Using Pressure for Peak Performance: 5 strategies of how to not choke under pressure

5-0 up in the tie break against the number 2 seed. Only 2 more points and I had the match in the bag. And then, 5-1, 5-2, 5-3…and the rest went exactly how it sounds. I lost the tie-break, the set and the match! From what was looking like a huge upset, my opportunity was lost! All of my training and potential that seemed to be coming together in that moment,….I saw it, I felt it, in fact it was happening…even the score represented it….and then….the slippery choking slope hit! I saw the outcome, I knew I could do this….and everything froze. My mind took over and my game and skills left me.
Sound familiar?

Whilst this is my personal story, this is also a well known phenomenon that exists not only in the tennis world, but the sporting world, and for athletes in general. Thinking into the future, seeing your success, feeling the pressure of expectations. External or internal pressures, and being outside of the moment are the core contributors to choking.

Pressure can have a positive and a negative affect on the athlete, and can both improve and hinder performance. The big question is, what amount of pressure is needed to help you bring out your best, and what is too much pressure? As competitive athletes, how do we feel the pressure and find our confidence when our backs to the wall with a result on the line, and no second chances? Too much pressure can cause a myriad of meltdowns whether physical, mental, emotional, and not enough pressure can impact motivation and intensity levels. How do we manage these situations as we see glimpses of the game slipping away from our grasp?

Understanding your own triggers and responses to pressure and getting to know yourself in this pressure arena is essential in learning to work with it successfully. So what is the ‘right’ amount of pressure for you? And how can it turn from negatively impacting your performance to that same pressure being not only useful, but lifting your game?
One way that Po Bronson refers to pressure in his book Top Dog- is as is as cognitive anxiety. The things that can “almost happen” that cause anxiety and choking (p.156). He states that the early decades of society were built upon the fact that anxiety and anger were debilitating for performance, and that happiness was a necessary component.
This speaks to a sense of wellness and confidence that the athlete must be able to access to overcome pressure and anxiety. Feeling well or confident within oneself is a paramount ingredient to over coming pressure and anxiety.

So, What are the Top Five Strategies…
1. Know yourself under pressure. What makes your performance increase, and what diminishes performance.
2. Admit your struggle to yourself. Develop an ability to do this upfront, and in any given moment.
3. Normalize and Welcome: Recognize and know that you’re anxious. AND that it IS OK, remember it can be essential to peak performance. Welcome it in, because it’s here anyway.
4. Identify the Pressure Maker. What is creating the pressure? Be very specific. Where is it coming from? This is not an easy step. Consider it an outside force for the sake of the exercise. Is it the result, a coach, the crowd, your ranking, your opponent, your own expectations, your future thinking about results, $$ or what the win will do for your ranking?
5. Be in the moment. Right here, right now, and pick up some of the energy or essence of the pressure maker and apply it.

  • lisapeyton

    These strategies look GREAT Sharon. Would you say you could also apply them to non-sports related pressure situations?

    • sharonfennell

      Thanks Lisa, and indeed apply these strategies
      to sport, business or life…. Great point!