Releasing Pressure: Methods to Reduce Stress and Anxiety
Pressure is defined as a “force that pushes or urges”. From a mental standpoint pressure is usually perceived as a negative force that affects thoughts and behavior. I have heard many elite athletes explain that pressure is self-inflicted. What is pressure for one athlete is not for another. There are methods to reduce the negative affect of pressure and turn pressure into an ally. The first goal is to help the athlete define pressure as something neutral instead of something to fear. Pressure triggers words such as “failure” which can make us feel nervous and anxious. Failure can be switched to “results”. This removes the negative connotation on things if they don’t work out as we might wish. We can then evaluate results and decide how to improve, instead of labeling them as failures which stops many from learning.
The first technique is to define the situation in a different way. This reframing will switch the perceived pressure to clarifying what is in the athlete’s control in the event. The greats in sports look at pressure as a positive and that when they feel pressure that it means this event is important and they are looking forward to the opportunity to show their skills. Rather than think/say, “I am tense and anxious”, say, “I am excited, I am ready!”
The next technique is an If…Then visualization exercise. Most athletes under pressure are worrying about the outcome. Having the athlete visualize different scenarios before the actual event and seeing their desired behavior with each scenario will help the athlete gain control over the “what ifs”. When an athlete keeps focusing on the potential outcomes the focus shifts away from the process and stays on the potential negative outcomes. Actually visualizing potential pressure situations will reduce the anxiety in the future as the athlete imagines ways to perform. This preparation helps the athlete gain confidence that they will be able to handle whatever situation arises.
Athletes need tools for both before performance and during performance. I have addressed the before performance through reframing and “If…Then” visualization. For during performance the athlete can use focus cues and breathing to gain control of their inner world. When the athlete is in the present, pressure doesn’t exist. Pressure only exists as worrying about the future. This is where training with focus cues will bring the athlete back to the present moment. For golfers I ask, “What is the lie of this ball and how will it affect the ball flight?” For a batter in baseball it is watching the release point of the pitcher to pick up the pitch. Going back to process cues in the athlete’s routine is a great way to switch focus. The other affect that pressure can bring is tension. The simplest, yet most powerful tool to combat tension is breathing. Being aware of tension is a skill and then using deep diaphragmatic breathing is the tool to bring the athlete back to a desirable arousal level. Thinking of the breath will also shift focus to the present. By training present state focus and breathing the athlete can get back to what matters most, the present moment.