Performing Under Pressure - A golfer putting in front of a large gallery

Performing Under Pressure

By Sam Jarman –

Choking, or experiencing difficulties performing under pressure is one of the most common reasons for seeking help from a sports psychologist or performance coach.

Unfortunately, most of the techniques and strategies that are commonly prescribed do nothing to address the real reason why some athletes struggle to play their best when they most want to.

Self sabotage doesn’t just happen in sports and to athletes. The main idea in this essay is equally relevant in business, music and the performing arts, exams or even going on a first date or for a job interview.

Succumbing to pressure is not caused by the situation or circumstances, or by any form of mental weakness or flaw.

Choking is simply a variation on the experience of suddenly becoming ‘self conscious’, a feeling everyone has had at some time in their lives.

The Thought That Stops You Performing Under Pressure

Feeling self conscious is one of the more uncomfortable experiences you can have. When it happens in a sporting situation it often leads to muddled thinking, tightness in the muscles, a lack of coordination in your movements and feelings of weakness, insecurity or lack of control.

Understanding why and how it happens is the first step to it happening less often, allowing your skills and talents to be expressed more freely, more often.
Unfortunately the advice we often receive points us in the opposite direction. Towards discipline, willpower and attempting to manage thoughts and feelings.

The scenario plays out something like this: You are in flow. In the moment, absorbed in the game. The match is unfolding exactly as you hoped it might. It feels effortless and free, yet at the same time everything is under control.

A crucial point is reached, often toward the end of the game.

A thought arises, ‘This is going well. I could win this’.

A chain of further thoughts follow like pearls on a string. ‘I’m nearly there. Winning would mean this or that. People will be pleased and impressed. A win might lead to other good things in my future. All I need to do is x y and z and the win and everything that comes with it will be mine. Don’t mess it up now!’

It’s important to recognise that a) you didn’t choose these thoughts, b) there is no way of stopping them from arising, and c) they are neither good or bad in and of themselves.

It is also crucial to analyse and understand the part of the thought that is the main issue. And it isn’t the one that everyone is telling you to focus on.

The crucial aspect is not the thought about winning, or about what you need to do in order to achieve the outcome you are hoping for. There is a belief that sneaks in unnoticed right at the start of the sentence.

It is the ‘I’ thought. The identification with the feeling and the concept of who you think you are. A separate body and an individual mind with a story. A past and a future. A personality and a reputation.

Notice that this identification wasn’t present when you were absorbed in the game and playing to your potential a few minutes ago.

There was no separation between the game and the playing of it, between the playing and the players.

The Chain of Events That Leads to Choking

There is a chain of events that leads to a choke. It starts much earlier than everybody thinks. In fact, it probably started when you were a young child.

When you were very small you were given a name. You were taught to identify that label with a physical entity, your body.

You were also taught to identify with the thoughts and feelings that seemed to be emanating from or correlated with that body. This we could refer to as your mind.

Gradually a story built up. You developed preferences and dislikes. Habits and patterns of thinking and behaviour. Something called a personality, a character. This collection of beliefs, thoughts and feelings became what you thought of as ‘you’. It is sometimes referred to as the ‘ego’ or ‘self’.

All of this is very normal and natural. It is the usual pattern of development for a child growing up in our society or culture. We gradually separate ourselves from our parents and from the rest of the world. We develop our own identity. This sense of identity gets stronger as the layers of conditioning build up.

The problem is, we are usually unaware that this is happening. We forget the innocent, innate state of simply ‘being’ that we enjoyed when we were small. Echoes of it still remain when we lose ourselves in a game or in another activity. But most people get to the point where they believe themselves to be the central character in the story of their lives.

Your true nature, the awareness in which the character arises and the story unfolds, is completely obscured.

When this happens, you have forgotten who you really are. You are like an actor who believes themselves to be the character in the play, even after the curtain has fallen.

How Will The Story End?

So this is the big problem. If you believe that you are the central character in the story of your life, you have wants and desires. These desires are fuelled by the society and culture in which we live. The prevailing idea emanating from this culture is that your happiness and wellbeing is dependent on achievement, attainment and the accumulation of material wealth and possessions.

Put simply – you really want your story to have a happy ending. More than ‘want’. You need the world to meet your expectations. Neediness joins the mix of unpleasant feelings you are experiencing.

And this is the root of all the problems people have with performing under pressure. When you are identified with a body and a mind, – with something that is in essence an illusion – you feel the need to control the uncontrollable. You are trying to make reality fit your desires and expectations. All on behalf of something that only exists in your imagination.

Deep down, beyond the level of concepts and ideas, you know this is impossible. This inner conflict is felt as anxiety, insecurity and frustration or anger, especially when things don’t turn out the way ‘you’ want them to.

These feelings are felt and experienced in the body, so the identification is strengthened. They become part of your story. Part of who you think you are. You start to see yourself as someone who is lacking, who can’t deliver when the pressure is on. The cycle perpetuates.

Many athletes will acknowledge that it gets harder and harder to perform with the freedom and enthusiasm that they felt as children the higher up the sporting ladder they climb. They feel more pressure. The zone becomes more elusive. The game becomes a grind, more about hanging on than letting go.

Perhaps this is due to the increasing levels of identification with their story and who they think they are as they become more successful? Many athletes are described as having ‘a big ego’. What is a big ego? It is just the strength of the belief you have in your story. Unfortunately, the more success you have, the harder it is to escape the illusion of doership, that ‘you’ had something to do with it.

This becomes a particular problem as your body starts to lose it’s athleticism, either through injury or age. If you are strongly identified with your persona of ‘an athlete’, what happens when you are no longer capable of playing to the level that allows you to claim that title? Who are you when your last race is run?

Many sports people struggle to understand their thoughts and feelings towards the end of a successful career, due to their sense of identity being bound to what they do, rather than understanding who they really are.

For others it happens earlier, as the discomfort of living up to the expectations of the tyrant they have created becomes unbearable. They self sabotage in more harmful ways than just under performing on the field of play. Or they decide that the game is the cause of their suffering and feel that stepping away is the only option. The numbers of professional athletes with mental health issues is rightly a cause for concern.

Why Techniques and Strategies For Performing Under Pressure Fail

Most advice for performing under pressure centres around what to do when things start to go wrong in the critical moments of a game.

They will often involve some sort of positive thinking, visualisation or relaxation technique. My experience is that sometimes these interventions can work. But often they don’t. And they can actually make things worse.

They arise out of the same fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of the human experience. If you believe that your essence is something physical, something material, and our thoughts and feelings somehow arise from that, then it makes sense to address the problem on that level.

But how is that working out? Is the mass of self help and psychological advice and information leading to more happiness and wellbeing in sport and in wider society?

The first problem is this: In order to implement a technique or strategy you need to be thinking clearly. When you start to choke this usually isn’t the case. So remembering what to do and how to do it isn’t as easy as when you practice it away from competition.

The second and more fundamental issue is that trying to fix the problem through deliberate effort reinforces the ‘I’ concept – the sense of doership. This identification is the cause of the self conscious feelings in the first place. Consciously trying to implement a strategy strengthens the illusion of being in control. The intellect takes over. More thinking ensues and your natural instincts and insights are overlooked.

When this happens, performing under pressure is likely to get harder, not easier. Suffering is exacerbated, not reduced. The ego is strengthened, not diminished.

Interestingly, one visualisation technique that did sometimes work when I was playing golf professionally, was the method of role playing. By imagining myself to be one of my golfing heroes, I could sometimes produce the feelings of confidence and assuredness that I felt was lacking.

It’s now apparent why this ‘fake it til you make it’ strategy sometimes works. I replaced one imaginary entity (what I thought of as ‘me’) with another one. One with apparently more confidence and capability than the ‘real’ fake me was demonstrating at the time. The feelings of self consciousness dissipated as I got more and more into character.

However, the underlying misunderstanding and the feelings of insecurity and nervousness weren’t being dealt with. They were just being masked by the adoption of a different fabricated persona. When results were good I could rationalise the feelings of inauthenticity. But when they weren’t, the knowledge that I was kidding myself felt worse than the disappointment that accompanied a straight up, honest, poor performance.

I felt like a fraud.

Trying to solve the problem by applying a strategy in the heat of the moment rarely works. The moment that you identify with the ‘I’ thought and the ‘I’ feeling, the cat is out of the bag. By the time you are trying to work out what to do about the anxiety and insecure feelings you are experiencing, not only is the cat out of the bag, he’s three streets away having a party with a gang of his mates.

Something Greater Than Your ‘Self’

So, if techniques and strategies are not the solution to performing under pressure, what is?

Some clues can be gleaned by looking at our own experiences of playing our best when we most want to, and by looking at the experiences of high profile athletes and teams.

Some of the greatest performances in history have come from athletes that had the feeling that they were playing for something greater than themselves.

This might be for a community that has suffered, or for a family member that has been struggling. Many individual athletes have a strong religious or spiritual belief. All religions and spiritual traditions have their roots in the same key idea. We are all from the same single source. We are all part of something greater than our ‘selves’.

In all these cases, performing under pressure is easier because there is less identification with the ‘I’ thought. There is the sense that ‘this isn’t about me’. The less you are identified with your ego, with your story, with the ‘I’ feeling, the closer you are to truth.

You get out of your own way and your natural talents and potential are expressed freely. You remain in the present moment, in flow, in the zone. Often the feeling is one of surprise and wonder when the game ends and victory is secured. The athlete finds it impossible to explain what happened or how the performance came about. Sometimes this is expressed in terms of reference or thanks to a ‘higher power’.

From the earliest religious myths and stories, human beings have had the sense that their experience is not limited to the physical realm and that they are an integral and fundamental part of a greater whole. As science and technology have advanced, it has become harder and harder for many people to rationalise this deep intuition. Believing in something that science can’t or won’t confirm is dismissed as ‘a bit woo’, or a sign of insecurity or mental weakness.

Yet the feeling is undeniable. And sport is one of the areas where we can remain in touch with it. Knowing what your team mate or opponent is going to do before they do it is not easy to explain in scientific terms. Neither are the feelings of oneness and connection embodied by the words ‘team spirit’. Yet most people who have played sports would know and value those experiences as part of their reality.

A few fortunate athletes (and non athletes) just have a sense of this oneness without being meta cognitively aware of it. They are confident, but not arrogant. They are aware they are different, but at the same time are nothing special. The differences are at surface level, not at source.

They seem to have the game in perspective. Winning or losing doesn’t affect how they show up or relate to others. They are determined and fearsome competitors without it becoming personal. The biggest moment in the biggest game is no different from a training session or warm up.

In their mind it’s all part of the same continuous whole.

Asking a Different Question

If you aren’t one of the lucky few, it doesn’t mean that you need a religious conversion or to attach yourself to a higher cause in order to perform under pressure. (Although there is nothing wrong with doing either of those things for their own sakes.)

Simply by starting to ask some different questions about the nature of your experience. By investigating the beliefs and layers of conditioning that have built up over the years, you can start to strip them away and weaken the identification with the story of who you think you are.

Getting better at performing under pressure starts with understanding more deeply your true nature. Who you are really referring to when you say ‘I am’. Ideally this enquiry could be done at a time when you are feeling calm and relaxed and not feeling stressed or under pressure.

If you approach it with the outcome of coping, of ‘feeling better’ or ‘playing better’ as a goal, this exploration tends to become just another strategy rather than an open minded exploration of your fundamental beliefs and values.

The enquiry is an ongoing process that never ends. By gradually weakening the attachment and identification with the character and the story, outcomes and results become less and less important. They become steps on the path to greater understanding and deeper wisdom. Opportunities for growth and learning rather than definitive judgements.

You slowly return to playing the game as you did when you were a child, before all the layers of belief and conditioning started getting in the way. You return to playing the game for its own sake, rather than treating it as a vehicle to get somewhere or to become something.

Who Am I?

This is the fundamental enquiry, and the starting point for anyone interested in exploring more deeply. As with many scientific investigations, it is a process of subtraction, of elimination, rather than adding another belief or more theories.

Start by establishing what you are not.

Are you your body? Well, you don’t say ‘I am my body’. You say ‘I have a body.’

Are you your mind? Again, you don’t say ‘I am my mind.’ You say ‘I have a mind.

To what, or to whom do your body and mind belong?

Are you your story? Or do you have a story. Can you have a story, and at the same time be in the story?

Or when you say ‘I’ or ‘I am…’ are you referring to the awareness, the knowing of the tale as it unfolds?

By exploring these questions, you start to address the fundamental misunderstanding that prevents you from performing under pressure. You might begin to see that when you identify with the sense of ‘self’ and have the feeling of becoming self conscious, you believe yourself to be something that doesn’t actually exist!

The less you identify with this fictional entity, the longer you stay in flow. It becomes easier and easier to stay out of your own way. The illusion of doership becomes weaker. The fear of failure subsides. You play because you are happy, rather than to try to find happiness. You play as a celebration, rather than making your happiness conditional on an outcome in the future.

When you play like this you are free. There is no pressure. Where is the pressure in a game played for its own sake, played for the sheer joy of playing? You still want to win. But the winning stays within the boundaries of the game. It isn’t magnified in terms of how it might affect anything else. It isn’t relevant to who you think you are or who you might become. To what others think about you or relate to you.

Conclusion

Performing under pressure is not about control. It is about letting go.

In order to let go, you need to understand what you are hanging on to. For most people, the thing they are holding closest to them, is the story about who or what they think they are.

And the tragedy is that this story is not even of your own making. It is a collection of thoughts, beliefs, myths and assumptions that you have blindly accumulated through years of cultural and societal conditioning.

Letting go in the moment is increasingly difficult the more the idealised story seems threatened by the situation, the outcome or the result. Occasionally it happens, more by accident than design. You play with freedom and your infinite potential is realised, leading to a performance above and beyond what you thought you were capable of. You don’t really know how it happened, and are momentarily left with a feeling of wonderment and awe.

Then the ego kicks back in and claims the credit for what happened. It becomes part of the narrative and unfortunately makes the accident slightly less likely to happen again in the future. The illusion of doership is reinforced.

Not knowing is a much better place to be than in thinking you know when you actually don’t. In the same way that following a bad map is much worse than having no map at all. By resting in not knowing, the perceptual field opens up. Insights and possibilities become available and obvious, rather than being obscured by dogmatic thinking.

The path to performing under pressure, playing your best when you most want to, begins with asking the question ‘Who am I?’

You may never find the ultimate answer, but playing the game in the freedom of the wide open spaces of not knowing is more rewarding, more enjoyable and closer to the truth than playing in the tight, restricting confines of a belief that happiness lies in trying to live up to or in becoming something you are not.

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