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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 2)

In ‘Part 1’ we discussed how to go about defining psychological pressure (PP) and what it means to be placed in a situation with elevated PP. In addition, we arrived at possible explanations as to why we feel PP and what kind of elements we can use to help protect us against the negative side effects of PP. In ‘Part 2’, however, we will be exploring some of the mental skills/techniques that can be implemented in pursuit of managing our thoughts, feelings and physiological sensations. In particular, whether we should actively strive towards deliberately controlling our emotions, or, alternatively, embracing and withstanding our state of mind without trying to fight against it. In ‘Part 2’ there will be arguments that support and critique each approach, and some guidance as to when might be the best scenario to implement either technique.

Emotional regulation

Firstly, is it possible for us to actually control our emotional profile at any given point in time, whenever we feel like it? For most people, this is a particularly challenging task. Controlling our emotions is a taxing manoeuvre even when we are stationery and doing very little, now try to imagine regulating the way you feel during a match point in the 5th set of a championship tennis competition. Not easy. And while it is challenging to control our emotions, it isn’t unachievable. Given the right tools, training, and circumstances, an individual can alter their thoughts and feelings to some extent in favour of bettering their performance. For example, emotional regulation is the process by which individuals modify the type, quality, time and intensity of their emotions (Pena-Sarriondia, 2015). One can also use emotional regulation in an attempt to regulate the emotions of others, at an extrinsic/interpersonal level. Emotional regulation represents a technique that can enable individuals to alter their feelings, according to what emotions they think would be most appropriate for a situation.

If we were to continue our example, that being the tennis player about to begin the match point for the 5th set of the game. The first question we might ask is: What type of emotion would the player most benefit from? While tennis requires some level of alertness and vigilance, the sport simultaneously demands some extent of composure and the ability to make decisions effectively. Therefore, feeling relaxed is going to be important as to avoid stiffness and tension influencing skill execution (e.g. a drop shot). At the same time, feeling energetic is going to be useful as it will reinforce the perspective that the player is ready to react to changes in the rally and respond effectively.

When we discuss the quality of our emotions, we refer to how emotions are experienced. Meaning, how does the emotion affect us, in terms of the way feel mentally and physically, and the experiences that come about as a result of the emotion? For instance, when the tennis player feels relaxed what does that mean for their physicality and arousal? How does feeling relaxed influence that specific tennis player, do they feel more or less confident about their game for example? One emotion may affect two people differently, so when we discuss the quality of an emotion we have to consider the uniqueness of an emotion and the distinctiveness of the athlete in question.

Time simply refers to when an emotion starts and how long it lasts. If we continue our example with relaxation let’s consider questions such as: When does the feeling begin? What factors begin the initiation of the emotion? And how long does the emotion last? Is there anything that marks the termination of the feeling? The timing of an emotion is an important feature, especially if it’s the match point of the 5th set. Should an emotion peak too early or too late, it could be the difference between hitting a good shot or a bad shot, winning or losing a point, and, ultimately, being the champion. If it’s a crucial moment in the game, then being relaxed at the right time might be the decisive factor for that tennis player.

Finally, the intensity of an emotion is essentially how strong the emotion is, and to some degree how it feels. Sometimes, when an emotion has a strong influence, because its intensity is high, it can be advantageous or it can be disadvantageous. Similarly, when an emotion has a low intensity impact, and its strength is minimal, this can also provide an advantage or disadvantage during a performance event. So understanding what level of intensity is most effective for the athlete in question is an important factor. Perhaps, because of the need for alertness, agility, and speed, a low intensity feeling of being relaxed is optimal for this hypothetical tennis player. In which case, if the feeling of relaxation is too strong the tennis player may feel tired, lethargic and unresponsive (not an ideal state of mind for a tennis player – even during a practice session).

In summary, when addressing how to go about using emotional regulation to improve our performance, it is important to consider how we’re going to regulate the type, quality, time and intensity of our emotions.

Changing our situation

Sometimes, we can do ourselves a favour by choosing or avoiding a particular situation based on the expected emotional impact. The goal being, to increase the likelihood of a desirable emotional state occurring. However, during sport performance there is often very little that can be done to change the environment and the situational factors that surround us. For the tennis player, the extent of control they posses in regard to the situation their in is very limited. Factors such as the temperature, the performance of their opponent, the atmosphere of the crowd (if there are any), the umpire’s decision-making, whether or not they’re on their backhand or forehand side, and the wind direction, are all fairly uncontrollable and any attempts made by the player to alter or avoid these circumstances would be quite futile. So only in some contexts can we actually exert some control over the situation. Perhaps, for example, in our warm-up routine, during practice, in-between points, during breaks, or when skill execution is independent of the opponent’s actions (e.g. when the tennis player is serving) can we actually change our situation to some extent. For instance, if the tennis player is more confident playing a slice serve, and in executing this shot the player feels more comfortable and less anxious about the situation and how it might transpire, then they might consciously make an effort to use a slice serve more often. Wherein they would be changing the situation because the expected emotional impact is more positive. Equally, the tennis player might opt for a slice serve because they’re less confident executing a kick serve. And when they set up for a kick serve they feel more anxious and uneasy, and generally less confident about their chances of winning the point. In that instant, the tennis player is avoiding a particular situation because they fear the expected emotional impact will be negative, and might disadvantage the player during the point.

Confrontation vs. Avoidance

The previous passage illuminates the (almost) eternal struggle that we face on a day-to-day basis, whether to confront or avoid what we fear to experience. Should we confront the situation we dread, we would almost certainly be required to withstand the unpleasant emotions that would ultimately arise, along with a sense of increased pressure. And if we are to run away from our problems, to the extent that we won’t have to experience discomfort, we may never truly grow or move on from what holds us back. Of course, these two options paint a black and white picture, and often in our lives, our circumstances are rarely that clear.

Though, as a Sport & Exercise Psychologist, rarely would I encourage the latter of the two. As far as I go, avoidance is merely a coping strategy that leads to short-term results, it protects us from having to deal with anxiety-provoking thoughts, feelings, or situations. Albeit, avoidance is not progressive, and in some cases, only facilitates further rumination. So, while in the short-term avoidance can feel particularly rewarding, it comes with a price. The price being, the longer we run the more we build something up on the inside, which likely leads to increased perceptions of pressure in relation avoiding circumstances we know make us feel anxious. For instance, I know golfers who will go on long bouts of avoiding certain shots, or using a particular club, or taking part in specific competitions. While this makes them feel comfortable, and at ease, they know truly that in their endeavour to remain undisturbed and avoid risk, they cannot grow or improve their game. And when they are met with scenarios they don’t feel comfortable in, they panic, their thoughts are scrambled, and often, unfortunately, the increased pressure means that their performance execution suffers. And as a result, these golfers become angry and frustrated, about nothing else but themselves. They actually blame themselves for trying to confront what they were trying to avoid. So the process repeats itself, and the golfers continue to avoid these situations, in what feels like a continuing self-punishing circle. And these circles only make the individuals feel worse about their game, their confidence is shattered, and their self-concept deteriorates. So, when I’m talking to athletes, and the conversation comes round to confronting anxiety-provoking substances, whether it be on the pitch, during practice, at home, while out and about, or talking with their coach, I will always encourage people to confront their worries. Because avoidance will only work for so long, if it works at all.

Now, confrontation isn’t all as fun as it sounds. While progressive, and a positive response to any situation, confrontation can be scary, intimidating, and not to mention, particularly stimulating and pressurising. Over thousands of years we as humans have developed an evolutionary response to danger, what has been considered our ‘fight or flight’ response. Which means that, when faced with a difficult scenario, which makes us feel uncomfortable, typically our instinctive reaction is to fly, or in other words, avoid what we fear. While this adaptive response was probably beneficial for homo sapiens some 100,000 years ago, in present day, it might be thought of as a hardwired maladaptive response. Consequently, it can be very difficult to override such a feeling, so sometimes we must be aware of this, and acknowledge that while we feel like we should avoid this situation we ought to really confront our feelings and be investigative in regard to our circumstances. One way that we can do this, for us to confront a situation that we perceive as negative, is to indulge in the practice of mindfulness. Like our ‘fight or flight’ response, the practice of mindfulness has been around for thousands of years, and while its background is not evolutionary it has proven to have many psychological and physiological benefits to its users. A large component of mindfulness is the awareness of ‘the self’, and its distinction between our thoughts and feelings. To this end, our thoughts and feelings do not represent or reflect any characteristics of ‘the self’, ‘the self’ being the individual and their spirit. Instead, mindfulness is about interpreting emotions as though they are separate from ‘the self’, and while they have their influence on us, they are merely private transient events. Suddenly, ‘the self’ becomes ‘the observer’, whereby any emotions, feelings or sensations are simply observed and acknowledged by the individual.

For instance, imagine you are sat within a crowd located inside a theatre. You, or ‘the self’ are part of the audience. Your role is ‘the observer’, you are the audience and you watch the show in the theatre. Meanwhile, your emotions, such as anxious thoughts, apprehension, irrational beliefs, and frustration represent ‘the act’. Now ‘the act’ enters the stage, plays their part, then exits the stage, nothing more, nothing less. While on stage, ‘the act’ may stimulate the audience, including you, ‘the self’, which makes you and the audience feel in a particular way, perhaps its in a good way, perhaps its not. Perhaps, when on stage, ‘the act’ makes you feel under pressure, an uncomfortable feeling. Regardless, ‘the act’ is only on stage for so long, maybe ‘the act’ is on the stage for a very short while, or maybe a lot longer. But, ultimately, ‘the act’ will always exit the stage. And while you, the audience, are made to feel a certain way as a result of ‘the act’, it’s not permanent and will eventually come to pass.

This theatre stage example is trying to represent something called cognitive defusion. Cognitive defusion represents a perspective whereby we look at the thoughts we have, in contrast to, looking from the thoughts we have. As far as being mindful is concerned, our thoughts rarely represent truth or objective reality, and in fact, our perceptions of reality are very fallible. As a result, any thought we have about ourselves, of others, or certain situations, cannot be perceived as real, or representing the truth. Of course these thoughts are occurring, that’s definitely real, but what those thoughts tell us (e.g. “you’re not good enough”, “you can’t make this penalty kick”, “you don’t belong on this team”) are typically not true, and often self-deceiving.

So, when we confront a situation we have been avoiding, a situation that sparks anxious thoughts, worries, and negative beliefs, being mindful can allow us to detach ourselves from those toxic labels. While these negative sensations may still take place, they do not have a hold over us, and while we acknowledge that they are happening, we are able to calmly draw our attention back towards task-relevant cues. Mindfulness makes no attempt to cover up, fight against, or ignore negative experiences, rather, mindfulness teaches its students to come to terms with them. And to be able to gently direct attention away from negative, distractive thoughts, and towards details that are more conducive to better performance. And, importantly, when we are mindful, we are relaxed, so practicing mindfulness is a positive way of managing feelings of pressure. Although, mindfulness takes practice, it is not something that can be learnt quickly, since the mind is so hardwired to process thoughts like it does naturally and time is required for those processes to be adapted. Fortunately, there is a lot of material online, such as mindfulness meditations, that can help guide people towards perceiving their sensations differently. Alternatively, you can get in touch with me, using my contact details on this website, and I can personally teach you to be more mindful on a one-to-one basis. The goal being, so that we can confront difficult situations, that make us feel pressure, rather than trying to avoid them. Please do not hesitate to get in touch!

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