Performing under pressure

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Whether it’s in the final round of a major golf tournament, a penalty shootout in the World Cup or a huge meeting at work, at some point the pressure can become too much. 

“This kind of pressure is largely mediated by perception,” says Clinton Gahwiler, a South African sports psychologist. “Think of it as the difference between perceived demand and perceived ability.”

So, if an inexperienced golfer is in contention on the last day of the US Open, he might well doubt that he can hold off a charging Tiger Woods. In contrast, Tiger Woods has won many majors, and knows he can do it again, which means that for him the difference between perceived ability and perceived demand, is much smaller.

How pressure affects performance
“When you make an appraisal of being under pressure, it affects your physiology. Your muscles tense up and your heart rate increases. Not surprisingly, it becomes more difficult to execute perfect technique,” says Gahwiler. So-called “choking” occurs when the appraisal of being under pressure leads to a performance error, which in turn may lead to more hiccups, thus creating a negative spiral. So, when a golfer misses a putt, his perception that he’s not up to the task may well be reinforced, possibly leading to more mistakes.

The impact of pressure on focus
When you’re lining up a penalty kick in the last minutes of a tight Super 12 encounter, it’s not easy to maintain your focus. According to Gahwiler, “Increasing pressure leads to a narrowing and internalising of one’s focus until one is ultimately (internally) aware of the pressure and not paying enough attention to the task at hand.” This explains why, under severe pressure, many people who take part in sport struggle to do things they would find easy under normal conditions.

The impact of subconscious beliefs
According to Gahwiler success under pressure also depends on the subconscious beliefs players hold about themselves. “We tend to replicate in (external) reality what is stored in our subconscious,” he says. “So if a golfer knows he's good but believes he may be not quite good enough to actually win, there's a good chance he will subconsciously sabotage his efforts at the end to bring his external reality back in line with his internal beliefs,” he explains.

The importance of mental toughness
One of the skills that makes a golfer like Tiger Woods so much better at handling pressure than most other players, is his immense mental toughness.

Gahwiler defines mental toughness as, “The ability to keep the internal environment constant, regardless of what’s happening in the external environment.”

“If you're serious about your sport, you will develop the mental toughness to go out and do the same behaviours/actions/techniques, regardless of how confident or motivated you may or may not feel on the day,” he explains.

This kind of mental toughness plays an important role in helping sportsman constantly deliver high quality performances over an extended period of time. Mental toughness is a skill, and therefore, something you can change and improve. “Basic mental skills involve becoming aware of one’s ideal internal state, and then developing techniques for creating, monitoring and maintaining this state during important performances,” he says.

Visualisation can help you power through pressure. If you’re playing soccer for example, imagine the experience of slotting a penalty past the goalkeeper. Feel the sensations of this experience to make it more real, and possible. Feel yourself being calm and prepared.

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