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December 14, 2015
by Anne Kip Watson

Playing Hard Under Pressure

December 14, 2015 00:00 by Anne Kip Watson

Playoff state competition performance: staying mentally tough under pressure

From the high school ranks to the professionals, it’s the time of year when the intensity of competition amps up and staying mentally tough under the highest pressure separates the good from the great. It’s during the playoffs and state competitions when the frequency of mental blocks and anxiety increases. As this happens, it can feel like a brain explosion where the mind races with thoughts of doubt but the mind finds no solution for change. A lack of confidence can soar. The athlete may feel like he or she has no control. 

What happens to the body under pressure?

When anxiety detonates in the mind, it sends signals to the muscles of the body. Typically muscles tighten up and a mechanical style of play occurs. The result is often hesitation, less agility, less accuracy, and a heavier more lumbered style of movement. Most athletes may not be aware of this physical phenomenon yet they experience a dynamic that no matter how hard they try; they can’t seem to execute as they did before. What used to be performed with ease, now seems difficult or impossible to achieve. If the physical problems continue for any length of time, thoughts can turn negative and self-talk increases in harmful attributions such as ‘What’s wrong with me?’; ‘Why can’t I get this done?’; ‘I’m such a screw up?; ‘I’m not good enough’; or ‘I’ll never get this right!’. Athletes may conclude they have a character flaw or some sort of personal weakness even though it is a common problem. In fact, one source indicates 70% of high level gymnasts report dealing with mental blocks or this inability to perform a skill once completed with simplicity (All Gymnasts, 2015).

Paralysis of analysis

As negative self-talk escalates. the brain works increasing harder to figure out how to overcome the physical challenges. The athlete wants to access the motor sequences to perform their desired skills. However, athletes lose a sense of perspective and become consumed or obsessed with solving their performance decline. This pattern of over-analyzing or over-thinking creates situations where athletes become indecisive and often times incapable of taking action. In essence, the brain complicates the scenario by thinking in too many possibilities, then renders the athlete ineffective.

Overcoming playing under pressure

The first goal in every high pressure situation is to focus the brain. Learning where they athlete actually has control is key. One control tool used by the Positive Coaching Alliance follows the acronym ‘ELM’ (effort, learning, and mistakes are okay). This is a shift in the definition of success. It moves an athlete towards process goals or what he or she has control over rather than the outcomes or scoreboard. Outcome based definitions of success involve elements the athlete has no control over such as officials, opponents, weather, coaches, family members, and score totals. Typically, when an athlete experiences anxiety and a lack of confidence, the focus is on the outcome goals rather than the process ones. 

1.Effort - every athlete can measure success based on their work ethic and giving best effort in practices and games. When athletes aim to give their best each drill, each play, each moment of a competition, then whether or not the scoreboard
shows victory, the athlete can still take satisfaction in their performance.
2.Learning - coaches and athletes who emphasize improvement and mastering their skills and game plans tend to perform better under pressure. Simulating the high pressure environment through adding noise or different types of weather conditions can also improve competition performance as athletes have ‘learned’ or been conditioned as to how to face these types of situations.
3.Mistakes -  are okay – athletes who are not afraid to mess up and make mistakes tend to perform at a higher level when under pressure than those who are in environments where mistakes are unacceptable (Positive Coaching Alliance, 2015). When mistakes are allowed then athletes are more comfortable making adjustments and staying in emotional control when a mistake is made. Moving forward to the next play or routine proves easier when athletes are not conditioned with guilt but positive reinforcement. 

What exactly is positive reinforcement?

Coaches and parents often believe positive reinforcement is simply saying things such as ‘You got this!’; ‘You can do it!’ or even ‘Just think positive.’ These statements actually do more harm than good unless the athletes knows HOW to think positive and do it.

1.Focus on what to do – due to the role of a coach or parent, it is common to focus on what ‘not to do’ to correct an athlete. When anxiety and self-doubt are high, it is better to focus on what ‘to do’. Having the brain remember to ‘swing smooth and relaxed’ lowers anxiety than if the thought centers on ‘don’t strike out’. 
2.Mistake ritual – having a physical symbol to perform after a mistake is made helps an athlete get back to a strong mental state for the next play (Positive Coaching Alliance, 2015). Athletes using a simple gesture such as ‘flushing’ the mistake or ‘brushing off’ the mistake put their mind focused back on effort and learning rather than the mistake they just made. 
3.Laughter – the ole cliché of ‘it’s better to laugh than cry’ provides a good dose of medicine for high anxiety. Humor provides a means to relax the body and put the emphasis on doing a physical skill just as the athlete has trained to do it rather than over-thinking it. Boston Celtics Head Coach Brad Stevens tells an experience as a little league pitcher when his coach-dad called a timeout during a high pressure situation, walked to the mound, and asked him ‘did you feed the dog today?’. Stevens recalls how the moment grounded in back in reality instead of on the expectations and pressure of the game(Stevens, 2015).

Ultimately, the fundamental goal points to finding opportunities for success. Tools like ELM Tree of Mastery, mistake rituals, and laughter open the door to those chances. 


All Gymnasts. (2015, July 7). 16 Ways to Overcome a Psychological (Mental) Block in Gymnastics. Retrieved from All Gymnasts:

Positive Coaching Alliance. (2015, December 5). Sample Script for ELM Tree of Mastery. Retrieved from Development Zone:

Stevens, B. (2015, December 6). Brad Stevens: How to stay relaxed in the heat of the moment. Retrieved from Development Zone: Positive Coaching Alliance:

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