You've done it a million times in practice: you fielded a grounder cleanly, dominated your routine with skillful mastery, threw confident pitches, made a diving catch, threw a runner out at second or knocked in a run to win the game. So when it really counts and the pressure is on, why does that smooth, successful, automatic nature of your confidence seem to crumble around you? In most cases, there's been no dramatic change in your ability between practice and competition. So what's happening?
In baseball, the issue is referred to as "white-line fever," signifying that once you step over the white lines and onto the field for real competition, your performance declines. (Read how anxiety can downgrade your game.) In a sport where the only guarantee is to experience failure, how do you bring a relaxed disposition with you from practice to competition?
Pressure has been described in many different ways, and it usually gets a bad rap. But it can bring out the best in you. In fact, if you don't feel pressure, you're probably not going to do your best. Every athlete responds differently to the pressure and stress of competition.
"I am not at my best until the situation is at its worst." — Goose Gossage
What do you feel like under pressure? How does your performance change? Do you think about winning or beating someone? (Take a quiz to see if you're mentally tough.)
Competition is driven by results. The winner is always determined by who performed better on a given day. However, just because the environment is driven by results does not mean that your individual performance must be conditioned by the environment.
Think about the skills you display during competition. What must you do to get the result you want? As a hitter in baseball, do you approach the plate thinking, "hit a homer, hit a homer, take the lead"? Most of the time, athletes create unnecessary pressure by having this kind of result-driven state of mind. Think about the last time you performed your skill well. What was the process behind it? What did you do to make it happen?
To ease the pressure and focus your thoughts, think of three words that detail the process for you. In the hitting example, the three words might be "timing, recognition and discipline." Say these three words to yourself while visualizing your turn at the plate. Once you step into the batter's box, take a deep breath and trust the process you created.
Think about your own performance and try to become more process oriented in your preparation. If a result-driven environment creates unnecessary pressure, take control. Find your three words, take a breath and trust the process. You've done it a million times in practice, you know how it feels, you know what it takes to be successful. Focus on the process and the results will follow.
Christine Rickertsen is a mental training consultant currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area. After receiving her master's degree in sport psychology, she started a consulting business designed to help athletes. She's had the opportunity to work with an increasingly diverse population of athletes and teams. Visit her website at selfmadeathlete.wordpress.com.
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