Handling the Pressure to Play Well

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You want to play well. Otherwise, why would you be out there?

But what happens when this desire to play well actually keeps you from playing your best?

The pressure you feel weighs you down and holds you back.

What then?

Does this mean you can’t care?

No, you need to care…but care doesn’t have to also mean worry. And that is where we see pressure hold you back.

When the pressure to play well leads to stress, fear, and tension.

So what you’ll learn in this article is why pressure holds you back, the difference between good and bad pressure, and three tips you can use to handle the pressure you feel to play well.

Why Pressure Holds You Back

I was on the phone with a mom the other day who was talking to me about her son’s struggles on the baseball field.

He’s having a real tough time with hitting.

His mom was telling me how much he trains and how much he cares about doing his best each and every game and each and every at bat.

Her son also plays flag football, and so I asked her whether the struggles were also seen there.

She said no. And that’s exactly what I expected she’d say.

It’s a pattern I’ve seen a lot.

When an athlete plays multiple sports, one is typically their focus. While the others are played more for fun.

In the case of her son, football was more for fun, while baseball was his focus. His goal is to play baseball in college.

Since he cares more about baseball, he works harder at it. And that hard work leads to pressure.

This is where we can see pressure slowly lead to expectations and stress.

Expecting Perfection

The example I gave above involves pressure an athlete puts on themselves. But what about the pressure you feel from a coach, parent, or teammate?

Or even from a town?

Well, the truth is, no matter where the pressure comes from, the reason it holds you back is because of the stress, fear and tension it causes.

It doesn’t matter if you put the pressure on yourself or your coach does. If you feel pressure to play well and you underperform, the pressure is causing you to play tight, fearful, and possibly timidly.

The reason for this comes from the fact that pressure often leads to demands of perfection.

And funny enough, this can happen a lot once you’ve already been doing well.

The Pressure to Keep Playing Well

A soccer player sent me a message on Instagram, asking about how he could handle pressure better.

His message was actually what gave me the idea to write this article.

Anyway, he explained how he starts teams well, but the more he’s on them, the more pressure he feels and the more stress he plays with.

This is really interesting, because shouldn’t his success lead to confidence?

Since he’s shown how good he is, why not lean into that and play relaxed and confidently?

Well, that’s exactly the problem…he’s shown how good he is. So now he thinks he needs to keep it up.

Instead of showing up to games and practices confident he can play well, he’s worried he won’t play well.

Have you ever experienced something similar?

It’s the idea of, “I hope I don’t mess this up.”

I see this a lot in golfers.

A good start to a round can quickly ignite tension. Where they’re almost tiptoeing through the next few holes, waiting for something bad to happen and hoping it doesn’t.

But you never want to find yourself hoping while you’re playing. Instead, you want to play with confidence and be as relaxed as possible.

Something that can happen if you follow the three tips outlined below.

Three Tips to Handle the Pressure to Play Well

You don’t need pressure to play well. You need focus, hard work, and commitment.

And yeah, pressure can help with these. But as we discussed above, it can also be the very thing holding you back.

The goal is for you to show up day after day and perform your best. And if pressure is keeping you from doing so (no matter where the pressure is coming from), steps need to be taken to reduce the pressure.

The three tips outlined below have been proven to be effective with athletes I’ve worked with in one-on-one mental performance coaching.

So I have confidence they will be of help to you as well.

Tip #1: Always keep it simple

Once you start to play well, it’s easy to feel as though you need to do something different or bring an extra something to the table.

But the truth is, if you want to keep playing well, you simply need to continue doing what you’ve been doing.

Don’t over complicate your game.

Keep it simple and focus on consistency instead.

A great example of this involves a volleyball player I’ve been working with. She and I have put a lot of effort into getting her to be more consistent with her game.

What we did was uncover the best mindset for her to compete with, and then identified what she needed to do to get into that mindset.

Her job now is to continue to take the actions we identified.

As a result of this exercise, her performances have been much more consistent.

This simplicity in thinking helps with pressure because you don’t allow the pressure to take you out of your game. You keep yourself focused on what you need to do to play your best.

Instead of trying to force a better and better performance, you keep your thinking simple and allow yourself to just play.

Tip #2: Focus on progress

Progress is easily overlooked.

It’s natural to fixate on the improvements you need to make.

But the truth is, the improvements you need to make often show themselves as mistakes. Meaning, it’s natural to focus more on your mistakes than your successes.

Now, if you’re struggling to perform well under pressure, fixating on your mistakes will be crippling.

It will only add further fuel to the anxiety and fear you’re already playing with.

Instead of focusing on your mistakes, you must force yourself to see your progress. This may not come naturally, but that tells us just how important it truly is.

Focusing on your progress helps handle the pressure you feel because it works to strengthen confidence while also keeping you more focused on the process than the outcome.

A way you can do this actionably is keeping track each day of the work you put in and the progress you are making.

And the progress doesn’t need to be staggering.

Focus on whether or not you put the work in you said you would. Focus on if you were a little more process focused than outcome focused.

Allow yourself to see your progress, and watch as the pressure that used to hold you back now has little to no effect on you.

Tip #3: Set different types of standards

What are the standards you hold of yourself as a player and person?

On the other hand, what do you expect of yourself come game time?

Yes, there is a difference between standards and expectations. It may seem like a small difference, but it’s an enormous one when it comes to handling pressure.

Expectations have more to do with the outcome.

You expect yourself to score a certain number of points, get a specific amount of hits, or a number of steals on defense.

Standards are a bit different in that they are more focused on the way you play, instead of how you perform.

They are less concerned with the outcome.

Good standards include giving full effort, practicing a certain amount throughout the week, and moving on from mistakes quickly.

In short, standards are centered around what you can control.

When your goal is to handle the pressure to play well, you must take your attention off the outcome.

Instead of focusing on what might happen, your attention should be on what’s happening now. Meaning, what is going on in the present moment.

Controllables involve what is happening now. Since you cannot control what will happen in the future.

Not fully, at least.

By setting standards for yourself that are controllable, you allow outcomes to happen.

For example, let’s say you set the standard of practicing five times a week outside of your normal team practice. If you do that over the course of weeks and months, naturally your performance will improve.

Meaning, you will live up to the pressure placed on you…without having to fixate on the pressure itself.

Final Thoughts

The pressure to play well can be the very thing keeping you from performing your best.

But it’s time to stop allowing pressure to get the best of you…no matter where the pressure is coming from.

To help, remember to keep things simple, focus on your progress, and set good standards for yourself.

Now, if you’re interested in a more in-depth and personalized approach to handling the pressure you feel, then you need one-on-one mental performance coaching.

To learn more about the coaching I offer, fill out the form below or you can contact me at (252) 371-1602.

Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all that you do.

Contact Success Starts Within Today

Please contact us to learn more about mental coaching and to see how it can improve your mental game and increase your performance. Complete the form below, call (252)-371-1602 or schedule an introductory coaching call here.

Eli Straw

Eli is a sport psychology consultant and mental game coach who works 1-1 with athletes to help them improve their mental skills and overcome any mental barriers keeping them from performing their best. He has an M.S. in psychology and his mission is to help athletes and performers reach their goals through the use of sport psychology & mental training.

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