Mental Toughness Digest for Sport & Performance.
Pressure! Isn’t That Something You Put In Car Tyres?
By Chris Pomfret (PSY0000966671)
One of the more frequent words that we hear during our work as sport and performance psychologists is ‘pressure’. Although we work with clients who have a wide range of mental challenges the most common would have to be helping someone who is “amazing” during training and then falls apart during competition – letting the pressure of the competitive environment get to them in some way or another.
Before looking at some tried and tested methods for performing better under pressure below (warning: requires some effort) it’s worth commenting briefly about why it’s not one of our main 5 mental targets (as highlighted in previous editions, these are confidence, concentration, communication, emotions and motivation). The reason is that pressure itself is actually not something we’re targeting (aiming for). Performing well under pressure might be, but this is a consequence of effort towards the areas already listed. Therefore ‘choking’ under pressure is to the mental side like injury is to physical preparation: the work is designed to reduce the chances of it happening – but 99% of this effort can be done without having to factor in what we’re attempting to avoid.
The first decision to be made when it comes to performing better under pressure is one that tends to dictate how you then approach the set of solutions that are put together – is pressure a real thing or purely a figment of your imagination? This poses a serious crossroads for those of us working on the frontline of mental conditioning. Without boring you with too much psychobabble, most sport and performance psychologists today will tend to use a predominantly “thought-changing” approach (CBT for example) and / or a “feelings accepting” approach (for instance ACT). At Condor Performance our Metuf model is made up of about 70% CBT and 30% ACT and this is how it plays out in terms of helping our clients to perform better under pressure.
First up – is the kind of pressure one feels actually a real thing? The title of this edition of the Mental Toughness Digest was unapologetically stolen from a quote I saw in the paper a few days before the Super 15 Grand Final (the biggest rugby union club competition in the southern hemisphere) from one of the stars of the NSW Waratahs (the eventual winners). In response to a journalist’s query about pressure, Adam Ashley-Cooper replied, “I think Nick Cummins once said pressure is for tyres.” He went on to say “it is pressure that you need to embrace to perform at your best in big games. It brings the best out in me because there is that pressure, expectation, game anxiety. There are a lot of nerves, but you just use it to play well.”
This is interesting. The first part suggests that the only real pressure is the kind related to the amount of air, gas or water inside an airtight space. In other words, when you feel pressure on game day, it’s actually something else. Maybe it’s nerves or possibly some future thoughts but it’s unhelpful to confuse it with something that can be measured in ‘pounds per square inch’ or ‘bar’. But then he goes onto suggest a much more mindfulness-based approach, implying that it is real and therefore can be used to help improve concentration. “With pressure comes opportunity” might be a reasonable mantra for those who believe that trying to argue that pressure is imagined is not only futile, but in actual fact quite counterproductive.
Shoot me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) and let me know which way you’d lean when it comes to performing better under pressure. Do you try and lessen the negative impact by questioning its existence or accept it and try and use it in some way?