Elite levels of soccer are the perfect breeding ground for pressure. Players battle for spots on a roster or the starting line-up every time they come to training. Coaches demand a consistent high level of play from their players. There is often little room for error. This sport – like so many others – is so challenging and unpredictable at times that dealing with pressure becomes more the rule than the exception. It’s a mistake for players to believe you can snap your fingers and make the pressure go away. However, young players can learn how to feed off competitive pressure, improve focus, and raise their game to a higher level.
Which is why – at the start of the Women’s World Cup – I love this new commercial from Nike:
Here are some suggestions for successfully dealing with competitive pressure before and during performance:
Begin to see pressure as a privilege. The pressure of consistently performing well is the price of playing at such an elite level. Too many athletes are simply afraid of pressure-packed situations in games or’ in training. The best players learn to view this pressure as their ally and not their enemy. They see pressure as a tool to push their play to a higher level.
Make pre-game butterflies fly in formation. A lot of players are affected by the pre-game jitters – the zooming heart rate, the butterflies in the gut, etc. This is the body’s natural physiological (fight or flight) reaction to stress. The brain’s job is to make meaning of these signals (which is usually, “you’re nervous”).
The trick to effectively dealing with this is to reinterpret what these physiological signals mean. This is your choice! Instead of thinking, “I’m nervous, I can’t be nervous” when feel the butterflies, change the meaning of this signal to something helpful, such as “I’m ready!”
Focus on the Controllables. The “uncontrollables” as the biggest mental trap athletes fall into in pressure-packed situations. The “uncontrollables” are quite simply all the things in a performance that are directly out of your control (e.g., dealing with a teammate’s mistakes, the play of your opponent, the crowd, the ref, etc). When a player focuses on the uncontrollables three things will consistently happen to him – First, he’ll start to get anxious and physically tight. Second, his confidence will start to slide. Third, his performance will begin to suffer. What are the things we can control? Simple: Effort, attitude, and focus.
Choose to trust what you got. At the heart of playing with confidence in the face of pressure is trusting one’s ability and performing/playing in the present moment. When pressure builds, our minds often become cluttered and we lose our focus. At that moment, we’re usually focused on what just happened or what might (or might not) happen.
The key to being “in the moment” is shifting your mind from “thinking” to “trusting”. Thinking too much can be a big problem – especially when spontaneous reactions allow you to perform your best.
“Don’t think! Just Play!” is usually the advice athletes get when faced with pressure. While such advice isn’t necessarily bad, many athletes struggle with simply cutting off their thoughts altogether. When you find yourself thinking too much, remember that the closest number to zero is one. If you can’t cut off your thoughts altogether, choose one word or a short phrase that directs your focus and instructs your actions.
Effective “cue words,” (such as “quick feet” for a goalkeeper defending a shot, or “first to the ball!” for a player defending a corner, or “what’s important now?” for the forward that just missed a golden opportunity to score) capture what you’re trying to accomplish and help you stay focused on the task at hand.