This article originally appeared on USA Water Polo, Inc.
The idea of embracing pressure and persevering through it seems to be a common challenge with athletes and teams. When the opportunities present themselves to realize goals, missions, and dreams, athletes can feel pressure to perform over potential fears and stressors related to whether or not they reach their desired outcomes. It’s easy to see how doubts can creep into one’s mind before, during, and after important games or critical moments within games. Psychological pressure can be defined as serious demands—real or perceived—imposed on one person by another individual, group, or environment (http://psychologydictionary.org/pressure/). It’s interesting that perception of the demands is what drives athletes into states of mental or physical fatigue. Depending on their coping skills, fatigue and stress can limit athletes’ ability to perform at their highest levels. Finding peak performance is mostly about developing an awareness of moments when the mind is consumed by the pressure and distractions from the physical and social environment—and then developing a way to detach from that “noise” and redirect attention to the task at hand. Have you ever heard commentators or fans reflect on athletes’ performances by saying they were “unconscious”? Usually that means that athletes are playing “out of their minds” by controlling focus on the task at hand while being aware of mental time travel. Energy is targeted on the present moment. You might even call this mental toughness. Elite athletes preview situations or scenarios they know bring them unnecessary pressures and interfere with their ability to play at their peak levels. By creating a list of pressures and identifying the importance of each pressure, athletes understand the meaning they attach to the situations and can decide if they’re as important as they thought. They may find that their perception and emotional attachment to situations interferes with their ability to perform. But building knowledge that allows you to take ownership over your state of mind can set the focus you want. Even if you identify your pressures, you still need to develop the skills necessary to cope with the situations’ demands. Here are some mental skills that other athletes have found useful to help “normalize” the pressure to perform: Shift your focus. Usually the answer to what’s important now (a.k.a. W.I.N.) is focusing on things within your control. Decide to narrow your thoughts to the most important focus now or what you believe are the most critical cues to accomplish the task at hand. Adjust your goals. If you want to be the absolute best you can be while preparing yourself with a mindset of resilience and perseverance toward the ultimate goals that drive you, set performance goals in terms of constant and continuous improvement. Outcome-driven athletes usually find they’re ill-equipped to persevere and overcome pressure with the same drive and desire. Thus, a greater importance needs to be associated with the process of improving the details of the sport and your position. Imagine/visualize yourself there before you arrive. Imagery is the creation or recreation of an experience in your mind using all your senses with as much detail as possible. It’s important to control the image to see it exactly as you want—the ideal. The five senses include sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touch. Practicing imagery is like putting in the mental “reps” that train your mind to perceive pressure or anxieties as working to your advantage as you perform. Develop a release. Distractions surround us in today’s technologically advanced world, and pressure is one of those distractions that comes and goes as it’s perceived. Developing a focus cue that’s either auditory (e.g., “Now”) or kinesthetic (e.g., snapping fingers) will help you positively respond to the pressure as it rises so you can regain your focus on the thought you want or what you want to do in the moment. Not on what you want to avoid. Practice mindfulness. Being mindful is simply the process of recognizing if and when your mind wanders toward anything other than the present moment—without judgment or labeling the non-present thought—and redirecting your attention back to the here and now. The present moment is the only moment you can control now. Think of the present moment as this play. Performing mindfully helps you maximize the process that will lead you to the results you want to achieve. Succumbing to pressure takes your mind out of the present; redirecting your attention and awareness to your breath will bring you right back. Breathe with intention. You may feel that pressure manifests when you feel the need to rise to the occasion. Remember that you’ll never play better than your best, so if you expect something miraculous to happen that hasn’t been practiced before, then you may have false hope. The true performance miracles happen when you see athletes playing their best water polo on the biggest stages while others succumb to the situation because they lack the ability or capacity to handle the pressure. Practice these mental skills and you’ll develop the capacity to handle pressure.