By far one of the most common things I am asked is how to perform while nervous and under pressure.
There is a common fallacy that the world's greatest athletes do not get nervous - this is just false. The world's most clutch athletes - Tiger Woods, Serena Williams, Tom Brady, etc. - have learned that pressure and nervousness can be used to your advantage. Here are five ways you can do the same.
1. Nervousness = excitement
Both nervousness and excitement come from the same bodily mechanism: the “fight or flight” response. This mechanism is responsible for preparing our bodies to take on a stressful event by raising our energy and alertness (among other things).
The difference between nervousness and excitement is in our mind and the perception of what is to come. When we are excited we are typically optimistic and are not overly concerned about the outcome. When we are nervous, we tend to doubt ourselves and worry greatly about the outcome.
In pressure situations instead of labeling what you are feeling as nervous tell yourself you are excited. These are the moments you play sport, what is better than this!? If you can channel the energy you are feeling in this way you will be able to use that nervous energy to your advantage.
The number one best way we know of to reduce the amount of nervousness we feel is through deliberate breathing. While we have all been told at somepoint to “relax, take a deep breath” if you have not been taught how to do it properly you might not have found it effective.
Effective breathing has three components: inhaling down into your stomach (instead of up into your chest), breathing long and slow (5-6 seconds inhale, 5-6 seconds exhale), and focusing on nothing else but your breathing while you are doing it.
3. Focus on your process, not the outcome
We feel pressure because we want to do well - nothing wrong with that. The problem is that pressure causes us to think excessively about the outcome. Thinking about the outcome, even if you are thinking of a positive outcome "man, how awesome would it be if I hit a home run right now" only serves to distract you from what is important.
Instead, prepare your mind ahead of time by creating a list of 1-3 things you need to focus to be at your best that are within your control . Write these down as goals and make them more important than your goal to win.
4. Be present
Our mind loves to go into the future under pressure and think about the future and the “what if’s”. What if I chunk this chip shot? What if I strike out? What if I miss this free throw? When that happens, take a deep breath, remind yourself that you got this, and focus on what you are doing in that moment. “Be where your feet are”.
Tap into your senses - what do you see, hear, smell? Look around you and recognize how awesome this opportunity is (bringing it back to tip #1).
In the days leading up to the competition, prepare your mind by visualizing yourself performing well in as vivid detail as possible. Visualize multiple scenarios you might encounter and bring in all the senses you can - what will you hear, smell, see, feel? Try to make sure the timing of what you are visualizing is realistic (don't rush through this).
Something I always tell my athletes is to visualize the first moments you walk onto your arena and tap into the nervousness you will feel in that moment and embrace it. See yourself practicing some of the skills listed above and remind yourself you are excited for this challenge. When the moment comes, you will feel like you have been there before.
Remember, at the end of the day how you do in that pressure moment does not define you. You are not your sport, you are not your accomplishments - you are much, much more than that.
If you are interested in learning more about how you can master your mental game through sport psychology, schedule a free 30-minute consult.