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How acceptance, mindset and appraisal can help you leverage pressure for better performance.

Do you ever find that you can do something extremely well, however, when it comes to crunch time when the pressure is on, you don't quite perform at the level you know you are capable of performing at? When looking back at such instances we often say,"if only I could get my nerves under control, I could have done so much better." The good news is this is very much possible, however, first we need to understand why we are struggling with pressure in the first place and the implications this has on performance, then we can understand how we can enhance performance under pressure.

The overlooked reasons why we struggle to perform under pressure...

1. We haven't made mental space for the feelings of pressure, and we aren’t addressing the worries we are experiencing.

A lot of the time when we get nervous about something we can go into a panic mode, whereby, we try to shut off the fear or run from it. We can even judge ourselves for having these feelings. Whilst this might feel like a natural response and useful strategy in the short run it can be ineffective when these feelings reappear on the big day when we have to perform, and we can’t get our stress response under control. It helps to do some mental preparation beforehand by making space for feelings of anxiety to mentally prepare ourselves rather than letting these worries take over and consume us whilst performing.

When you have prepared for something you will be better equipped to take it on and the same applies when it comes to our nerves and pressure. When you run from it, it will come running back to you.

2. Our perception of nerves can make things worse, leading us to develop an unhealthy relationship with stress and anxiety.

It’s normal to experience some level of stress and anxiety before an upcoming tournament or an assessment of one’s abilities. This is something we all experience, however, it is the appraisal of nerves which makes all the difference. If one does not see nerves and pressure as being a normal part of being a performer or a part of the process, then this will significantly amplify nerves leading to further self-blame and self-doubt, ultimately leading to stress and anxiety working against you rather than for you. The reality is that everyone will experience some form of pressure when performing, however, the key difference is the relationship that one has with the pressure. A negative relationship with pressure can lead us to choke under pressure, whereas a healthy relationship with pressure based off acceptance can help us to thrive under pressure.

You either become friends with your nerves or nerves become your enemy. It is up to you whether you fear your nerves even more so than you need to.

3. Nerves run through our physiology and when our physiology is not in a good place our performance is hindered.

When we have let our nerves take over it will usually manifest in our body language. When we don’t have the right body language this will impair our ability to perform successfully. When your body and mind are relaxed things will come to you more naturally and easily. We sometimes let nerves take over our physiology and body language which increases the likelihood that our performance will be hindered.

The psychological implications on performance of failing to effectively manage our stress and anxiety...

Ultimately when we are stressed out and anxious the cognitive resources available to us for us to perform are compromised. Our working memory which is the memory that is required

for successful execution of tasks in the here and now is compromised when we haven’t appraised pressure correctly.

According to distraction theories we are no longer focused on the task at the hand, instead we are focused on our anxiety and not surprisingly our performance dips the more invested we become in our anxiety.

Additionally, another theory, reinvestment theory (Masters and Maxwell, 2008), proposes that anxiety leads to overthinking which causes a breakdown of a skill under pressure as we overthink the execution of a skill which we already know how to do as it is automated. Overthinking can disrupt what is natural and acquired to us. Sometimes we do things well because we trust ourselves and our pre-existing abilities. It's really about backing ourselves to do what we already know how to do. We decide whether we let nerves interfere with our abilities.

So how can we manage nerves, stress and anxiety for better performance?

Acceptance of stress and making room for stress but not trying to get rid of it.

Ironically the more we try to get rid of stress and anxiety, the more frustrated and stressed we can be. Failed attempts to get rid of performance anxiety can make us feel worse, however, what we need to realise is that our body is having a normal stress response to prepare us for a competition.

Whether we see this stress response as a threat or challenge will determine whether it works for us or against us which is why some people can thrive under pressure.

The body’s stress response operates on the same axis for excitement; therefore, you can convert and appraise the stress as excitement to fuel your performance if you operate in a

challenge mindset as opposed to a threat state.

Instead of approaching your nerves from a place of fear, approach them from a place of challenge and excitement to spur you on.

Mindful Practices and Acceptance

To be a good performer we need good focus and we need to be able to pay attention to what is happening in the here and now. This will require us to use grounding techniques and acceptance to stop the anxiety from taking over.

Grounding techniques help us maintain contact with the present moment through engaging with the five senses to identify five things we can hear, touch, smell, taste and see.

Acceptance makes us an observer to the anxiety we are facing, stopping us from becoming fully immersed in the anxiety. Notice when you are becoming hooked on certain thoughts and feelings which take you away from the present moment. Interrupt this process and stop the spiral using Dr. Russ Harris' Sushi Train Metaphor 👇

Relaxation techniques

Finally, other relaxation techniques such as deep breathing can help us take control over physiology. We have established that when our physiology/body is right, our performance will be even better, therefore, deep breathing is an effective way to keep our physiology settled.

If you or anyone you know is struggling with performing under pressure, feel free to get in contact with me for some one-to-one sessions.

Sawan Kotecha

Sport & Exercise Psychologist in Training

Co-founder @ Curly's Mind

Changing one’s perception of success , Beth Mead & David Beckham - Separating outcomes from success & sustaining motivation within sport through process goals.

The Nature of Sport

Sport is an overtly competitive industry, whereby, the success of individuals and teams can be judged on metrics such as statistics and trophies won, giving way to external measures of success which can sometimes undermine an athletes personal sense of achievement and motivation, potentially creating a lot of pressure and self-doubt for the athlete.

Whilst this is typically seen as just being the nature of the sport and the norm from an outside perspective “go big or go home”, it’s important to consider that success within sport for the athlete can often look very different, going beyond just the trophies and statistics.

Within Sport and other domains we all know what we want to achieve (outcome) but in doing so we may overlook the steps and journey required to achieve the goal, known as process goals (Locke & Latham, 2013).

We so often hear the phrase “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey” but why is this particularly important in outcome driven industries?

Embracing the journey with examples from David Beckham and Beth Mead

In an interview by Adidas with David Beckham said “Personally I measure success on have I had a good time, have I had a fun, have I reached the goals I wanted to reach when I was 8-9 years old."

Beckham describes success in an internal manner, whereby, success is personal to him with an appreciation for the journey and process as opposed to just the outcomes.

Beth Mead recently played a key role in helping England win the Euros, claiming the golden boot along the way. Whilst this is seen as the ultimate goal for many, it’s important to understand that it’s the steps Beth took in spite of adversity which put her in the position she is in today. Last year Beth failed to make the GB Olympic squad which brought lots of disappointment and this could have easily steered her off course if she let the outcome and feelings of disappointment regulate her behaviour going forward.

“Last July I was at the point where I was a little bit disappointed with everything, I was putting a lot of pressure on myself and overthinking a lot of things.” “I had a few good conversations with some legends”. They told me to get my head down, work hard and get enjoyment back in my play again.

A bit of frustration can be normal and apart of the competitive, win/loose nature of sport but it can start to be detrimental for the athlete when their overall perception of themselves as an athlete shifts based on the outcome and they start to overlook the smaller things (the process goals) and the steps they need to take in order to get to their desired outcome. In Beth’s case she was able to separate herself from the disappointment of failing to make the Olympic squad and focus on enjoying her football again.

It's clear that by putting the process ahead of the outcome, Beth has been able to thrive and enjoy the journey along the way as she states “It’s been a journey but being involved in the Euros is a dream come true after the disappointment of last year. I’m just loving every moment.”

Satisfaction & Enjoyment

Satisfaction and a sense of enjoyment are integral to sustaining high levels of performance and motivation, when these personal motives are present for the athlete their behaviour and attitude becomes less dependent on the outcome and more associated with the process. Focusing in on the process not only prevents us from becoming dependent on the outcome but it allows us to appreciate the smaller things, giving us the reinforcement from achieving these smaller goals which we can overlook in pursuit of the ultimate reward or accolade.

If success and motivation is always determined by the criteria of win or lose, statistics etc then it can be easy for motivation to become dependent on these metrics, making room for negative psychological consequences on the athlete when things aren’t going their way, impacting training behaviours and performances in matches.

It all comes down to how we engage with the process even when the outcomes aren’t as we desire. When we put the journey and process ahead of the outcome, we are likely to be more focused in doing the right things, which will then eventually lead us to our bigger goals and achievements.

If you have any questions or would like additional support, please email or fill out the contact form at the bottom of the page.

Three key psychological components (Competence, Autonomy & Relatedness) for maintaining motivation to exercise and physical activity, why you should consider incorporating them.

Debunking Myths About Exercise

When it comes to exercise and physical activity a lot of us often find despite starting with the greatest intent of sustaining exercise behaviours, sometimes we are not able to keep our exercise behaviours going. It is important to take the time to understand why this is the case and what barriers are preventing us from achieving this sustainability that we are striving for. Despite common beliefs, weight loss motives, body image maintenance and external pressure do not tend to lead to successful increases in physical activity or healthy eating over time.

Several psychological factors need to be considered when it comes to sustaining exercise over a long period of time.

Three Key Psychological Components

According to psychologists Deci and Ryan’s Self Determination Theory (1985) our motivation to exercise can be influenced by three key psychological components which will be discussed throughout this blog. If you want to sustain your exercise behaviours over a long period of time it is really important to take a look at incorporating these three psychological components into your exercise routines. We often spend so much time focusing on the physical aspects of exercise that we can forget about the key psychological processes underpinning these exercise behaviours which will ultimately determine whether or not we sustain our exercise behaviours.

As we go through these three motivational components it’s important to understand how they tie into our exercise goals (e.g., weight loss etc) and our perception of exercise (whether it’s something we enjoy, fits with our values, helps us achieve our goals or not).

1. Autonomy/Personal Responsibility (Taking control over your exercise behaviours)

Many of us will feel that COVID has really tested our sense of control and structure over our exercise behaviours as the closure of gyms and life as we know it has in some sense made us live more sedentary lifestyles than we are use to.

As COVID restrictions have eased and gyms have started to open up again, it’s important that we take this opportunity to start to be able to explore our exercise behaviours and physical activity.

What strategies can we use to increase our autonomy?

The best way to take control over our exercise behaviours and maintain motivation is to get into the habit of exercising and being physically active on a regular basis even if this is in small amounts initially. Creating an exercise routine which is suitable to us which we know we can maintain in the short term is essential to becoming as active as we were before. In her blog link), Dr Paula Watson highlights “For long term success, healthy eating and physical activity need to become a way of life, not a journey to an end point” and this is really important to consider as we take responsibility for our exercise behaviours.

When taking responsibility for our exercise behaviours it helps to be clear and intentional about what our goals are and take the time to regularly evaluate these goals. When we are working towards a broader goal which we can visualize and incorporate into exercise as a way of life we have a lot more incentive to follow through with our actions. We might set a goal with a friend or someone who we exercise with to remind us of our end goal. Goals are good for maintaining motivation but only when we take the time to evaluate and understand whether we are being accountable about our goals or if we are being passive, with a set and forget mindset.

Whilst we can have some sort of routine which makes us feel accountable for our exercise behaviours, it’s also important that we have a sense of variety when creating exercise routines. When things get too repetitive, they can also get quite boring and our behaviours can easily cease because they no longer bring that sense of excitement and challenge which we are searching for. Adding some novelty to our routines is essential to maintaining motivation in the long, potentially making us feel more excited and actively involved with our exercise routines.

2. Competence/Believing in your abilities

We have a tendency to repeat behaviours which we know we are good at. Our past achievements can be a reminder of what we are good at. If we haven’t exercised in a long time we might not believe in ourselves as we did before especially if we are no longer in the shape that we were in before and we are not ticking off our exercise goals like we use to. We can often become demoralised when this happens.

If this is the case, we often need to remind ourselves first of what our strengths are from the past. When it comes to exercise and we are going back into exercise being out of shape it can be so easy to go into exercise with a negative mindset of feeling that you are no longer at your best and where you want to be. Like we have muscle memory we should also take the time out to think about our strengths from the past when it comes to exercise behaviours.

What strategies can we use to increase our competency?

A key solution to this is to make a list of all your strengths from the past and times when you have sustained your exercise behaviours.

A lot of the time we feel that we can’t do something based on our current mindset, however, if we look back far enough on our experiences we will find there were times, whereby, we had the opportunity to create change and do what we are trying to do now.

There has to also be an acceptance that it might take some time before we get back to full strength, therefore, in order to feel good about our exercise behaviours we must set smaller more intermittent goals which highlight our strengths and make us feel component.

When we go all out on a big goal and don’t feel we are achieving success quick enough we can be very quick to give up. There’s nothing wrong with having big goals, however, having smaller goals as we go can remind us of what we are good at and keep us motivated and aligned with our broader goal.

3. Relatedness/Connectedness With Others

As human beings we are a social species who have a need for relatedness and interaction with others.

The importance of relatedness when exercising

For any activity we attempt it also helps to have social support around us to guide us and provide us with that extra reinforcement we need. We have seen during COVID that people have used exercise and fitness challenges with friends as a way to stay connected and keep themselves accountable.

Having said that, going to the gym or being physical active doesn’t always need to be a serious activity. Sometimes it can be more of a chance to just connect with friends and like minded others, whilst also enjoying the physical benefits which come exercise.

When we are regularly seeing other people working hard to achieve their fitness goals it is not uncommon for us to want to go out and do the same. Surrounding yourself with people who are highly motivated to achieve their goals can do a lot of good for your own motivation.

Helpful Strategies To Maintain Motivation

1. Utilize goal setting – Ticking off and achieving goals can be important to building momentum, providing positive reinforcement to ourselves every time we achieve a goal whether big or small can keep us going in the long term.

2. Track and monitor your physical activity – Noticing patterns and becoming more aware of changes in our physical activity can make us understand why we aren’t exercising at the level we want to be. We might notice any barriers to exercise; however, sometimes we might first need to make ourselves aware of our exercise patterns before we recognise barriers.

3. Allocate a set time for exercise- When we have a lot to do and we don’t set aside time for exercise it can be easy to say we will fit it in at some point during the day. This can result in us not exercising at all. If, however, we set aside a specific time for exercise we can build a sense of routine and structure, reminding ourselves that we have a set time for exercise.

4. Have an accountability partner – We all have different patterns of motivation and sometimes we may need an extra boost from those around us. Setting fitness goals with a friend or going to the gym with a friend is a great way to maintain the social aspects of exercise whilst also having someone else who can encourage us to keep at our exercise regimes.

5. Highlight what went well in a exercise session, rewarding yourself for it – Far too often we can focus on things which aren’t going well that we actually forget what are strengths are and this is applicable to our exercise routines.

6. Know when to mix up your exercise routine – Anything done repeatedly over time in the same manner has the potential to undermine your competence. In order to move away from the boredom of repetitiveness and push ourselves further we should recognise when we need to mix up our routines.

If you have any questions or would like additional support, please email or fill out the contact form at the bottom of the page.

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