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Sport, exercise & performance psychology
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  • Writer's pictureElliot Smith

Understanding how we manage our mindset when we are under pressure (Part 1).

What is pressure?

I suppose, when we consider how do we manage our thoughts when we’re faced with high pressure situations, the first thing we should clarify is: What exactly is pressure? This is a question that isn’t particularly easy to answer. Throughout the literature there are numerous definitions for pressure, in relation to performance and competition I mean. Since we’re not talking about the pressure between two physical objects, in which a physics professor’s expertise might be more valuable than mine. Rather, we are talking about the kind of pressure we feel, that occurs largely between the ears which influences our thoughts, feelings and sensations, and for that reason, I’ll refer to pressure as psychological pressure (PP) from here on. Mesagno et al., (2017) defined PP as any factor that might interfere with task-related thoughts. In addition, PP has been referred to as any factor that increases the importance of performing well on any particular occasion (Philip, 2007). And there are several other definitions of PP that have been used by different authors, researchers, and athletes over the years. Despite the somewhat ambiguity regarding a clear definition of what PP is. Generally speaking, it is widely acknowledged that PP changes the way we think, behave or feel, in that when we are faced with a situation that induces PP we may not perform like we normally might. Meaning that, for the most part, PP characterises a state of mind and body that is unlike that which we normally experience. Hence, by changing the way we perceive and experience our reality PP can influence our performance, for better or worse.

What happens when we feel PP?

PP affects us differently, depending on a range of factors. For example, the way in which we interpret PP plays an important role in determining how PP might influence our performance. While in some instances PP can be interpreted as a negative phenomenon, as though our mental and physical sensations distract us from performing as well as we usually might. In which case, PP interferes with our normal processes and those affected by it will feel as though they are being hampered or debilitated. On the other hand, PP can also be interpreted as a positive influence. In this case, our thoughts and feelings are attributed positively, in a way that focuses our attention towards performance-related items. When PP is interpreted to be a positive, beneficial phenomenon, it can facilitate our performance and make us feel energised and optimistic about our circumstances.

This sink or swim response has been witnessed throughout the history of sport, on the largest of stages. Even the most expert athletes experience PP, and their response to PP can vary considerably. Most famously, golfer John Van de Velde’s shocking demise at the 1999 Open is a tremendous example of an athlete who, under the influence of PP, responded ineptly and ultimately their response to PP cost them the title of what might be considered the most honourable achievement in the game of golf. Since then, people of all professions and backgrounds have been trying to explain what happened, and why Van de Velde sank, as opposed to swimming. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this example, I would strongly recommend watching the footage (though not easy to watch, might I add).

Over the course of the 4-day event, Van de Velde had triumphed, and ultimately outcompeted the rest of the field during the tournament in what might be considered some of the toughest conditions that can be experienced in the game of golf. On the 72nd hole of the tournament, that is, the final hole of the tournament, Van de Velde had a 3-shot lead over the rest of the field. At this point, any logical, sensible person might have opted for a conservative, defensive, even unasserted strategy. Whereby, one might play the hole very carefully, in a way that they might not usually go for, because, in this instance, Van de Velde could have done this (and not perfectly either) and still won the tournament. However, Van de Velde chose a different strategy, an aggressive play, in which they would take on the most amount of risk. Now Van de Velde may not have taken on such a bold strategy had they known it wasn’t an effective approach. But Van de Velde had been aggressive all week, throughout the tournament, and after all, they had a 3-shot lead. So up until the 72nd hole, the aggressive play had been a success. Nonetheless, Van de Velde hit a very wayward tee shot, and it was so wayward that it was on a different hole altogether. Still, the ball was in play, and winning the tournament was very much achievable, the odds in their favour. Again, Van de Velde was left with another decision to make, to play aggressive and take on the risk with a chance of maintaining the 3-shot gap, or play defensive to remove the risk and most likely drop 1 shot on the last hole which would have left them with a fair 2-shot advantage. And I’m sure you can guess, Van de Velde takes on the risk, choosing a shot which is famously challenging. Unfortunately, Van de Velde doesn’t pull it off, instead they shoot their ball into the stands and the ball takes a particularly unlucky bounce resultantly finishing in the long grass. From bad to worse. To make a long story short, Van de Velde chunks his next shot from the long grass into the water (the last place you’d like your ball to be), hits a bad shot into a greenside bunker and barely escapes with a triple bogey (+3 shots). So, by the end of the 72nd hole Van de Velde had blown their 3-shot lead and forced a play-off with Paul Lawrie (who went on to win) and Justin Leonard. The moral of this (rather long-winded) story is: Why don’t we think clearly when we need to? As it happens, there doesn’t appear to be a clear answer to that question, and over the years Van de Velde has revealed very little as to why he decided on the strategy he enacted. But one could argue that Van de Velde was experiencing PP on the last hole of that tournament, and it was probably the most momentous occasion they’ve ever been placed in. And under such circumstances, PP can influence the way we go about processing information, our decision-making capabilities, and overall clarity of a situation. Perhaps, because of the increased PP, Van de Velde wasn’t thinking clearly and therefore decided on the wrong shot choices and more than one occasion, and if they were placed in that situation again, maybe they would opt for a different strategy? Maybe not.

Equally, under the same kind of circumstances, in an event where the decisions and actions of an athlete can decidedly influence whether or not they are the winner or loser, some athletes can flourish when PP is elevated. Namely, at the 2012 Masters tournament (golf again, not to keep banging on about golf, apologies if you’re not a golf fan), Bubba Watson competed against Louis Oosthuizen in a play-off to decide who would be crowned the Masters champion. And in this play-off, Watson hit a wayward tee shot a long way into the trees, while Oosthuizen was comfortably down the middle of the fairway (exactly where you want to be, position A). Watson was left with what might be considered an impossible shot, a shot that most golfers would never dream of taking on. Despite the odds, Watson takes on the shot which has all the risk, and pulls it off in the most incredible display. Watson goes on to win the tournament. So why is it that Watson flourishes under the elevated PP, while Van de Velde sinks to the bottom of the ocean (bit of an exaggeration I know). While the two scenarios are certainly different, and arguably incomparable, the PP is similarly elevated and the risks are equally high. Which might lead us to believe that there may have been differences between Van de Velde and Watson in their perception of the situation, the way they attributed the scenario, and how they went about approaching the task.

Clearly then, whatever happens when we experience PP does not necessitate failure, nor does it guarantee success, so how can we increase our chances of succeeding? Or reduce the likelihood of our demise?

Understanding PP

Why do we feel PP? Well, there are a vast number of factors that can induce feelings of PP, and these factors may operate distinctly or together at any given point in time. Factors that increase PP can be thought of as stressors. And stressors can be categorised depending on their characteristics. Competitive stressors, for example, relate to the demands associated with competitive performance (Mellalieu et al., 2006), such as preparation, injuries, underperforming, and expectations. Personal stressors, however, relate to our ‘nonsporting’ life events (Gould et al., 1993), like when we experience family issues, dysfunctional relationships, the death of a significant other, and managing our work-life interface. Furthermore, this list of stressors is far from exhaustive, and the determinant for PP may actually be a combination of different types of stressors. Part of tackling how we manage the PP we experience during sport competition is identifying why we feel like the way we do. Once we are able to figure out what stressors are driving the PP we sense, then we can go about constructing an appropriate response. While identifying the origin of PP does not guarantee that we will be able to overcome our struggle, it does improve our chances, as well as brings clarity in respect to understanding why we our having certain thoughts, feelings, and physiological sensations.

While stressors are factors that increase PP, protecting factors relate to aspects of ourselves and our environment that enable us to defend against PP and other potentially negative state of minds. Personality characteristics such as being optimistic, hopeful, proactive and competitive can reduce the impact of PP, or re-direct the way we attribute PP so that we use the added stimulus to actually facilitate our performance. Similarly, motivation quality (i.e. self-determined, autonomous motivation), focus and concentration (i.e. controlling attention, direct focus towards relevant cues), and perceived social support (i.e. from friends, teammates, coaches and family members) can equally enable us to better manage PP and potentially reduce the negative effects associated with PP. While being aware of the stressors that are leading to our increased sense of PP is important, also having the appropriate protecting factors in place can immediately benefit the management and solution of PP.

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