“Pressure – changes everything, pressure. Some people, you squeeze them, they focus. Others fold.” In film ‘The Devil’s Advocate’
Australia is about to be invaded by the world’s top tennis players vying for top spot in tournaments around the country and culminating in the first Grand Slam of the year, the Australian Open in Melbourne this January. Sport is the ultimate in reality television, unscripted, often unpredictable, and particularly in an individual sport like tennis, driven by the personality of the athlete. Every year, tennis fans gather to witness who will triumph and who will crumble under the pressure, or ‘choke’ as they refer to it in sport.
Although most of us will not experience this kind of pressure on such a public stage, choking doesn’t just occur in sport. The public pressure on athletes to succeed is not unlike the corporate environment where the expectation is to excel and handle pressure with ease. Let’s face it, even having to parallel park can be a high pressure situation for some of us!
So what leads to choking? It comes down to what you think of yourself (“I can’t do this!”, “I suck!”), what you think about the situation (“I have to succeed or else!”, “It has to be perfect!”) and how you perceive others’ expectations of you (“Everybody is counting on me!”, “Everyone is laughing at me!”).
Even if you have the talent, knowledge and ability to deal with high demands of work, life, or sport, sometimes the pressure can still get to you – and at the worst possible moment. Jessica Mauboy’s recent no-show for her performance at the Melbourne Cup is a perfect example of this. It can happen to anyone.
How do you minimise your ‘choking’ hazards? Learn how to focus and not fold under pressure by using these 10 strategies:
1. Pay attention to your thoughts. In high pressure situations, are you motivating yourself or putting yourself down? If you tend towards the latter, work on changing these thought patterns by practicing different ways of thinking and consciously using them in different pressure situations until it becomes habit.
2. Practice makes perfect. Become accustomed to high-pressure situations. Expose yourself to a variety of pressure situations at home, work, or in sport. Avoidance breeds fear, so face pressure head-on.
3. Take a moment. Notice how athletes like tennis players and golfers take a few breaths before serving or driving the ball. Relaxation and breathing techniques can ease the tension in your body before, during and after exposure to high-pressure situations.
4. Prevention is key. If you have a balanced lifestyle that includes social support, a healthy diet, physical activity, and time to relax, you are likely to have the mental, emotional, and physical strength and energy to cope with stressful situations.
5. Stay in the present. Don’t think too much about the outcome. Stay focussed on the task so you can respond effectively to whatever happens in the moment.
6. Develop a ritual for facing pressure situations. Remember to keep it simple and practical—a few breaths, reading an inspirational quote, listening to a particular song, a short mindfulness exercise.
7. Watch and learn. How do people around you deal with pressure, expectations, public scrutiny or professional pitfalls? You can learn a great deal from others’ successes and mistakes.
8. Reflect on your previous experiences. What were the conditions, both internally (in your own mind and body) and externally (in the environment) when you were successful and when you were not. What would you do differently to improve the outcome next time?
9. Imagine coping with the situation. Sit or lie down with your eyes closed and go through the whole scenario in detail with you successfully completing the task. Visualising success by going through the motions in your mind is a powerful tool and is effectively used to prepare elite athletes for their match-ups.
10. Lessen the significance of the event. Put the importance of the situation in perspective. This may not be possible on rare occasions, but generally, there will be future opportunities, events and moments to prove yourself.