Psychology & pressure in sport

08/06/2020

Performing well under pressure is a great skill in any walk of life, from the boardroom to the factory floor. Professional sportspeople have to deal with more pressure than most, however, with internal pressure and the collective eyes of the world creating an obstacle only the best can overcome. While some athletes thrive in this pressure cooker environment, others have trouble overcoming their nerves and fail to live up to expectations as a result.

"Pressure" is a huge concept in the world of sport, and it also has a slippery definition. From fear of failure and fear of success to fear of disappointing others and fear of embarrassment, everyone feels pressure in slightly different ways. Even sports psychologists and coaches have trouble making sense of these feelings, which are generally self-imposed and exist through a process of feedback with the outside world. Being able to identify, avoid, or manage this internal conversation is crucial to success, with exceptional performance almost always occurring when people enter a "zone" beyond the internal chatter of the mind.  

In a world where physical perfection and epic skillsets are common place, the ability to focus and perform under pressure is what transforms a good athlete into a great one. This ability to turn off the mind and get results is highlighted in football penalties or AFL set-shots, which should be relatively easy but rarely are. While kicking the goal helps you to win the game, players often get stuck in their own heads and fail to get the results they're looking for.

According to a recent AFL goal-kicking study by Dr Sam Elliott from Flinders University, the secret is understanding how the body and mind work together. Dr Elliot recorded the internal thought processes of players while they were taking shots at goal, from technique and wind direction to anxiety and expectation. "Self-doubt seems to increase" with complexity according to Dr Elliott, with "the things that work for more achievable goals... actually abandoned as the complexity increases." Instead of focusing more on what works when times get tough, most people seem to do the opposite.

The tricky part, is learning how to work with this pressure in real-time without abandoning everything you've learned. While this comes more naturally to some people than others, sports psychologists are getting better at transferring this knowledge with every season. There are some known techniques that help people get into the "zone" where training and positive behaviour patterns take over from self-doubt. Breathing and mindfulness are key assets in any approach, with cognitive behavioural therapy and other deconstructive efforts also useful for some athletes.