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Performance Under Pressure: Not Just For Top Athletes

Aug 25, 2021

Over the past year, elite athletes have brought unprecedented focus to the psychological challenges of performing at the highest level.  Unsettled by pressure to win the Gold, Simone Biles pulled out of gymnastics events at this summer’s Olympic Games.  Earlier, Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open, citing depression and mounting anxiety.  And in England, Tyrone Mings revealed that his mental health plummeted before Euro 2020, prompting the footballer to call upon his psychologist to cope with competitive anxiety.  An excellent article by Simon Usborne in The Guardian takes a look at the pressures faced by professional players and the rest of us:  “How to win at life:  What sports psychologist can teach us all.”1

To capture a few points in The Guardian article:  sports psychiatrist Steve Peters, who has worked with British cycling, football, and taekwondo teams, says that he asks athletes to think about possible scenarios prior to competition to prevent panicky reactions during competition.  “I’d take a sprinter and say, this is what could happen in this 100m race: a world record; underperformance; or an unexpected event.”  Dr Andrea Furst, who works with England Rugby and the Australian sailing team, says the ability to focus on specific things that need to be improved separates elite athletes and mortals.  It’s the focus on the thing that needs to be changed, “. . .done day after day that makes supreme performers.”  Others emphasize pausing at critical moments to take control of a situation—but without overthinking it.

I believe that we can all learn from how athletes are nurturing well-being as well as prowess through disciplined preparation, learning to relax while remaining focused, and finally, allowing ourselves to celebrate even a small win.  The following is an edited list of 8 practices proposed by the psychologists quoted in the article:

  • Break big goals into do-able chunks
  • Use positive self-talk
  • Visualize success
  • Consider potential outcomes. Prior to competition, deal with the chance of a brilliant showing, a stumble or a random event to stay focused and “in the moment.”
  • Use relaxation techniques:  breathing, meditation, music
  • Ask yourself—and your coach or mentor—what’s not helping.  Then work on it.
  • Pause before all-out effort – but not too long
  • Celebrate triumphs big or small
  1. Usborne, Steve, “How to win at life: what sports psychologists can teach us all,” August 21, 2021, The Guardian, retrieved 8/22/2021 https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2021/aug/21/how-to-win-at-life-what-sports-psychologists-can-teach-us-all