How to Use Pressure to Your Advantage

Do you play well under pressure or does pressure hold you back during games? In this article

Pressure. That all consuming feeling that you have to play well. It fills you with thoughts of perfection, demanding no mistakes be made…or else.

That’s how pressure can seem most of the time, being a negative emotion athletes experience. One that typically leads them to underperform in games when they’re feeling a lot of pressure.

Where pressure comes from varies depending upon what’s important to you as an athlete, what you’re focused on during games, and what the environment is like.

But no matter where pressure comes from or what it feels like to you, one fact remains the same: this pressure is either helping or hurting your performance.

As a mental performance coach, I’ve worked with athletes who’ve naturally used pressure to their advantage, while there have been others who’ve needed to learn how to manage pressure to stop it from leading to increased feelings of fear and anxiety.

Through working with both types of athletes, I’ve come to realize some common factors between those who use pressure to their advantage.

And so, what I’m going to do in this article is break down a few tips you can use to transform pressure from something that holds you back into a valuable asset to achieve peak performance.

But before we get into those tips, let’s take a look at how pressure may be holding you back.

How Pressure Can Hold You Back During Games

Pressure can change the way you play, for better or for worse. And most of the time, it’s going to be for the worse.

Pressure in sports can feel different for different types of players, and where such pressure comes from will vary, but what pressure truly signifies will remain the same.

When you feel pressure in sports, it can be simplified to state that you feel like you need to play well.

Now I know you want to play well all the time, but this turns into a strong need whenever you’re feeling pressure. And there are two words that often accompany this need, especially when pressure holds you back: or else.

Think about a time when you experienced pressure during a game, what was going on?

A great example I like to use is a basketball player shooting free throws late in the game. Let’s say there’s a few seconds left on the clock and they’re down by one point.

That player is likely feeling a lot of pressure at that moment; thinking, I need to hit these shots, or else we’ll lose.

The or else will typically involve a negative consequence occurring as a result of you failing in the pressure filled moment. It may be your team losing, like in the example of the basketball player, coach benching you, your teammates being mad at you, or anything else.

These consequences are where we see pressure hold you back as an athlete. Because when you are afraid of what might happen if you fail, that’s where you develop the fear of failure and sports performance anxiety.

Athletes with performance anxiety and fear of failure often play timidly and tight. So in those moments of pressure, you aren’t performing as freely and naturally as you need to be.

You also aren’t going to be as focused on what you’re doing. Focus is a major factor of anxiety and fear, since it’s your focus on the outcome that’s leading you to worry about what may or may not happen.

And your focus cannot be split. So during these moments of pressure, when you should be as focused as you can be on what you’re doing, instead your mind is consumed with the outcome.

That’s how pressure can hold you back. But there’s a different way you can respond to pressure. One that instead of holding you back, will actually increase your level of play in those moments.

How Athletes Who Use Pressure to Their Advantage View Pressure

There are certain ways athletes view pressure that helps them perform well in such moments. But there are also ways athletes respond to feelings of pressure that equally increase their performance.

For you to learn how to use pressure to your advantage during games, it’s important to learn different ways to view and respond to pressure and then work on applying them during games.

It is through such practice and repetitive effort that you can completely change the way you respond to pressure. Transforming it from something that leads to fear and anxiety, into something that brings out the best in you.

They Use Pressure to Help Them Focus

One key distinction between athletes who use pressure to their advantage and those who allow pressure to hold them back is their focus in these moments.

In the previous section I talked about how fear and anxiety hold you back and how both are caused by your focus being on the outcome. Well, athletes who use pressure to their advantage don’t allow their focus to remain on the outcome.

Yes, they may think about what could happen if they fail, but that only serves as further motivation for them to hyperfocus on what they’re doing.

Think of it almost like a trigger. You feel the pressure, which then signifies to your mind how important the moment is. Instead of this leading to worries and fear, it triggers you to turn your attention completely onto what you’re doing.

Because you know that if you want to do well in these moments, the most important thing is being fully focused.

So when you’re feeling pressure, use that pressure to remind yourself that you need to turn your attention and focus onto what you’re doing and let go of the outcome.

They View Pressure as Exciting

When I was playing baseball, I didn’t exactly look at pressure in a great way all the time. Mainly because I saw it as something to be afraid of. I knew how important these moments were, and I desperately did not want to fail.

Since I experienced a lot of fear and anxiety in these moments, they weren’t exactly times I was thrilled to be in. Have you ever felt that way? Well, here’s the thing…athletes who play well under pressure are excited by pressure!

They love those moments where the game is theirs to win or lose. To them, it gives them that extra boost of motivation they need. The cool part is, this is something you can train in yourself.

The beliefs we hold in relation to specific situations are formed through our thoughts. Over the years, if you’ve thought about pressure as something to fear or you’ve thought of yourself as someone who doesn’t play well under pressure, then the belief you hold is that pressure is bad.

However, if you were to change your thinking, and begin telling yourself how much you love pressure and how fun it is to be in those moments, slowly your beliefs will change.

So, work on reframing how you view pressure. Change it from something to fear, to a moment of excitement and an opportunity to show everyone the player you know you can be!

They Stay Consistent & Focus on The Little Things

While it’s great to feel like a pressure situation is more important than other moments during a game, especially if that leads you to increase your focus or have more motivation to play well, that doesn’t mean what you’re doing needs to be approached any differently.

Athletes who feel like they need to perform in a different way or do something special in pressure filled moments are typically the ones who underperform.

Athletes who play well under pressure stick to what they know. They keep it simple in these moments and focus on consistency. No, not consistency in the outcome, that’s not in their control. Rather, they focus on consistency in their approach.

Let’s think about the example I gave earlier about the basketball player shooting free throws late in the game. Their goal should be to approach those free throws just like they would any other free throw.

Because the act of shooting free throws is the same, all that’s changed is the perceived importance.

For them to do well in that moment, they should stick to their routine and remain consistent with how they approach the shots.

The same is true for you, no matter what sport you play.

To perform your best and use pressure to your advantage, you want to keep things simple, stay consistent, and don’t feel like you need to change anything or do anything different just because the amount of pressure you feel has increased.

Final Thoughts

Pressure can be great. It can be fun, exciting, and push you to do your best. But pressure can also be terrifying; leading you to feel fear and anxiety and underperform in these moments.

When you do feel fear and anxiety in relation to pressure, it’s the way you view pressure that’s the reason you feel this way. To help, you want to change the way you look at pressure and how you react in pressure filled moments.

A great way to do this is by examining what athletes do and how they think when they use pressure to their advantage.

By modeling their traits, you can turn pressure from something that’s routinely held you back as a player, into something that propels you to peak levels of performance.

If you have any questions about pressure, mental performance coaching, or anything else, please fill out the form below.

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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