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Performing under pressure – why we struggle under pressure & the key to thriving under pressure 🚀

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


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