Pressure follows athletes everywhere, on the field and off. Whether you’re hauling in a long pass or stopping a running back from diving into the end zone, you feel it—especially if you know college recruiters are watching from the stands. How you handle pressure can be the difference between making it to the next level or not. The good news is that succeeding in pressure situations is one of the most gratifying experiences in athletics. The bad news: it never ends. Every level brings new forms of pressure.
All D-I and NFL hopefuls have dealt with varying degrees of pressure throughout their athletic careers. On Thursday, April 28, at the 2011 NFL Draft, we saw many former college football stars take on yet another challenge. Cam Newton, Julio Jones and Christian Ponders were among the happiest players that night. On the other hand, guys like Nick Fairley and Da’Quan Bowers dropped further than any expert had anticipated. The takeaway for young athletes is that no matter what level they are trying to attain, there is constant pressure to prove their worth.
Newton was the number-one pick; the Falcons all but said Jones is more valuable than the collective talent they could have secured with the picks they traded to the Browns; and Ponders was taken higher than any Draft expert predicted. Newton now has to show the world that he deserved the top spot. If he crumbles under pressure, linebackers will tear him to shreds while the national media screams, “I told ya so!” Jones has to prove he’s worth the sacrifice of future talent. And Ponders comes in under the shadow of future Hall-of-Famer Brett Favre. Conversely, Fairley and Bowers have to make teams regret passing them up earlier in the Draft.
Regardless of where they were picked, all the NFL draftees are probably itching to get on the field to test their mettle. Their competitive spirit—and how they handle pressure situations—elevated them to the national stage. How they respond to their new challenges will determine whether they succeed in the NFL.
Ironically, athletes put more pressure on themselves by how they react to events or situations. Academy of Sports psychologist Michelle Paccagnella says, “Pressure is simply how we perceive the situation we are in. Athletes need to learn this, because once they understand that pressure is something they create, then they also understand that pressure is therefore something they can control. By controlling their responses to pressure situations, athletes learn to take them in their stride.”
Luckily, young athletes can follow strategies that allow them to be at their best when the game is on the line or recruiters are watching. The tips below can help you perform in pressure situations.
Tips For Performance Under Pressure
- Practice like you compete: It’s easier to benefit from practice if you treat it like a game. A 75 percent effort won’t cut it when the game is on the line.
- Practice pressure situations: You’re more likely to hit your receiver at the end of the fourth quarter if you’ve gone up against game-speed defenders in practice.
- Think positively: If you go into a pressure situation worrying you will screw it up, you are setting yourself up for failure. Imagine being successful and you’ll be more likely to succeed.
- Perfect weak skills: Pay special attention to skills that diminish in pressure situations. Focus on them during practice. A basketball player who loses the ability to dribble with his left hand during a close game should spend hours dribbling left-handed in practice.
How they mentally prepare for challenges differs from athlete to athlete. The important things to remember are that we create our own pressure and there are ways to prepare for success. There’s no doubt that the stars of the NFL Draft have implemented such strategies to catapult themselves onto the stage at Radio City Music Hall. Remember—no obstacle is too big to overcome. That Aaron Rodgers guy turned out okay, didn’t he?
Congrats to other STACKletes selected in the 2011 NFL Draft—Von Miller, Ryan Kerrigan and Nate Solder!