Dealing with pressure

Reexamine Traditional Ideas About Winning to Effectively Handle Pressure


“In concentrating, you have to wipe everything out of your mind but… the ball. Make that ball an obsession. If you can get yourself into that trance, pressure won’t intrude.”

            -Rod Laver, Tennis Champion


Recently, I had an athlete call me to help him get ready for a “big match.” He kept referring to it that way. Not a match, the match. The big match. I was curious why he kept giving it so much importance, and I pressed him for more details. He explained that they would be playing the toughest team in the league-- but, if they played well, his team actually had a decent chance at victory. His team had been talking about this match for weeks now, hyping it up, excited at the possibility that they could win this year. The match’s level of performance grew in their minds each day.

For this particular player, so did the level of his anxiety. He knew how badly his teammates wanted to win, and it terrified him. He was desperate not to let his teammates down. His perception of the match-- and his focus on his teammate’s desires-- was going to take control of his performance.

I knew he had to let go of the idea of the “big match.” So I asked, “Were the rules of this match different? Had he suddenly changed the shots he used? Was the court a different size?” Of course not. It was a match just like any other, and he had to keep reminding himself of it. He was psyching himself out-- and losing his focus-- by obsessing over the idea of the “big match” and the skill level of the other team. None of that was important, when it came down to it, I reminded him. He needed to stay in the present (a core WIN concept, if you’ll remember) to play his best. That was all he could do; and if that’s where he focused, he had the best chance to perform well.




Pressure is created by how we perceive the situation, not by outside influences. If we don’t create it in our mind, it doesn’t exist. Even though outside influences may affect our thinking, we don’t have to let those influences dominate or control us.

I’m reminded of the words of the ancient Chinese philosopher, Chuang Tzu.


The Need To Win

When an archer is shooting for nothing
He has all his skill
If he shoots a brass buckle
He is already nervous
If he shoots for a prize of gold
He goes blind
Or sees two targets-
He is out of his mind!

His skill has not changed. But the prize
Divides him. He cares.
He thinks more of winning
Than of shooting--
And the need to win
Drains him of power.


That poem serves as a perfect segue to the next issue of that player, one that extends to his entire team. The players who were hyper-focused on the “big game” had another downfall to their thinking. They were focused far more on the outcome than the process. They cared too much about winning.

Yes. I just said that. I am asking you not to need to win. Well, not in the way you were taught to-- valuing winning over everything else.


Don’t think for a moment that winning isn’t important to me. I am a competitor. I care about winning. A lot. But the way to win is not to need to win. As soon as a player has that desperation, they’ll lose their edge.

We need to breathe, we need to eat, but we don’t NEED to win, we WANT to win. There is a big difference in how we think about winning.

And if you feel like you need to win, it’s likely because the desire is for others: I need to win because I want to please my parents, because I want to be liked, because my brother will respect me.... Needing to win won’t help your performance.

When it comes time for you to step onto the field, court, floor, or ice, your focus must be on the present moment: one point, one stroke, one jump at a time. The final score is a distraction, an unnecessary source of pressure. You need to stay focused for the next ball coming at you-- that is what will offer you an opportunity to win. All of your mental energy needs to stay in the present because that’s where it’s needed, to perform your best. Thinking about how badly you need to win will not help you win. Concentrating your attention on your playing in the moment will.  




And by all means, please feel free to leave a comment below.