Pressure to Perform Before Competition

Hi everybody.  I’m coach Rebecca Smith with complete performance coaching.  I was inspired to talk to you all today because of a lot of energy I’m hearing on free consultation calls this week.  We’re right at the beginning of competition season for optional level gymnasts, which is primarily who I work with in my private practice and who we work with in the PerformHappy community.  So I thought I would give you this: how to handle it if you have three days left until a meet and you are afraid of a skill that you should be able to compete flawlessly.

This is a common crisis right now.  I’m going to give you a little bit of perspective on what might be happening.  So if this is your athlete, or if you are the athlete, I’m going to give you some ideas on what to do.  Coaches, you can get some insight as well.

The Scenario

You have a meet in three days and you cannot do a critical skill that’s required for one of your routines.  What makes it worse is that you could do this skill maybe a week ago, maybe a month ago, maybe you competed it all last season, and today you can’t do it and you’re freaking out.  If that’s you, this is for you.

Here are some quotes from athletes I’ve talked to this week.

“Well, I don’t have time to relearn a skill right now.”

“I should just be able to do it.  I want to just be able to go do it.”

“I can’t back up a progression or get a spot.  There’s no time.”

“We’re working on routines.”

“I can’t put mats the beam.”

“If I have to scratch this event, my life is over.

Sources of Pressure

So that’s the problem.  I’m going to go ahead and say that the source of the problem in this particular situation is pressure.  The pressure that often coaches will say, “Okay, you have three practices left.  You’ve got to get it together or do it or you’re kicked out.”  Maybe it’s your parent who’s saying, “I am not spending all this money to fly you to Florida for you to not go for your skills that you competed last year.”

Or probably the most common source of pressure is actually yourself.  The athlete who was saying, “I just want to do it.  I have to do it.  Why am I not doing it?  I have to go, I have to do it right now.  If I don’t do this, my parents will be disappointed.  My coaches will be disappointed,” and maybe all three sources of pressure are at play here.

This is how we want to approach this situation.  Basically this self inflicted pressure or coach or parent inflicted pressure is the problem.  If you can reduce the amount of pressure, you’re actually going to increase the chances that you’ll be able to get the skill to work.  That’s the sort of upside down and backwards way that fear works.

The three most common things that I hear from athletes are there’s not enough time, my life is over if I don’t get this skill, and I just have to go do it.  I’m going to talk through each of those misconceptions and talk about what the solution is.

Pressure of Time

There are some people, a lot of us high-strung, perfectionists, who like to have a plan like, “I have to be at this age, this level, and if I keep moving one level a year, maybe I can repeat this level, but I definitely don’t want to have to repeat that level, then I’ll be able to be a level 10 for this amount of years and then college coaches will see me.  Then I can have my dream of competing in college.”  They’re very time driven.  I don’t know anybody other than gymnasts and swimmers who, who will say things to me like, “I’m getting too old at the age of 12,” who are well aware of college.  They’re well aware of standards and cuts and scores and expectations to the point of crushing pressure at the age of 12.

That to me just blows my mind, even from when I was 12 back in the 90s, things have changed.  We have this pressure and the athlete is constantly aware of their timeline and their plan, and if anything is not going according to plan, they get really tense.

Threats to Your Success

What happens when you get tense is you’re actually, without realizing it, sending a message to your brain that there’s something to be afraid of.  There’s a threat of not getting what you want, a threat of being left behind, a social threat of your teammates moving up a level without you.  Maybe it’s an emotional and financial threat of not getting your dream, not getting your scholarship.

These are all threatening for sure, but they’re not actually threatening to your immediate safety. Your brain doesn’t know the difference.  Your brain is feeling this crazy big threat and your brain’s like, “Oh, where’s the fire?  Where’s the tiger?  Where’s the hot stove?  This is not good.”  Your brain just shuts your body down and goes, “We are not trying anything out of the ordinary. We’re not taking any risks because there is something afoot that is not okay.”

So you trying to try harder and work harder and push harder is actually making your body shut down under the pressure.  That is why mental blocks increase tenfold at the beginning of the competition season.  My calendar from November to February is so busy because in November the coaches start talking about “season’s coming”, so the pressure starts to close in.  Then people take a couple of weeks off for the holidays, and then you have a week until your first meet and all of a sudden, you’re completely tense.  Your mind is racing, you’re overthinking you.  All you want to do is do well and your brain is shutting you down.  So the time pressure, not a good strategy.

Time is Not a Motivator

If you can, coaches, reduce that as a motivating factor because it’s really not a motivator.  It’s just something that will have the people who are not at their most competent, it will send them into a tailspin of ever dipping competence.

So that’s number one. We don’t want to focus on running out of time, being too old, “Oh my gosh.  What if….” That’s not a winning strategy right now.

Pressure of Sitting Out

The next thought is making it completely unbearable to have to sit out an event.  I was talking to an athlete today who’s like, “No, no, no, no.  Tell me how to get my skill in three days.  That’s what I want.  I don’t want you to tell me how to cope with if I don’t get my skill in three days,” and that’s the problem.  You have to know fundamentally that you will be okay even if things don’t go your way.  That’s the piece within the PerformHappy community that I have been strengthening and building and reinforcing through our live group trainings is this idea that you are getting better, you are good, and you’re okay no matter what.

Once you get that and you can tell yourself, “Okay, this is a speed bump.  This is a bummer.  I really want to compete this weekend, and if I don’t, if my brain isn’t ready and I need a little more support and a little more time, I will get through it.  I’m not going to be happy, I’m not going to be jazzed about it, but I know I’m going to spend these next three days being kind and compassionate to myself, communicating with my coaches, asking for the help that I need.  I’m going to give it my best and I’m going to take it one day at a time, giving it my best.  If I get to the weekend and I’m able to do this skill, I’m going to throw a party.  If I get to the weekend and I’m not ready to compete that skill, I’m still going to throw a party because I worked so hard and I made progress and I know that that progress is what’s going to take me to college, not my stress, my freak out, my feeling of it’s unacceptable to fail.”

Keeping the Big Picture in Mind

That’s not what’s going to get you to college.  The good attitude, the coachability, the patience and the hard work that will pay off.  We don’t know if it’s gonna pay off by this weekend, but it will pay off, and you have to trust that.  You have to keep the big picture.  If you are 12 years old and you’re a level seven gymnast and you want this more than anything, there are many, many 12-year-olds who were once level sevens who dealt with mental blocks, who are currently collegiate gymnasts.  There’s nothing that is out of the question.  If you have one bad meat, will you get kicked off the team?  Will your bedroom be given away to a more worthy child?  Will your parents stop feeding you?  No.  None of that is true.

You will be sad.  Maybe you’ll be sad for a week or two weeks or three weeks, but consider at what point will you move on? Maybe a day, maybe two days, and you’ll get back to practice and you’ll keep working.  You have to know that you will be okay no matter what to get that pressure elephant off your back.  Then you can go, “All right, whatever I need to do, I will.  I will try to do this week with compassion.  I will take it one day at a time.  Hopefully I can compete.  I really want to, but if I can’t, it’s okay.  This is temporary.”

Pressure to “Just Do It”

The final thing that athletes really try to like stick to themselves, is just do it, just do it, just do it. What’s happening here is your brain is going, “Nope, not going to do it,” and you’re having this yelling match with your brain.  You’re going, “Stupid brain.  Come on!  I have a competition.  Let’s go.  Come on.  We have to do this.”

Let’s imagine that it’s not you that’s struggling, but it’s a good friend.  For parents that are listening, what if it’s your best friend’s daughter or somebody who’s really dear to you that is not your child and they are freaking out.  All of a sudden they can’t do this skill and you can just see the terror and the dread and the disappointment and the frustration.  What would you say to this athlete?  Maybe, “You’re going to get this.  You’re going to be fine.  I believe in you.  It’s okay.  I think you’re going to be okay.  And you know what? If you can’t compete, we still care about you and don’t worry about it.  You’re going to get through this.”

Think about what you might say to this athlete.  Then, go back to you.  Let’s say that you are struggling, you’re trying to do this skill and it’s not working and you keep freezing up and you keep balking and you can’t go and you’re freaked out.  What would you say to yourself?  “Just do it.  I don’t have time for this.  What’s wrong with me?  Why can’t I just do this?”  Now let’s go back to our little friend. Let’s say that it’s our little friend who’s struggling.  Would you look at her and go, “Just do it.  You don’t have time for this.  What’s wrong with you?  Why can’t you just do it?”

Crushing Confidence

And that’s what coaches are saying to kids.  This is what parents are saying to kids.  This is what kids are saying to themselves, but all that does is it crushes your confidence even more.  So when you are feeling stuck, here’s what I want you to say to yourself – What can I do?  Not, I can’t do this. I can’t do that.  I can’t do this.  I can’t do that, but what can I do?  And even if what you can do is not that impressive right now to you, it’s your starting point.  If you can do it on the low beam, fabulous, start there.  It’s Tuesday, it’s not Saturday.  Start there and make enough repetitions that you start to feel like, “Okay, I am okay at this.  I am not the worst.  I can do this.”

Baby Steps

Then after you’ve made a bunch of those, you take a baby step.  I know what you’re saying, “I don’t have time for baby steps.”  Well here’s the thing, you don’t have time not to take baby steps. If you keep trying to jump to high beam and your brain isn’t going to let you, you’re going to stay stuck.  The baby steps are going to get you there.  Maybe not for this meet, but you do not have time to rush because that’s going to keep you stuck through the whole entire season.  You have to consider now is the time to start working with your mind.  Just start giving yourself a system, start where you are and make progress and be kind and compassionate and understand and know that you are okay.  No matter what happens from that place, your drive and your stubbornness, which is also your determination, your drive and your determination will get you where you want to go.

To wrap it all up, for anyone who’s in this situation, you are not alone.  Here’s what I want you to do:

  1. Keep the big picture in mind.  It’s okay. It’s one week.  I know it feels like a very important meet.  I know it feels like the end of the world, but if you go out there and if you do three events, make them the best three events you’ve ever done.
  2. Sit out.  If you can’t compete this meet, well then go home and practice your imagery. Imagine yourself doing well.  You get in the gym, you start where you are, you start making progress now.  This will just be a blip on the radar in the future.
  3. Take it one day at a time.  Don’t get ahead of yourself.  Don’t think about college freaking you out.  Don’t think about the meet this weekend if it’s freaking you out.  I know that’s easier said than done, but just take today – what do you need to do today? Start where you are and get a little better.  Breathe.  If your body is tense, your brain is reacting to that. Breathe and see if you can get some of that tension out of your shoulders or your arms out of your neck, because that’s going to help you get a better skill done.
  4. Ask for help.  If you need help via a coach, or if you need a teammate to cheer you on – whatever you need, ask for it.  Don’t be afraid.  Don’t be afraid to ask for help.  Stop trying to go it alone. It really just keeps you stuck so much longer.

So that is my message to you.  This too shall pass.  You’re going to be all right.  You are okay and you always will be okay and things will get better.

All right everybody, thank you for joining me.  You can send questions to me at and I’ll see you again soon.

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