Pressure in sport comes in two forms, there’s the race performance pressure we put on ourselves and the pressure put on us from external sources. There are many tried and tested techniques which can help athletes deal with pressure and we’ll go through some of these. There’s also the question of whether or not all pressure is actually bad? Most feelings in our body serve some purpose and that feeling of pressure and nervousness is no different. It makes us alert on the start line as well as filling us with adrenaline which can help us get more out of ourselves.
At some point in our life we’ve all felt it. That nervous butterfly in the stomach feeling that stops us eating properly or thinking about anything other than the sporting endeavour we are about to embark on. This feeling comes from the blood vessels surrounding your stomach contracting, this leads to decrease in blood flow to your stomach which gives you the butterflies. The blood is sent instead to our legs. Historically this is so we could run or fight but it’s quite useful for bike racing too. The feeling of pressure never really goes away if you care about how you perform. Whether its full blown anxiety or butterflies in your stomach – while you care about how you perform there will be some form of pressure and learning strategies to deal with that can help you remain calm and perform to the best of your ability on the day.
In 2017 a study led by psychologist Anne Casper found that when faced with a day that they know is going to be challenging, people who enacted coping strategies received a boost to their performance, and end the day feeling more energised. These coping strategies can be applied to racing too and some are outlined here.
5 tips on dealing with pressure
1. Enjoy the moment
The event is important but it sits in the context of a season. Enjoy the fact that you have the opportunity to race and use the opportunity to express yourself. It’s probably the case that you’ve prepared for a long time in the run up to this so taking in your surroundings and taking in encouragement from the crowd will help you get more out of the occasion. Racing is fun and no matter how important a race is to us, we should always remember that we are racing because we love it.
2. This is not your only opportunity
There’s only a few times in sport, such as the Olympics, where it really is ‘one chance’. The reality is you’ll usually have other opportunities and the best athletes in the world have failed many times before they’ve succeeded. It takes ten years to build an overnight success and history remembers the winners. Many times when we look back on an athlete who suddenly gets lots of medals and we see they’ve missed the podium many times before. Don’t be afraid of failure as there’s usually another chance to succeed.
3. Focus on the process
Pressure which comes from ourself is based on what we expect the results to be. By shifting our focus onto process driven goals and away from outcome oriented goals we can go into the race with the mindset of having already succeeded. This in turn has on the start line happy, being as fit as we possibly can be and the race performance is a bonus. In interviews prior to a big event you’ll often hear athletes saying something along the lines of that they are happy to ‘have prepared as well as they possibly can’. This is an example of them handling the pressure of a big performance by focussing on the process, not the outcome.
4. Control your breathing
Under pressure our breathing can become short and laboured reducing the amount of oxygen we take in. A reduction in oxygen can be detrimental to our performance. By controlling our breathing we can increase the amount of oxygen we are taking in, to our muscles and our brains. This can improve our clarity of thought helping us make better decisions mid race. It also will reduce fatigue and lower our heart rate. Do not allow panic to set in, take deep and even breaths and you’ll feel yourself calming down as you do. This technique is especially useful on the start line of a big race.
5. Focus on what you can control
Many coaches and athletes will repeat the manta, ‘control the controllables’. This is for good reason. By not worrying about the things that are out of our control we reduce the number of components contributing to the pressure that we feel. This leads to an overall reduction in pressure felt by an athlete. It links, in some ways, to ‘focussing on the process’ by forcing an athlete to think about what they can do in a race thus having less time to worry about the outcome. This can reduce pressure and keep an athlete focussed on the task at hand which reduces the number of mistakes made in the early portion of the race.
By focussing on the context of the moment, remembering that this is rarely our ‘last chance’, setting process driven goals, keeping our breathing under control and by focussing on what we can control we can reduce the amount of pressure we feel. It’s not possible to remove it all, and that’s not necessarily advantageous, but removing sources of pressure where it’s possible can help to bring the amount of pressure we feel to a more manageable level. This will lead to a more enjoyable racing experience as well as improve our performance from a physical and mental perspective.