Today’s Topic: Stop Putting Pressure on Yourself
Welcome to Q&A with Coach Rebecca. I’m Rebecca Smith, founder and director of Complete Performance Coaching. We are a group of sports psychology consultants who specialize in helping youth athletes maximize sport performance and enjoyment. We do this through one-on-one video conference coaching, or through the Perform Happy community: a complete one stop shop for all things sports psychology and do-it-yourself training courses on topics like overcoming fear, breaking through anxiety, building confidence, and learning to trust yourself.
All of that is part of our wonderful Perform Happy community. Hopefully you will check us out if that’s something you’re interested in doing on your own.
Today, I’m going to answer a question from a figure skater. She sent me an email this week, and I realized this was a question I’d been seeing over and over again. So, I’m going to answer it directly to this athlete because she has been repeatedly asking. Her question is,
Q: “I’m an ice skater. I have a problem that I do everything perfectly in practice, but I do bad in competition. Can you help me please?”
Great question. Who else can relate to that? When it doesn’t matter, when the coach isn’t watching, when you’re just practicing, you are so great. Then, the second there’s something at stake, you think, “Why am I horrible? Why can’t I do any of this? Why am I messing it all up? I just did this perfectly a hundred thousand times.”
It Goes Wrong when Others are Watching
I’m going to give you the one main reason – it’s your focus. Think about the difference between competition and practice. There’s a belief at work for most people.
You’re Not Focusing
That belief typically is either “this matters” or “this doesn’t matter”. If you’re at practice, you’re thinking, “Oh, I really want to make this one.” Maybe your coach gave you a pressure set or something. You know that if you mess up, you can just redo it. You can start over. It might be annoying, but you can get another chance.
If you’re at competition, you have this other belief of, “This matters, this counts. It’s do or die, now or never. Don’t mess up.” Now is the moment you’ve been training for. This is important to you. Whereas at practice, your saying to yourself, “Yeah, I want to do well. I don’t want to get yelled at by my coach, but it’s not that important. It’s not do or die like competition is.” The reason I mention it as a belief system is because it’s not necessarily real, it’s that we believe it’s real.
Your Mindset at Practice is Different
You believe that at practice, you get to do it again and it doesn’t really matter, and you believe that competition is really important and it matters so much, you can’t mess up.
What if you shifted away from that, and you took what works in practice and decided to believe that about competition? I’ll give you some examples of how you can do that.
Basically it’s about focus. What you concentrate on will absolutely make or break your performance under pressure. That goes for practice or competition. I know plenty of kids who get really nervous at practice, because they also carry this “I have to be perfect” mindset. They don’t want to disappoint anybody, they don’t want to let their team down. They don’t think they belong if they’re not perfect.
Carrying those belief systems with you is messing you up.
Concentrating on the Wrong Things
There are plenty of kids I work with, especially in figure skating, who’ve had these really great seasons, and then all of a sudden something goes wrong. Their confidence gets shaken, they’re stressed at practice and in competition, they’re not doing well, and they don’t know why. It’s about focus. It’s about what they’re concentrating on.
If you are in practice thinking, “What am I doing? What do I need to do to improve this? How do I feel? How was that program?” Gymnasts may be thinking, “How was that routine? How was that skill?” Swimmers, “How was that sprint? How was that set? What am I doing right now?” That’s what you’re typically focusing on. Your coach gives you a correction, and then you go and you zero in on it, and you try to fix it.
Check in for feedback. Ask your coach, “How was that?” Then try it again. You are not approaching your practice from an outcome mindset. You’re not saying, “If I don’t make this double axel right now, I’m never going to succeed in my sport, so what’s the point?” You don’t do that. That would be a ridiculous amount of pressure to put on yourself. Maybe you do, and if you do, then that’s definitely something to examine.
For the most part, you’re just telling yourself what needs fixing. You keep going through it, working on making it better. “How did that feel? Okay, that felt pretty good.” When you go to competition, you should be thinking, “How does this feel? This feels good. Okay, next I need to do this jump, and next I need to do this jump.” Instead, you’re thinking, “If I don’t qualify for sectionals, I’m going to be so mad. If I don’t qualify for regionals, or nationals… if I don’t make a clean program, if I don’t make this jump I’ve been training,” etc.
Breaking Your Focus
What happens next is you get into this over-trying, pushing, tense, pressure-driven mindset that makes all of your physical mechanics fall apart. It makes you tense, which makes you unpredictable. What you have to do is look at it like a strategy. The strategy that you’re using at practice, whether you realize it or not, is a good one.
You’re not worried, you’re just trying it. You’re staying present, and you’re focusing on what you’re doing now, not what you’re going to do later. You’re being, you’re doing, and you’re feeling in the moment.
Overthinking Ruins Performance
Once you get to competition, you get into the “what if” and overthinking. All of that stuff in your head takes you out of the moment, and in the moment is where your body does it’s thing. If you’re stressed, you can’t be relaxed, and relaxed is absolutely the best state to be in when you’re competing.
You have to get out of the outcome focus and into the present. For you individually, you want to think, “What do I do in practice? What do I pay attention to? Am I focusing on something specific? What’s important to me while I’m practicing?” Obviously easier said than done. You take that into competition and you think the same way. If you are focusing on the present in practice, you want to be focusing on the present in competition.
How do you fix it? This is something that’s going to take a little time and practice and diligent effort to change.
You have to catch yourself when you are in the future and bring yourself back to the present. Catch yourself in the future when asking, “Who am I competing against, am I good enough?” and go right back to the present of, “Here I am lacing up my skates, and now I’m standing here waiting for my turn. I’m breathing, and now I’m skating onto the ice. Now I’m waiting for the music to start, and now I’m doing my footwork.”
You just are doing what you’re doing. Every time your mind starts to wander into the future and the qualifying and the what ifs, just get back to exactly what you’re doing now. This is something that you’re doing in practice without realizing it, so it is something you can get used to doing in competition, but you have to be diligent.
There’s an example I like to give for this particular situation. There is a swimmer named Eric Namesnik. In high school in the 80s, by some miracle, he qualified to the Olympic trials. He thought, “Oh my gosh, I’m 17. I’m going to the Olympic trials. I get to swim in the pool that Olympians pee in.” This was a really big deal.
I think it was the 200 IM or the 400 IM that he was swimming, so he did his trial and made it to the finals. There was no pressure. He was just having a good time and was sight-seeing at the Olympic trials. When he qualified to finals, he realized, “If I get that same time again, just the same time I already swam, I could very well be going to the Olympics.”
Eric spent the next four hours thinking about who he was swimming again, worried about who was watching him, and hoping he wouldn’t let anybody down.
What do you think happened?
Eric added four seconds to his time (which is a million years in swimming time) and went home with his head hanging low going, “I blew it. I blew my chance.”
Guess what? That was not actually his only chance. It was not do or die because he made it back there in four years, and with a better head on his shoulders, he made it to the Olympics. The way I like to put it in perspective for athletes is, “Maybe this is not your last nationals. Maybe this is not your last competition. Maybe this doesn’t actually matter as much as you think it does. What if you just go swim? What if you just go skate? What if you just go perform, and not make this any bigger than any other competition.”
We’re Not All Michael Phelps
If you’re Michael Phelps, then yes, there will be four more Olympics and he doesn’t need to worry about this one. Of course, it’s easy for Michael Phelps to think that, but if you can joke with it a little bit and go, “Yeah, so it’s nationals. Great. I’m going to be back next year, so whatever. I’m just going to go do the best that I can today regardless of the outcome,” then you will perform better without as much pressure.
Don’t Put the Pressure on Yourself
For another swimmer, Misty Hyman, that’s how she went into her Olympic upset victory in 2002. She told herself she was going to the best she could do regardless of the outcome, and she ended up medalling. She didn’t think about her opponent, she didn’t think about her time, and she didn’t even think about her cuts. She just thought, “I’ve trained. Here I am. I’m going to do the best I can regardless of the outcome.”
If you can get into that mindset of, “The best I can regardless of the outcome,” then that gives you the best opportunity to relax and just skate, and do what you love to do.
To the Parents
Now parents, I’m going to talk to you for a second. Something I’ve noticed about stressed out figure skaters in particular, but really stressed out kids in any sport, is that they have this intense fear of disappointing people – disappointing their parents, disappointing their coaches, and disappointing their teammates. One of them in particular had this echo in her head that her mom said something about paying way too much for the sport for her to go out there and fall apart under pressure.
But you know what? You get frustrated as a parent, and sometimes things come out of your mouth, and then they lodge in your child’s brain. This may cause your kid to think, “If I don’t do well, they won’t let me skate. If I don’t do well, they won’t pay for it anymore.” There’s even part of kids that goes, “They won’t love me. They won’t like me. They won’t be proud of me. They’ll be disappointed.”
Parents, you also get to do the same exercise of trying to get out of the outcome focus and into the present. Notice yourself. Are you doing the same thing at competitions that you do at practice? What do you do at practice? You drop them off and say, “I love you. Have a good time. See you later.” You’re not saying, “Okay, did you do everything? Do you have everything in your bag?” If you’re different at competitions, then you’re showing your child to also be in the mindset of, “Okay, this is important. This is a big deal. Don’t mess this up.”
Having Compassion and Empathy
Parents, drop them off and say, “Okay, I’m going to be over here in the bleachers. Do your thing. I’ll see you in a little while.” What if you approached it in that way and didn’t have any outcome focus come out of your mouth? Yes, you want your kid to qualify. Yes, you want your kid to win, not because then you’ll love them more, but because it’s fun. I t’s fun to watch your kid win, but what’s more important, winning, or their emotional health and happiness, their feelings, and the fact that they believe that they’re a worthwhile person in the world?
That’s more important obviously, so make sure that that’s what you’re focused on. Realize that no matter what happens, even if you fall 100,000 times, you’re going to take your kid out to pizza and you’re going to love your kid so much. You’re going to be proud that they tried.
Don’t Push Your Kid
I know parents may be saying, “How is that going to help? My kid needs a push.” The coach can push them. That’s their job. Your job is to love them unconditionally, and make it abundantly clear that you love them unconditionally. Let them know that no matter what happens, if they love to skate, you’ll let them skate, even if they bomb over and over.
You will hug them and love them and feed them no matter what. It’s surprisingly important to say that, so let go of the future, get back into the moment. Analyze yourself at practice. Ask yourself, “What am I doing that’s working?” Make that your strategy. Do the exact same thing. It might seem really simple, even counterintuitive, that you think, “I have to do all this stuff. I have to visualize and I have to freak out a little and I have to focus,” but if you don’t do that at a practice, why would you do that at a competition? That doesn’t make any sense.
That’s my tip. Stay present, get out of the future, and let go of the pressure. This does not matter. It doesn’t matter as much as you might think it does, so let go of the belief system that it’s somehow more important than practice. It’s all moments of your life and they’re all equally valuable.
Send me questions if you have them: email@example.com. Join us at performhappy.com if you’re interested in digging into some mental training on your own. You can always schedule a free consultation with me or any of the other awesome complete performance coaches by going to completeperformancecoaching.com/schedule. Grab a free 20 minute consultation and see if it’s a fit. All right, I’ll see you again next week. Thank you for joining me.