there. You have been successful to be put into that position. Now, it’s up to you to decide how you want to view the situation and how you want to control your response to the situation. I want you to learn to “love the pressure.”
We see it all the time…those people who love the pressure, who thrive under pressure, and who perform their best when it matters the most. Think of a quarterback in a 2-minute drill trying to win the Super Bowl, or a golfer trying to sink the final putt on the 18th hole to win the Master’s…these are definitely pressure situations…but a choice comes in how the performer decides to perceive the situation. If you decide to love the pressure, then you also choose to focus on how to be successful in that moment, to remember all your training, to think of what will help you perform your skills well, and to see it as an opportunity rather than a threat. If you decide to fear the pressure, you are likely to think too much about the outcome, to become tight and nervous and to overthink yourself into a tailspin. So, who do you choose to be? How do you want to view and respond to pressure?
A few tips that can help you to thrive under pressure are to:
- Simply take a deep breath. In the nose for at least 4 seconds, pause, out the mouth for at least 4 seconds. And not the one where your shoulders and chest rise (that’s a shallow breath), but the one where if you put your hands on your belly button you feel your belly rise when you breath in and then fall back when you breathe out. Breathing is the best way to promote relaxation and calm. Take a few deep breaths as a reset when you feel pressure.
- Look at the situation objectively and find your focus word. What can you do to be successful in the situation? Think of the simplest thing that answers the question, “HOW do I perform well?” This helps bring laser focus to the situation and makes it seem much more manageable. For example, if I need to execute a second serve in tennis I may remind myself “SPIN” so that I get enough spin on the serve to get it in. I don’t say, “don’t miss” or “I have to make this” or “this serve has so much pressure” because those would all cause me to get tense.
- Remember your training and tell yourself, “Pressure is only there if I put it there” or “I love pressure” or even “This is fun.” Any of these reminders help you keep the situation and the pressure (which is actually just put there by your thoughts) in perspective. You can also use positive self-talk to remind yourself that “I can do this” or “I’m prepared for this”.
Taryn Morgan, PhD, CC-AASP, is the Assistant Director of Athletic and Personal Development at IMG Academy in Bradenton, FL. She has a doctorate in Sport Psychology and helps to oversee 50 staff members who train athletes in physical conditioning, mental conditioning, leadership, athletic training, vision training and nutrition. She played tennis and volleyball at Stetson University and is currently coaching her six-year-old son’s flag football team.