Hello, everyone. Today, I want to talk about why athletes under pressure don’t compete like they practice. If you are a gymnast, then competition season is coming. Of course, not every state is going to look the same this year, but I know cheerleaders who are in season, I know figure skaters who are competing virtually, and for a lot of you, competition is happening. If not now, it’s coming soon.
I’m going to explain the biological reason why this happens, the main difference between the athletes who meltdown under pressure and the ones were are so consistent. Sometimes, the ones who are best in competition are actually the ones who are less focused in practice, which makes it extra annoying for athletes like me who are working so hard. I’m also going to talk about what you need to change if you want to increase consistency under pressure.
Here’s what happens. I’m going to think back to 12-year-old me going into competition. I’m basically having the same physical reaction as if I was standing face to face with a tiger. Imagine a tiger enters the room you’re in, a series of events would happen that are all started by your brain.
The first thing that happens is your focus gets really narrow and you have to find an exit route so your focus narrows. Also, your heart starts to pound because you want all the blood in your body to leave your hands and legs just in case that tiger cuts you, you won’t bleed out. So all your blood goes into your core so that it can power your organs in a turbo amazing way. It gets your breath becoming really efficient so all that oxygen goes to your body, your heart’s going crazy so that you can get out of there, and your adrenaline surges. You basically get like super strength. You also get really tense just in case a tiger wants o battle so you’d have to be ready to go, so you get really tense.
Another fun thing that happened to me when I was an athlete was my digestive system malfunctioned. Some people feel butterflies, some people feel like they’re going to completely lose their lunch, and then on the other end, your body wants to evacuate anything that’s not helpful or necessary for getting the heck out of there, so you feel like you’re going to pee your pants or throw up. All of that is happening because your brain is sensing a threat.
Now, if there’s a tiger, there’s a legitimate threat. You get out, get under something, climb something, or get behind something. Your brain is going to go into overdrive to get you out of that situation and keep you safe. Here’s the problem – that whole series of biological events happen whether it’s a real threat or a perceived threat. Think of it as a smoke alarm. That alarm is going to go off if your house is on fire. That is a very good thing because you need to wake up and get out. But that alarm also goes off if you burn your toast. It’s like that with your brain. It goes off if there’s a tiger, but then it also goes off if there is a threat.
What is Your Tiger?
My tiger is failure. I feel like if I fail, I will be eaten alive. You’re basically having the same biological reaction to, “I will die of embarrassment. I will die of humiliation. I will die of being left behind if I don’t XYZ.” So especially in an adolescent athlete where the way that they’re perceived by other humans, especially adults, is so critical to feeling okay, they feel like negative judgment could kill them. So you walk into this competition arena and the alarm bells start sounding.
I want you to ask yourself – do you like roller coasters or do you hate roller coasters? I personally love roller coasters, to an extent. I’ve found as I get older, I love them a little bit less because I have more to lose these days.
Think to yourself, do you generally like roller coasters or not like them? Now ask yourself what is happening in your body while you are going up that roller coaster. It’s like click, click, click, click, click, click, up. The anticipation is happening. What’s going to happen biologically is the exact same thing that happens if you see a tiger. If you fear failure, your heart’s going to pound. You’re going to get tense. Your digestive, system’s going to get wonky. When you’re on that rollercoaster, your heart’s pounding. You feel like you’re going to lose your lunch. You’re tense, you’re sweaty, your hands are cold – the same thing is happening to your gymnast. Their heart is pounding, they’re tense, but what’s different. Think about it. What is the difference? There’s no biological difference. It’s the interpretation… it’s the mindset.
What’s Your Mindset?
With that feeling, you basically get to make a decision. This is a good feeling. This is part of what it feels like to be going up. That click, click, click, and then as soon as I go over the top, it’s so exhilarating that it’s absolutely worth it. Part of the goodness about it is that you get that anticipation which gets your adrenaline going, and then you go flying down and just so fun and it feels amazing. Or you’re so busy worrying as you’re going up and second-guessing and thinking it’s going to be horrible, the entire experience is you asking, “Why did I do this to myself? This is horrible. This is the worst thing ever get me off of here.” So it’s the interpretation.
There are studies that show that having a heightened level of physical anxiety doesn’t make a difference in how well you’ll perform. It’s not that the people who walk in cool, calm, and collected are the ones that compete better. The main difference is your mental anxiety. Physical anxiety is normal, understandable, and actually quite helpful because you get that narrow focus and you get that adrenaline surge. Those are a couple of things that can be very useful and can actually bring out the best in us and competition.
Worrying about Potential Failure
If your narrow focus has gone to what could go wrong or the worry or the potential for failure, that’s when you’re using that good thing not for good, but for evil. If you’re worried while you’re nervous, it’s going to affect your performance. If you’re not worried while you’re nervous, it doesn’t have to.
So I want to give one more little example of an athlete. He was a swimmer by the name of Eric Namesnik. When he was in high school, he shocked his whole team and himself by qualifying for Olympic trials. At the trials, he’s walking around this pool and seeing all of his idols, these swimmers that he’s looked up to forever. He’s thinking, “This is the coolest thing ever that I get to be here at Olympic trials. I’m going to tell all my friends that I got to be here. I’m swimming in a pool with Olympians. This is so cool.”
He just had the most fun doing his events and seeing these cool people and being with some of his friends. Then the results come out and he qualified for finals. Completely shocked, he was like, “What? Not only am I here, but now I’m kind of in the running for this.”
If he would have swam that same time again, this guy was going to the Olympics. He spent the next hour or two going, “Oh my gosh, I could make the Olympics. Don’t screw this up, Eric. I have to make sure that I’m doing that exact thing I did and not mess this up. This is my chance. I could make the Olympics.” He got all worried. He switched his mindset and then he went into finals and added four seconds to his time, which in the Olympic level, swimming is basically like a million years. He basically blew it at Olympic trials. Luckily, he learned from it and he was able to qualify for the Olympics in 1992 and ended up with a silver medal. So, not all was lost, but we can learn from this.
Don’t fix what isn’t broken
Often athletes in practice just really want to do their best so it’s okay if they fall. It’s not that big of a deal and they’re killing it, they’re hitting their skills, they’re hitting their routines, they’re having fun. Then the stopwatch comes out or it’s a meet, and all of a sudden, they’re thinking, “I have to be perfect.” Why would you change your strategy if you already have a strategy that works?
That is about half of the work that I do one-on-one with athletes or that my coaches do one-on-one with athletes. We figure out what do you do that works? Everybody has something that works. We help you decode that and figure out what are your patterns? What are your beliefs? What are you worrying about that we can maybe stop worrying about? What can we focus on instead with that laser beam of focus? That’s so useful when it’s in the right direction.
That is the main thing that you have to change is your mindset. Now, if you decided you’re going to love rollercoasters because there’s some reason, some motivation like, “I want to bond with my child and I want to love roller coasters,” is it possible that you could? Absolutely. It is absolutely possible that you could, but here’s the thing – you’ve got a lot of past history built into your brain at the brain level that says you don’t like roller coasters. Roller coasters are not fun. Roller coasters are not safe. I don’t want to ride them, I avoid them.
Athletes who have had a lot of experience melting down under pressure, or even just a couple of primary traumatic experiences melting down under pressure, it’s built into your brain so that your brain can keep you safe and alive. Your brain starts telling you, “Avoid that. No, we don’t want to walk into that competition. This is not safe. You’re risking embarrassment, judgment, failure, being left behind. Don’t do it.” Your brain is sounding those alarm bells extra, extra hard for you to try to keep you from getting hurt by failing. What we want to do over time is work in new brain patterns, new thoughts, new strategies, or old strategies that you already use in different environments, like practice so that you can then get that built in.
Mental Game Plan
I also help people put together a mental game plan. That’s one of the challenges that we go through in the PerformHappy program. You come up with your rock-solid mental game plan so you know exactly what you need to do to set your brain up for success in practice and through mental training.
Hopefully you can take that and realize it’s okay to be nervous. You don’t need to necessarily try to calm down. It’s more a matter of focusing on something that’s going to be more useful than you’re worrying. There’s a little more to it than that, but that gives you a taste of something that you can do to majorly shift your experience in competition this year. I also want to mention I’m doing a few team talks in January. I’ve opened up my schedule for just a few teams to do a presentation, something similar to this, but more in depth and more interactive. If you are interested in having me come talk to your team, I would love to chat with you. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or message me on Facebook or Instagram. I would love to chat with you.
Thank you for being here. I’ll see you soon.