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dealing with pressure

Managing Emotions Under Pressure - by Dave Shear

I have had several conversations with elite athletes, Special Operation’s operators from the Navy Seals and Delta Force along with highly respected law enforcement professionals. The one universal agreeable strategy was that if you panic you are done. It is not uncommon to watch varying levels of athletes lose their tempers and go into a panic zone over fear of loss or underachievement. I have been fascinated for years on how composed some professionals and top junior athletes are while others can quickly lose control of their emotions and sabotage their chances of winning and improving. There is little doubt that as leaders, mentors and coaches it is a challenge to keep our athletes in a peak performance zone, and when they edge into the panic zone, find ways to mitigate it.

When an athlete's heart rate increases and panic-mode sets in during competition, he can slip into what is known as "Condition Black" (a more common word for this is "freezing" under pressure).  The normal resting heart rate of an average person is 60-80 BPM. I would argue that most elite level athletes maintain a lower BPM and can be registered in the sub 50 BPM range. It is important to note that when your BPM approaches 115 your fine motor skills begin to deteriorate. Complex motor skills, visual reaction time and cognitive reaction time at 145 BPM will further deteriorate according to experts. It is also known that the optimal survival and combat performance level is somewhere between 115-145 BPM. It would certainly make sense based on these variables that an athlete should be aware of their heart rates during competition and recognize the cause and affect of losing their emotions. For an athlete to diminish their cognitive processing, experience loss of depth perception, peripheral vision and near vision could be devastating in competition. Therefore, it is critical to identify the loss of emotional control as a result of pressure and how to control that emotion so you can stay in your optimal levels of performance.

I had the honor to learn how to coach tennis under one of the world’s best coaches, Hall of Famer Robert Lansdorp. His students are a who’s who of tennis: Tracey Austin, Pete Sampras, Maria Sharapova, Linsey Davenport, just to name a few. Robert once told me how critically important is was to train for the pressure of competition. He often used the example of athletes playing up in age and how the pressure was often times diminished. He always tried to present both ends of the pressure continuum by putting his players in pressure situations during training. Playing against your peers, teams or players that you normally beat presents a different kind of pressure versus “playing up.” This was a very important training element that all coaches and players should think about in their development. Elite Special Operations personnel will always tell you that it is fine to have disagreements but in the end, if you don’t agree you better have a solution to the problem. I believe the first part of the solution to handling your emotions is to identify the problem and come up with logical solutions to increase your performance. Stress in competition will occur and we must understand how critical it is to pay close attention to how it is affecting the athlete physically as well as mentally.

Too often the fear of loss, failure of reaching the goal, and/or disappointing others causes athletes stress during competition. It’s very hard to let that go and has to be addressed as a key component in training. This could take many weeks, months and years but to disregard it would be a major mistake. Coaches, leaders, mentors and players should have serious discussions about the cause and effect of stress, emotions and how to maintain a peak performance level.  ASP has developed individual programs that help athletes overcome emotions under pressure.  These systems have been developed by being on the road with athletes and working with them in their natural training and competitive environments.  As a result, we believe no two athletes are the same so it is critical to design a program that fits the athlete’s needs.  Lastly, we also work with coaches on becoming better leaders by giving them some additional tools to use during development. 

Pressure is Earned

Finishing under pressure.  It is what separates good players from great players. Unlike other sports, tennis players have to win the last point, they have to finish. If a basketball team is up by 20 points with a minute to play, they do not need to keep hustling on defense or keep executing on offense (although the coaching staff would certainly want them to do both). The player in the lead is playing with all the pressure, while the player who is behind is playing pressure-free. Have you ever noticed how your opponent plays the best point of the match when behind set/match point?  As Agassi pointed out in his book, there is an unstoppable force that exists when nearing the end of the match; either a force that is pulling you closer to the finish line, or the force that keeps you from it.  When the force pulls you closer everything is going well, you can do no wrong.  But when the force is against you it feels like nothing you do will get you closer, you can do nothing right.  

So how do the best players in the world finish?  In the 1988 US Open finals, Mats Wilander said he served and volleyed on match point because his hands were shaking so much from the nerves; he knew he would tighten up even more if he played from the baseline.  Todd Martin worked on getting his thoughts more structured and present-focused in the months after his loss to Mal Washington at Wimbledon (Martin held a 5-1 lead in the 5th set before losing 10-8; he had two chances to serve it out). Martin began seeing himself play against Richard Krajicek in the finals, and ultimately he lost his focus and choked. To answer the question above...the pros work on it. They get nervous just like you do, they get tight in big moments just like you do. But they get to work on developing the skills to overcome the nerves and this is what separates them from their peers. They find effective ways to manage the nerves and the pressure, and quite frankly, they learn to handle it better than everyone else. As famed tennis coach Chuck Kriese always says, "Pressure is a privilege." To be in a position where you feel pressure means you have done something well to get to that point. You are in a position to win. Finding your own answer requires 1) awareness of which situations bring about the most pressure, 2) trying different strategies to better deal with this pressure, and 3) being in a position to win and face the pressure. 

Approach the end of matches with a new mindset and arm yourself with new ways to perform under pressure. Your opponent will usually play better when behind, so it will take you raising/maintaining your level to finish. Here are a few ideas to implement in your own game: 1) keep your intensity higher than your opponent's with positive reactions and a strong walk, 2) focus on how you like to play and win with your strengths, 3) do the work in between points by executing your routines and relaxation skills, 4) reframe how you look at pressure and change the dialogue in your head (from "I am so tight", to "I've earned this pressure") and 5) fully commit to each shot (hesitation or second-guessing only increases the nerves). Some players never learn what pressure is all about because they are rarely in a position to win. Struggling to finish matches is actually a great sign, as it means you have put yourself in a position to win. But to go from good to great you will have to eventually find what works for you when faced with these situations. Earn the pressure and persevere.