Learning to deal with pressure in a constructive rather than destructive way is crucial in sport. This allows you to perform at your best when it matters most rather than crumpling under the pressure. This is what the book ‘Tipping the Balance‘ by Dr Martin Turner and Dr Jamie Barker (published by Bennion Kearny Ltd, 2014) is all about. It is a handbook which is divided into different sections such as ‘Think Smart’, ‘Be Confident’ and ‘Focus on Success’ on how to deal with pressure in sport. Each section clearly explains different theories in sports psychology and gives lots of real life examples. There are also plenty of activities to help you apply all this information to yourself so that you can become a more resilient athlete. Here are my 5 key points from this book which you can start applying to your own sport to see improvements in your performance.
Stress responses are normal
The racing heart you might experience before a match or race is a normal response to a competition which you see as important. It is part of an evolutionary response designed to get you ready to either escape from or fight a predator. Although a competition may seem important to you it obviously isn’t a life or death situation but evolution hasn’t caught up and so we still respond as if we are being chased by a pack of lions.
Turner and Barker suggest how you cope with this response is what matters. You can either interpret it as a threat state or as a challenge state. A threat state means that you have a negative mindset towards the pressure and don’t think that you have the ability to cope successfully with the situation. This leads to negative physiological changes which limit our performance.
On the other hand a challenge state involves thinking that you do have the resources to deal with the pressure and so leads to positive physiological changes which enhance our performance.
It is obviously then desirable to get into a challenge state. This can be done in a number of ways. One way to do this is by using relaxation techniques such as deep breathing or muscle relaxation to help you reach a more positive mindset. These both need to be done regularly in order to see the greatest benefits so spending a bit of time practicing relaxation techniques before each training session might be beneficial.
Increase your resources and see an improvement in performance
By increasing your self confidence and focusing on the things that you can control you will increase your resources to deal with pressure and so see an improvement in you performance as you will be more likely to be in a challenge state.
There are several different ways the authors of this book suggest you can increase your self confidence. One of these is to visualise yourself performing at your best. Try to ‘see’ as much detail in these performances as possible in order to recreate the mental and physical responses to performance that you would feel in real life. Using information from all five sense might be a good way to do this. The more you practice visualising yourself performing well, the easier it will become to do this. ‘Seeing’ yourself perform well on a regular basis will increase your confidence that you can do this is real life.
You are in control
Feeling in control of your performance is another important way of increasing your resources. There are many aspects of sporting performances and competitions which are uncontrollable such as the weather and who you are competing against. Focusing on these things is likely to lower your confidence as it is easy to think about all the things that might prevent you performing well.
Instead, try focusing on the things you can control. The authors of this book suggest there are five controllable factors; our psychological state, our effort, having a pre-performance routine, how we communicate with others and creating if-then plans. Here we are going to focus on one of these, how to create if-then plans.
There is a step-by-step process for creating these laid out in the book but to summarise, if-then plans involve picking a goal and then thinking of all the possible obstacles that might prevent you reaching it. To make these seem controllable you then come up with a plan for what to do if the obstacle does occur.
For example: “My goal is to run a sub three hour marathon, IF my shin splints come back THEN I will continue to train but cycle instead to reduce the impact while I recover to keep my fitness up, whilst committing to a rehabilitation plan”.
This means that any obstacles that do occur won’t seem so overwhelming as you will already have a plan in place to deal with them. Therefore by using if-then plans, you allow yourself to feel in control of your training which will help to increase your confidence.
For more information on setting goals, click here.
Embodied cognition is your friend
The idea of embodied cognition is one of the things I found most interesting in this book. It is the idea that by practicing looking confident you will start feeling more confident which will positively impact your performance. This is in part due to the changes in testosterone and cortisol levels when you are showing confident body language which allows your body to react in a positive way to the situation.
So, next time you have a competition, practice showing confident body language beforehand (stand tall and make eye contact etc.) and you will probably start to feel more confident. And as we’ve seen, confidence leads to improved performance, which leads to more confidence so you will soon be on your way to an upward spiral of confidence and improved performance!
Pick goals that focus on success
The types of goals you set in sport is also important according to the authors of this book. They suggest that you pick goals that focus on success and what you want to achieve rather than goals that focus on failure and what you want to avoid. For example, using the goal “I am going to try and speed up towards the end of the race” is more positive than the goal ” I am going to try not to slow down towards the end of the race”, even though this essentially means the same thing. This will lead to a more positive mindset towards competitions and so should increase your confidence.
Try going over your goals and re-writing them in a more positive, success orientated way and see if this improves you confidence and performance.
I hope you have found these five points helpful for dealing with pressure in competitive situations and that this leads to more successful performances. To learn more about these five key points and many other ideas, you can buy this book here. Leave a comment below to let me know which of these points you are going to apply to yourself.
Happy exercising 🙂