How to Stop Putting Pressure on Yourself as an Athlete

Do you put too much pressure on yourself to play perfectly? Learn how you can stop putting pressure on yourself as an athlete.

The pressure to play perfectly usually results in the opposite…causing you to underperform and grow frustrated and disappointed in yourself.

But pressure doesn’t have to be bad. Take the pressure you place on yourself to train and stay consistent with your routines. That form of pressure is good and will increase your chances of success within your sport.

So how do you determine if the pressure you’re placing on yourself is helpful or hurtful? And if it’s hurtful, what right now can you do to change?

In this article, you’re going to learn where negative pressure comes from and how it holds you back, what good pressure looks like, and a simple strategy to stop placing unhelpful pressure on yourself that lowers your performance.

Where Hurtful Pressure Comes From

I talk a lot about pressure with athletes, both the good and the bad. And when pressure holds them back and hurts their play, it always has one distinct characteristic…it is the pressure to play perfectly.

That word, perfect, truly highlights how pressure can hurt you. Because the truth is, more often than not, you’re not going to be perfect. And setting that as an expectation only leads to fear and anxiety, and also makes it more difficult for you to bounce back from mistakes.

We’re going to get more specific about why the pressure to play perfectly hurts your play, but first, let’s think about why this pressure is there in the first place.

Why do you put pressure on yourself to play perfectly?

There is a fairly wide range of answers I’ve gotten to that question. With some of the main ones involving the ambition to reach goals, the need to prove they’re good enough, not wanting to get benched, and not wanting to embarass themselves in front of friends or family.

Interestingly, only one of the reasons I just listed involves something positive: the ambition to reach goals.

However, from experience working with athletes, when the pressure to play perfectly is present as a result of wanting to reach goals, it usually stems from a fear of not reaching the goals.

And that right there highlights the main reason this pressure to play perfectly leads to you underperforming…it is based in fear.

Why Pressure is Holding you Back

When you put pressure on yourself to play perfectly, it stems from a fear of what will happen if you don’t play perfectly. The fear of embarrassment, loss of starting position, or not reaching your goals is a strong motivator to need to play perfectly.

However, when you feel this fear and it is followed by pressure to perform perfectly, what typically follows is playing timidly.

During a session the other day, I was talking to a jiu-jitsu athlete who puts a lot of pressure on herself, because she wants the approval of her coach. But the way she competes when she feels this pressure is in a timid way.

How come, when her goal is to impress her coach, she performs timidly instead of aggressively (which would give her a better chance of succeeding)?

Because the fear of messing up and losing approval is so strong, it causes the mind to seek safety. And there is a sense of safety in playing timidly and holding yourself back…even if it’s a false sense of safety.

On top of playing timidly, another key reason the pressure to play perfectly actually hurts you is the effect it has on your ability to manage mistakes.

If your goal for a practice or game is to play perfectly, what does a mistake mean? It means you weren’t perfect! And if you have already failed your goal for the day, what’s going to happen?

You will likely have a drop in confidence and a drop in motivation.

The truth is, mistakes happen. Your job after a mistake is to put yourself in the best position to make the next play. That’s it, since that’s all you can control.

But when you demand perfection from yourself, moving on with confidence and refocusing is extremely difficult. This is where we can see one mistake snowball into many more.

What Does Good Pressure Look Like?

Alright, so now that you know just why the pressure to play perfectly is so hurtful, it’s time to answer the question: can any form of pressure be helpful to you as an athlete?

I believe so. In fact, pressure, if used correctly, can be a powerful tool to help you reach your full potential.

The key phrase being: if used correctly.

As I just described, if you go about using pressure to demand perfection from yourself, it is only going to hold you back and hurt your performance. Remember: the demand for perfection keeps you from playing your best.

So what does it mean to use pressure correctly? Well, it means you use pressure in a way that narrows your focus onto what matters during games. Also, you use pressure to keep yourself consistent with your training and routines.

When you feel pressure during a game and it hurts you, it’s due to your demand to play perfectly. Instead, if you put pressure on yourself to remain focused in the present and stick to the process, we know that’s going to help you.

That’s what happens when athletes use pressure to their advantage. They feel the pressure to play well, which indicates to them that they need to give full attention to what they’re doing in the moment (the process).

In addition to focusing on the process during games, pressure can help you if it keeps you consistent with your training and routines.

Training is a key piece to athletic success…consistent training, that is. And to train consistently, you need routines. Pressure can help you to stay disciplined with the routines you’ve created.

When pressure helps you, it is due to the pressure turning your attention onto the process. Whether that’s giving full focus to what you’re doing in the moment during a game, or focusing on your routines and giving as much effort as you can to your training.

Strategy to Stop Unhelpful Pressure

Now, seeing the difference between the two forms of pressure, the question becomes: what can you do if you find yourself putting unhelpful pressure on yourself during games. So…you are demanding perfection from yourself.

What you need to do first is recognize the hurtful nature of such an unrealistic expectation. Demanding perfection only keeps you from playing your best.

When faced with a mistake during competition, instead of moving on quickly, it will likely lead to frustration since it means you weren’t perfect.

Once you let go of the need to play perfectly, you want to set a new standard for your game.

This is the strategy I used with the jiu-jitsu athlete I mentioned earlier. Instead of using the approval of her coach and the need to perform perfectly as her standard, we shifted her attention onto what she wanted to work on that day.

So in training, she now had a clear idea of what it would mean for her to have a good training session.

For competitions, her new standard became the objectives she had for that day.

After piecing together a game plan, she knew the key aspects of her game she needed to focus on. By focusing on them and executing them effectively, her chances of succeeding increased significantly.

So for yourself, what are some new standards you can set for practices and games. These need to be in terms of the process of your play, not the outcome.

Because it is the process that gives you the best chance of succeeding, not demanding perfection from yourself.

Final Thoughts

When pressure hurts you, it is because you are putting pressure on yourself to play perfectly. This unrealistic expectation increases fear and anxiety, and makes it difficult to bounce back from mistakes quickly.

On the other hand, pressure can be helpful…if used correctly.

When pressure turns your attention onto the process and forces you into the present moment, it’s helpful. Also, when pressure keeps you consistent with your routines it is helpful.

If you find yourself demanding perfection during games, remember to shift your standard of what it means to play well. Let go of the need to play perfectly and turn your attention onto the process of your game.

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

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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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