How To Stay Focused Under Pressure
How come every time you find yourself in a pressured filled situation, your mind wanders everywhere but where you need it to be? In these high pressure moments, why is it that you have difficulty focusing?
It’s no big surprise that a lack of focus in anything is going to lead to lower qualities of production. As an athlete, this means the poorer your focus, the worse your performances will be.
But as a high performer, you need to be at the top of your game in crunch time moments. In these high pressure situations, when your team needs you the most, you cannot afford to have your focus disturbed.
Yet, as much as we hate to admit it, focusing and centering attention in such environments is incredibly difficult. That’s why we admire those athletes who seem to perform with full attention, no matter the pressure around them.
We will talk a little more on why that is later in the article. The question I’m sure is on your mind right now is, how can I train myself to focus under pressure?
All you may be missing is a simple tool, a switch in your awareness that could prove to be the key to you finally being able to perform with fully focused attention, no matter how much pressure is on you.
My Difficulties Focusing Under Pressure
I’ve had my fair share of failures under pressure. Usually the pressure was placed on me by myself, though that did not change the hindrance it had on my ability to focus.
I want to share with you a story about a time I allowed pressure to get to me, distracting me from placing my attention on what I needed to in order to succeed.
The story takes place this past summer in Belgium. I was an import on a baseball team there, and our season had been going extremely well. We were the number one seed heading into the championship series.
I was the top hitter on the team. I knew that if I hit well that series, the team would have a very good chance of ending the season as champions.
Up until that point, minus a few weekends prior, I had performed above my own standards. A large portion of which could be attributed to my mindset. Specifically the fact that I was not placing my attention on the outcome.
For years I suffered from the crippling disease of outcome oriented thinking. While it was still a part of me, it had luckily removed itself from baseball and latched onto another area of my life (but that is a story for another time).
Since I stopped focusing on the outcome so much, I performed much more freely and simply enjoyed the game. Joy is one of the leading factors, I believe, to success in anything. Well, the pause on outcome oriented thinking ended.
Going into the championship series, I began worrying about how the games would go, how I would hit, and whether or not we would win. My head was spinning, landing on random areas of focus, all not what I needed to be focused on to actually attain the outcome I desired.
As you can imagine, we lost. Not only did we lose, but I was hitless throughout the whole series. It was a terrible way to end the season, but one that left me with many valuable lessons.
One such lesson being the disastrous effect of losing focus under pressure. But even though I understood this lesson on a macro scale, the micro fact of why I lost focus in the first place really began to lay heavily on my mind.
Why We Lose Focus Under Pressure
What is pressure? In the introduction I said something about how high performing athletes always seem to play with full attention, even in moments we would deem as high pressure.
There are a few reasons for this. One of the main ones, and what helps us to understand why we lose focus in the first place, is some athletes do not feel pressure in the same way.
I know, it can be confusing, especially when we examine the environments they play in, and the amounts of money on the line with their performances. But the truth is, the really high level performers do not feel pressure, or allow it to affect them in the same way as you or me.
So how does this help us understand why we lose focus under pressure? Well, what I’m getting to with this explanation is that pressure is something created within our own minds. No one can physically place pressure on you.
It is a mental state where you perceive the situation to have a lot of meaning. But more than that, you perceive the failure of succeeding in that moment to weigh more heavily than other times.
Ah, and there lies the number one reason we lose focus. By definition, feeling pressure means we are focusing on the outcome. If we are focusing on the outcome, no longer is attention given to the present moment.
The present moment is where your performance is taking place. No matter how much you wish to control the outcome, the only way to actually do so is by letting it go and placing all of your attention on the process in front of you.
It’s okay to desire a certain outcome. Of course you want to play well and win. Going off the example I gave above, when I was playing well, I can’t deny I wanted to win and I wanted to keep performing at a high level.
But the difference lies in our ability to then forget about the outcome come game time. In a high pressure situation, this is often difficult, and by the simple fact that you feel pressure, your mind must be focused on the outcome.
That is why, under pressure, it is so easy for you to lose focus and have your attention drift onto the outcome.
"The present moment is where your performance is taking place. No matter how much you wish to control the outcome, the only way to actually do so is by letting it go and placing all of your attention on the process in front of you."
How Poor Focus Hurts Your Performance
If you’re searching for ways to focus better under pressure, I doubt I really need to emphasize the negative effects poor focus has on your performance. You likely know how a distracted mind inhibits peak performance.
But, if you’re like me and enjoy getting to the nitty gritty reasons behind why improperly placed attention keeps you from performing your best, then let’s get into it. If not, and all you’re after is the solution to the problem, go ahead and skip to the next section.
Not performing well under pressure is a byproduct of deeper issues that arise when you cannot focus. To understand this, we need to take a look at what it actually means to have poor focus. When you say you are unable to focus under pressure, what do you mean?
What we usually are referring to is not technically a lack of focus, but rather poorly managed attention.
Under pressure, as I alluded to in the previous section, our minds drift into the future. We experience pressure due to our attention becoming fixed on and concerned with a certain outcome.
Typically it involves an outcome we don’t want rather than one we do want.
Poorly managed focus is one of the leading causes of most mental game challenges. The reason being, where our attention goes our energy flows. So, if you’re worried about an outcome, that’s where your energy is centered.
This leads to many challenges, as I said, all having a negative impact on your performance. Under pressure, there are three which have the most direct impact on your ability to succeed in crunch time moments.
- Fear of Failure: Pressure is there because you think this moment is monumental. There is so much emphasis laid upon this one situation that it grows larger than it really is within your mind. Due to the severity of the moment, failure becomes an even more terrible result than the possibility of success. So, your mind focuses on trying not to fail rather than working to succeed.
- Anxiety: Coupled with the fear of failure, we find anxiety. The reason these two are so closely related has to do with where they both take up residence. Anxiety, along with fear of failure, lives in the future. The more you fear an outcome, the more anxious you grow trying to force the result not to turn out in a way you don’t want.
- Low Confidence: When you put one moment on a pedestal, it can easily overshadow you. Now, a situation that involves the same skills and talents every other moment of the game dows, seems beyond your capabilities. As you place more and more pressure on any one moment, you will begin to doubt whether or not you have the skills necessary to rise to the occasion.
The Secret To Staying Focused Under Pressure
Having poor focus under pressure is caused by wandering attention. In these high stakes moments your mind begins to drift in every which way. Only, it rarely finds itself recentering on the present task.
If you want to be a clutch player, you have to gain the ability to control your focus. This means controlling the attention you give to those around you, the situation as a whole, and more preferably, the task at hand.
When you’re under pressure, turning to the present moment, being one with what you’re doing is a one way ticket to long term success.
Gaining such a skill will allow you to be one of those players you admire. Someone who can center their attention into the here and now, with tunnel vision on what they are seeking to accomplish.
But, as you know, this is not easy. In fact, it will take a lot of time and effort on your part to train yourself in this skill. Though the key word I want you to hold on to is train.
Centering your attention, when under pressure, is something you must train. Tomorrow you won’t be perfect at it, but over time you’ll become increasingly strong in your ability to remove your attention from distractors and place it into the present moment.
How can you do this? By employing a simple technique that brings your awareness back into the here and now, no matter what situation you’re in.
"If you want to be a clutch player, you have to gain the ability to control your focus. This means controlling the attention you give to those around you, the situation as a whole, and more preferably, the task at hand."
Can You Feel The Air?
To shift focus, there must be something you are exchanging instead of what you currently are focusing on. It’s useless to try and simply not focus on a distraction. All you’ll end up doing is focusing even more on it.
What you need to do is provide your mind with an alternative, something more beneficial to direct attention.
The best technique I’ve found for this is focusing on a sensation.
There are a few different ways you can do this. One has to do with the title of the section. When under pressure, pause for a moment and try to feel the air on your skin. Whether it’s the wind or the air conditioning (if you’re inside), feel it.
By focusing on the presence of air on your skin your mind is directed towards the present moment. Your attention will be briefly removed from the future, where all your worries lie.
Another tactic you can use instead of feeling the air on your skin is bringing your awareness to the sensation of your breath.
Act as though you were watching yourself breath. Feel the air going in and out of your lungs.
Do you notice what both of these have in common? They are removing your attention from the pressure. If you are truly turning your attention to either of these sensations, at that moment you will not be focusing on the pressure you were just experiencing.
The more you do this, the better you will become at recentering your focus when in the midst of a high pressure situation.
If you wish to improve your focus under pressure, stop trying so hard not to focus on the wrong things. Yes, we all know worrying about the outcome, concerning yourself with what will happen if you fail is only going to hurt your chances of succeeding.
But the fact is, trying to stop focusing on those things is only going to further you attention on them. You see, even when we try to not do something, our awareness is still centered on that.
So, if you are seeking to not worry about the result, or how you’ll perform in a moment of pressure, you need to provide your mind with an alternative to focus on.
That’s where placing your awareness on sensations comes into play. By bringing your attention into the present moment, you allow yourself to perform free of worries and concerns, and greatly raise the chances of you coming out successful on the other side.
How well do you handle pressure? Do you get distracted easily in high stress situations?
I hope you enjoyed this article, and if you did, please share it with others.
Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all that you do.
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