Performing Under Pressure — 9 Ways Great Athletes Make It Count, When It Counts Most

One of the most important things you’ll need to develop as an athlete is the ability to remain calm and perform well under pressure, even in the most chaotic of circumstances. A champion is unflappable under pressure, they retain the ability to make good decisions, think clearly and attack the task in front of them with confidence, enthusiasm and tenacity. With deep rhythmic breathing, they are able to control the symptoms of pressure and remain process focused, they maintain situational awareness so that they can make good decisions in the heat of the moment.

We face pressure in our daily lives at work, in school, from family members and friends, but it’s in competition that athletes can experience incredibly high amounts of pressure. When performing under pressure some athletes are crushed, while others crush the competition, why is that? Every athlete feels some pressure when performing, the less prepared you are, the more pressure you’re going to feel. No athlete is immune to pressure, their heart rate rises, they breathe quicker, depending on how well prepared and confident they are pressure can make them perform better or worse. Pressure creates tension and can cause an athlete to panic, when athletes panic they want to get their task over and done with as quickly as they can, the more you rush the more mistakes you’ll make mistakes lead to more pressure, which leads to more panic, more mistakes, more pressure and more panicking.

Sometimes we experience moments of extreme pressure, where we feel like we must deliver the goods or suffer dire consequences. Often these moments create a sense of dread, pressure can be a villain, an enemy to your success. It can negatively impact performance, make us panic, make us choke and fail at things we usually find manageable. When we’re under pressure we can make poor judgement calls, make mistakes and the game plan gets thrown out the window. When under pressure most athletes perform below their capabilities, while others handle it well and seem to thrive on pressure. Very few athletes think about how they’re going to handle high pressure situations, until it’s too late and they’re in the thick of it. Most will simply model what they’ve noticed others doing and hope it works, sometimes it does, most often it doesn’t.

The term ‘choke’ is commonly used to describe when an athlete’s performance suffers greatly under pressure, their well-planned strategy goes out the window, they struggle to do things they’ve practice hundreds or thousands of times before, sometimes their mind just goes blank when they most need to think on their feet. It’s one thing to perform a little below your capabilities under pressure, but choking and performing significantly below what you’re capable of is another. Skills that they can easily perform in non-pressure situations can become extremely difficult for an athlete when choking under pressure, at a time when they want to do their best.

Unfortunately, many athletes who don’t perform at their best are said to have choked, even though this is not the case. There are many reasons why someone might not perform at their best, injury being one example. Being a little off your game isn’t choking, you could say that performing significantly below your capabilities due to anxiety is. Many athletes get labelled as chokers even when it is unwarranted, sometimes they are given a reputation as one because of a single underperformance under pressure.

The more important the outcome is to you, or the more uncertain of the outcome you are, the more pressure you’ll feel. The pressure we feel is somewhat equal to our chances of winning, so the more thoroughly we prepare, the less anxious we should feel about competing. Sporting events fill athletes with anxiety for these reasons, winning is important to them, they want to avoid failure, and they can never truly know who is going to win. Athletes also feel pressured if they believe they’re being judged on the outcome, they don’t want to look bad in front of other people or be embarrassed by losing.

Pressure disrupts your performance, makes your heart rate speed up, makes you struggle to breathe. Thinking clearly becomes difficult, you may lose some control of your physical and mental abilities and your capacity to execute your skills. Pressure is a person’s enemy in decision making, it can greatly impact our ability to make quality decisions, often we panic and rush, making us do the wrong thing. Pressure causes us to feel anxiety, which is essentially fear, but usually the more often we experience high pressure situations like competition, the more that anxiety is calmed. Experience helps to overcome anxiety.

The other side of pressure is that it keeps you paying attention, it keeps you sharp. If we feel too little pressure we can lose focus and go through the motions. If we’re feeling too much pressure then we can tense up and overtry. Recognise that pressure can be positive if you are able to control it, some like to think that pressure is in your imagination, but regardless of that we still feel it, making it and its effects real to us. You can use it to your advantage though, you must accept that you will feel pressure during a performance and that it is normal to do so. Although you could say pressure is created in your mind, it still feels real enough to us in the moment, and we can use it to our advantage.

Pressure is your body telling you to wake up and pay attention, it is your body’s way of getting you ready to perform and filling you with energy. Take advantage of the pressure, get excited and focus on what you want to happen, not what you’re worried about happening. When under pressure, coal produces a diamond, champions under pressure produce winning performances.

Pressure affects coordination, focus and judgement, increases your heartrate, speeds up breathing and creates unwanted tension. These factors can negatively affect performance, causing an athlete to panic and rush. Don’t rush, remember to consciously try to relax and breathe. Successful athletes learn to handle pressure and keep their composure, this is one of the differences between a champion and an everyday run of the mill competitor.

Pressure is essentially in the mind of the beholder, pressure is the interpretation an athlete has of their situation whether on competition day or any other stressful situation. So, pressure is basically all in your head, your mind creates anxiety when under stress, learn to view pressure as an opportunity to challenge yourself and overcome it using both your physical and mental skills.

Some athletes view pressure as a privilege, they rise to the occasion come game day and perform at their best, truly thriving under pressure. Know that your years of training will take over and you’ll almost be on autopilot, so relax and let go of any remaining stress and simply perform at your uninhibited best. Many of the best athletes in the world perform best when they compete like they have nothing to lose. This allows them to focus on the process and not getting hung up on the outcome.

Other athletes experience pressure as if something terrible has happened and feel a sense of impending doom and gloom, some even panic. If you believe that a competition is going to be a disaster, you will always experience a great deal of pressure and anxiety when performing. Ask yourself what is the worst that can happen? It’s probably not nearly as catastrophic as you think it might be and even if the worst were to happen, ask yourself if you have what it takes to deal with it. Since you’re reading this and making an effort to improve your mental game, I’m going to assume that you do and that you’re hungry, focused and driven. You can squash pressure by developing a strong and confident mindset. When everyone else is panicking, a champion is excited.

A lot of people try their best to ignore or get rid of pressure when competing, we’re conditioned to believe that pressure is bad and we need to avoid it at all costs. Pressure causes athletes to panic and perform poorly, while others find that pressure is useful, sometimes essential to perform at their best. Pressure isn’t something that you should want or need to avoid, it is something you should use to your advantage. The truth is we need some pressure to perform at our best, the thrill and exhilaration of competition would disappear without pressure.

Worrying too much is a waste of time and effort, it screws with your head, makes you unhappy and steals your confidence. Letting go of the weight of your own expectations in this way can be useful if you are having anxiety problems prior to a performance. This allows you to focus on the process rather than the outcome, concentration on the present moment and mindfully performing each technique as well as possible is more beneficial than getting yourself worked up because of performance anxiety. Don’t play not to lose, play to win as if you have nothing to lose. Become completely immersed and flow in the present moment and let go of any desperate need to win.

You control your fear, it does not control you. Replace negative thoughts and images with positive self-talk and images. Breathe mindfully, bring yourself back to the present moment and confront your fear.

While most people run from pressure, great champions learn to run to and through it. It challenges them and forces them to grow, to improve. Success as an athlete is strongly related to how well you can deal with pressure. Pressure can crush an athlete, or it can turn them into a diamond, which is why mindfully working on your mental training is so important.

Avoid paralysis by analysis, don’t begin overthinking when under pressure, do what you do best in training. Focus on what you’ve trained to do, what you came here to do, take yourself out of your own head and find something simple to focus on. Concentrate on breathing, focus on the process, focus on this very moment and performing each current skill as perfectly as possible and trust in your preparation. You have nothing to lose so play to win, focus on the process and not the outcome.

Knowing how to manage pressure in the moment helps you to play closer to your potential, increasing your chances of success. Your goal in high pressure situations should be to reduce feelings of anxiety, embarrassment, fear and stress. Avoid becoming distracted, stay in the moment, stay mindful of your behaviour and decisions, focusing on what helps you stay calm.

Here are some of the ways that athletes can reduce and better handle the pressure that accompanies competing and performing.

Embrace the Moment

Walk through the fire and embrace the moment, think of high pressure situations as challenges, opportunities to test yourself and have fun. Pressure can be a positive force, or an evil villain, depending on whether you view pressure as a challenge or a threat.

Learn to see pressure as fresh and exciting opportunities to rise to the occasion and meet that challenge. Do you see high pressure situations as a threat or a challenge? Do you see them as something to embrace, or something to dread? Too many athletes view high pressure moments as do or die threats, but doing so fills them with anxiety, fear of failure, compromises their cognitive ability and judgement, as well as draining their energy making them fatigue more easily.

If you see a situation as a challenge to be met rather than a threat, you are much more likely to perform at your fullest capabilities and more likely to succeed. Adrenaline can make us feel uncomfortable, but when you see a competition as fun, the energy and arousal you feel from the pressure becomes enjoyable. It fills you with enthusiasm, one of the best weapons for fighting anxiety and fear. When going into a performance, remind yourself that it is an opportunity to have fun, a challenge to be embraced rather than dreaded, having such a positive mindset can help you to remain calm and perform well. Tell yourself things like ‘this is a challenge to have my best performance ever,’ or ‘this is an opportunity to have fun and show how good I am.’ Focus on the fun aspects of performing, embrace the parts of competing that you find most enjoyable and have a good time doing your best.

A champion looks at a tough competition as a challenge to be met rather than a threat to back down from. Quitters use a tough break as an excuse to give up, champions use a tough break as a reason to drive themselves to work harder and achieve more.

Remember You’ll Have Multiple Opportunities

When you’re feeling the pressure, remember that this is one of many opportunities that you’ll have, you’ll have plenty of chances to get it right and show what you’re made of. When you know that you’ll get another shot, you tend to feel less pressure. Think about it, it’s reasonable and realistic to think that another opportunity will come your way, right? Thinking about a competition like it is your only opportunity to win, like it’s do or die, isn’t going to help you perform well. You’ll just feel more pressure and make more mistakes, if you act like this is the only opportunity you’re ever going to get. Remind yourself, this is one of many opportunities, you’ll have another chance to show what you can do. We get another chance over and over throughout our lives, it’s rare that an opportunity is actually our last chance. Even if a situation really is last chance saloon, acting and thinking that way isn’t going to help you let go, flow and perform at your best. Don’t put unnecessary pressure on yourself, before a performance remember that you will have another chance, do your best and if you don’t get it this time, you’ll get another opportunity.

Let Go of Winning & Don’t Overtry

A useful tool in sport psychology is to let go of the need to achieve the outcome. Feel the pressure warmly, accept it and let it wash over you. Realise that all of the hard work is already done, all of your training will pay off and it is time to enjoy performing in competition. This works very well for some athletes when practiced mindfully, not so much for others, the tools you use will depend on you as an individual.

If you are nervous about an upcoming competition or event, learn to let go of the pressure of winning. Know that you worked as hard as you could and gave your best, know that even if that best effort still lands you in last place, as long as you improved and became better, it is enough.

The fact is that a champion must be willing to lose, they do everything they can do to win, they prepare diligently, work hard and then when it comes time to perform they have to be willing to roll the dice. Do your best, if it doesn’t work out accept it, learn from it and move on. But don’t complain, don’t dwell on it, champions don’t complain, they work.

When you’re under pressure, remember that the best you can do is your best, you can’t try harder than your best and unfortunately your best may not be good enough to win the competition that day. That’s fine, that is okay, as long as you give your best effort. Remember that overtrying will only ruin your chances of success and that when you try to perform harder than your best, you’ll overtry and perform poorly.

A champion admits when they’ve made a mistake and they don’t make excuses, instead they try their best to use it as feedback that they can learn from. They don’t try to pass off the blame to somebody else, they look their coach or training partner in the eye and say ‘I’ll learn from it and do better next time.’ They don’t dwell on it, they take responsibility, own their failures and move on.

The ability to take ownership of your shortcomings and admit that you made a mistake, is one of the simplest ways to take pressure off of yourself. If you are too concerned about looking perfect and never making mistakes in front of others, then you’ll put too much pressure on yourself and you’ll never take any risks. You’ll play it safe, you’ll play not to lose, burdening yourself with the fear of looking bad in front of others. If you screw up then admit that you screwed up, it doesn’t matter if somebody gives you shit for it, they’re opinion probably doesn’t matter anyway.

If you own your mistakes and fix them, your critics have no power over you. Acknowledge your missteps and have complete confidence that you have the work ethic and ability to fix them. If somebody talks trash about a champions performance they don’t let it cause them to feel pressure, they have more important things to worry about it, like doing better. If you have the confidence to admit when you screw up, people will respect you for it, own it. Let go of the need to win and you immediately depressurise the situation, let go and just do your best.

Downsize the Importance

Sometimes in order to perform well, your best bet is to downsize the importance of the situation. A fighter who views the final round of a close fight as ‘just another round’ rather than a life and death proposition, is on their way to performing at their best. A fighter who sees that final round as do or die, the last round of their life, might not rise to the occasion and perform as well. The more important we believe an event to be, the more pressure we feel, sometimes the best way to rise to the occasion is to do our best but not make a big deal out of it. It may feel counter intuitive, but shrinking the importance of an event and minimizing its significance, can help take the pressure off.

Try reframing your situation, think of an event as your opportunity to show yourself what you are truly made of and perform at your best. The truth is you have nothing to lose and everything to gain by giving your best, you’re either going to win or you’re going to learn, when you realise this it can really help to take the edge off of whatever pressure you’re feeling. You came here to give it your best shot, so trust in your skills and go for it.

Treat a big performance like it’s just like any other competition, while still giving your best effort. Many people will resist this method of reducing pressure by saying that it’s unrealistic to tell yourself that a performance isn’t important to us when we know it is. I would counter by saying that it’s better than overexaggerating the importance of a situation, creating unnecessary pressure that negatively impacts performance that can cause panic and choking. For some athletes that struggle with nerves under pressure, downsizing the important of an event can help a great deal. I suggest that these athletes slightly shrink the importance of a performance, stay mindful and give their best effort. Obviously, we feel pressure in the moments that we feel are important, but it’s vital not to overexaggerate their significance.

The thing to remember is, the worst that can happen is that you’ll lose the competition. That’s it, no big deal. And you can bounce back from that, no problem, you’re strong enough.

Breathe

Mindfully bring your focus back to your breathing whenever you feel your anxiety building, try to breathe naturally, evenly and deeply. In a competition when you’re in a high-pressure situation, your breathing will likely become short and laboured, something that will negatively impact your performance. To quickly reduce feelings of anxiety, focus on your breathing and depressurise the situation. I talk a lot about focusing on the things in your control, your breathing is one of those controllable things, it can help bring you back from the edge of panic and back to the present moment. Breathe in deeply inhaling through the nose for 5 seconds, hold that breathe for 2 seconds, then slowly exhale for at least 5 seconds. The exhale promotes relaxation, extend it the next time you feel like you need to calm down, focusing on breathing evenly and deeply.

Make sure not to breathe too rapidly, instead breathe in until the air reaches the very bottom of your lungs to supply your entire body with much needed oxygen. Then slowly breathe all the way out, releasing any unwanted anxiety and tension as you exhale. Relax your muscles, learning to let go of muscle tension during skill practice in training will help you to do so during competition. Being able to rid yourself of excess tension helps you to relax not just your muscles but your mind as well.

In high-pressure situations, I recommend that you focus on your breathing while staying mindful of your surroundings. Breathing deeply slows the heart rate, calms the nervous system and a calm body is followed by a calm mind. Learning to breathe properly goes a long way in building mental toughness and preparing to perform, look at any elite athlete before and during their performance, they’re usually focused intensely on their breathing, taking deep, calming breaths.

The breath gives you something else to focus on besides your anxiety, it helps calm you down in times of stress, concentrating on your breathing also distracts you from the pain of fatigue when you’re extremely tired during a performance.

Stay Focused on the Process

Most athletes who perform well aren’t thinking about the outcome, they’re immersed in the process, focusing on their activity in the moment.

Maintaining focus on the process helps to depressurise things by preventing distracting thoughts from diluting your concentration and it cues you to do the things that you have to do to perform well. By simply doing your best on each task in each moment, you keep your mind focused on what you need to do and not on negative thoughts that can distract you and derail your performance.

Stay in the moment, focus on what is happening now, rather than what has, will, might, or should be. To focus on what you are responding to now, you need to let go of the past and ignore the future. You can practice being in the moment by tuning into your senses right now. What does your breath sound and feel like? What sensations are you feeling? What sounds are you hearing? Focusing on your senses is a useful way of tuning into the present moment and alleviating pressure during and before a competition.

When you’re focused on form and technique in the present moment and mindful of the process, you aren’t focused on the outcome or your anxiety. Keep your eyes focused on your target, if your eyes begin to wander, so will your focus.

Stay Mindful & Focus on What You Can Control

We often feel pressure because we focus on things that we can’t control, focusing on uncontrollable fills us with anxiety and increase the pressure that we feel. Champions have an intense focus on what they can control, the things that matter most to ensuring they perform at their very best. Their breath, their thoughts, their visualisation and self-talk, their strategy, their game plan and their effort.

Think about the eye of the hurricane, the calm centre in the eye of a storm. No matter how intense the storm is around it, that calm centre is always there. We all have that calm and tranquil place inside of us, the champion within us helps us keep our composure no matter what happens. Mindfulness can help you to find that calm place inside of you, so that when the pressure is on, you can call on it to keep you centred, grounded and poised. In that place, we can choose how re respond, rather than reacting with emotional knee jerk reactions.

‘The athlete who is in championship form has a quiet place in himself and it’s out of that his action comes. If he’s all in the action field, he’s not performing properly. There’s a centre out of which you act.’ ‘The centre has to be known and held and it’s quite physically recognized by the person. Unless this centre has been found, they’re torn apart and tension comes.’ — Joseph Campbell.

If you’re not mindful in the present moment and instead you’re all in the action field as Campbell put it, then you’re reacting hastily with knee jerk reaction, thoughtless reaction using your monkey mind rather than responding thoughtful and purposeful from a quiet and calm place within. But if your mind is full of mental clutter, negative emotions and images, then you’ll lose that state and be thrown off your game and out of the zone. Sports in flow are about finding that calm place within us and staying there throughout your performance, focusing on the process no matter what is thrown your way.

Remember That You Belong Here

You’ve got to trust your game. Even very talented athletes can become hesitant and indecisive when under pressure, they stop trusting their game. The habit of confidence is learned in training, through preparation and self-improvement. Turn off your analytical mind, stop thinking so much and start trusting your game. Athletes who hesitate make mistakes, you must fully commit to every action, if you doubt yourself then your body will freeze up, stop thinking so much and trust yourself. When the spotlights come on and it’s time to perform, go out and enjoy yourself, let your training and preparation carry you through, the hard work is already done.

Remind yourself that you deserve to succeed, you deserve to be here. Regardless of what has happened in the past, or the calibre of athletes competing against you, if you’ve worked hard and done your best to prepare well, then you are worthy of success.

The past does not equal the future unless you live there, just because you’ve screwed up or slipped up in the past doesn’t mean that you can’t succeed right now. Just because you failed yesterday, last week, last month or last year means nothing today, all that matters is what are you going to do right here, right now? Everybody has a past, you may have fallen short in yours, but today is a new day and a new opportunity to show what you’re made of and what you’re capable of. So, go for it.

Recognise the skills, experience, work ethic and positive qualities that you bring to the table, in order to ease the pressure that you’re feeling. It’s important that during high pressure situations that you believe you are worthy of winning and believe in yourself.

Use Positive Self Talk & Visualisation

Feed the Wolf of Courage. It is natural to feel anxiety under pressure, many athletes try to pretend that the pressure isn’t there and doesn’t exist in an effort to simply ignore the anxiety completely. For most however this isn’t an effective tactic, the pressure is real and will not disappear, in order to control it you must address it. This is where forms of positive self-talk and positive affirmations come in, interrupt and block out negative thoughts that accompany anxiety. Common affirmations are things like ‘I can do this, I’ve worked hard and I’m ready, I’m stronger, I’m faster, I’m better than my opponent. I know I can win, I am going to win. I’m ready.’

Visualise what you saw, felt, heard, smelled and thoughts the last time you performed at your best. Create a few positive affirmations for yourself and write them down in a place you will see them often, what they are specifically doesn’t matter as long as they are relevant to you and reaffirm your confidence and remind you that you are capable. By writing them down somewhere you will see them daily you will make these affirmations much more powerful when talking yourself through high pressure situations accompanying them with mindful breathing and positive visualization.