Play Your BEST Under Pressure

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Play Your BEST Under Pressure

By Jane Crowshaw, CEC

Unlocking the key to performance is learning to handle pressure. Whether heading out onto the court, the course or a corporate presentation, you look forward in anticipation to testing your skills, making a difference, and doing your best.  And in a perfect world this would be the case. However, what typically happens for many individuals is the recurring experience of that familiar scenario when your performance does not hold up under pressure. And this, my friends, is where the plot thickens.

Most people can identify when they choked or feel triggered in certain situations. It happens to everyone, even the pros. The question is less about ‘if’ you get nervous or tentative, but more about what you will do ‘when’ this happens. You know this is happening to you when you feel as though something in your performance is letting you down.  You feel it in your hands, your legs, and maybe your gut. It’s as if your mind and body are experiencing some recurring flashback of a less than desirable performance state.

Triggers are very personal; different things trigger different people. They can be anything from your external (people, situations) or internal (self talk) environment. You know you are triggered because your emotional state has shifted from focused to worried or agitated.  Your job now becomes stopping this downward negative spiral as soon as possible and to get your game back on track.

It’s not important to analyze and dissect your performance at this point. Many may disagree, but what you want to do is focus on what you want and keep it simple doing so. Figure out what you want, believe you can do it, and connect with the confidence of possibility. Yes, that simple. This is called making a positive mental correction and maintaining balance in your mental state.

Everyone must be able to identify their top triggers. Most of us have at least one trigger, maybe more, that can interfere with your best performance.  By identifying your triggers, you significantly increase your chances of making sustainable correction and change. The most useful correction is your ability to use cue words and phrases that support what you want.

Warning: this takes practice just like everything else you have done to excel in your sport.

What is a cue word or phrase?

A cue word or phrase is a short statement you say to yourself to refocus your concentration. Cue words or phrases help you to stop negative and distracting thoughts that impact your performance. It is important to assign a cue word or phrase to your specific trigger.  These statements should be:

    1. Personal – You need to find a cue word or phrase that works for you! Take time to think about a word or short phrase that connects you to confidence and self belief.
    1. Positive – To be effective in refocusing after mistakes, a cue word or phrase should be positive. Focus on what you want; do not spend time criticizing yourself or replaying the mistake.
  1. Short – The ideal cue word or phrase allows you to quickly refocus but does not interfere with the necessary thoughts during performance. As mentioned earlier, some athletes prefer a single word such as “focus”, or a command word such as ‘finish’, while others use a short personal statement such as “I got this.”

How do cue words or cue phrases work during competition?

Using a cue word or phrase for refocusing during competition is not difficult but does take practice. Using a refocusing cues in combination with a deep or centering breath allows you to refocus and decrease muscle tension caused by anxiety. So how does this work? When you find yourself unfocused or unable to refocus after an error, execute the following steps:

Step 1 – When you feel triggered – PAUSE – stop and consider a new approach. Once you recognize you are triggered, stay connected to your body. If you fail to do so you will likely default back to the body / muscle memory that keeps you stuck.

Step 2 –  Now Breathe – inhale a breath through your nose lasting a count of 4, hold the breath for 1-2 seconds, and exhale the breath through your mouth lasting a count of 4.

Step 3 –  Rather than focus your attention on what is not working, state your refocusing cue word or phrase in your mind for purposes of creating what you want.  This strategy pushes the mistake out of the forefront, and a positive replacement is inserted.

Step 4 – Keep using your cue word or phrase to help you make and engrain the correction. You cannot hold two thoughts at the same time, so it’s your choice which one you will wire.  Wire what you want.

Step 5 –  And don’t forget to keep breathing.  It is suggested in through the nose and out thought the mouth for the fastest calming effect.

Some skeptics might believe using cue words is a waste of time, but they likely have not had the discipline to follow through with this strategy. Cue words and phrases can be incredibly effective and very worth the effort. When you are under pressure, it’s your job to remember what you want, and cue words are helpful as they often serve as mini reminders.

Cue words and phrases help you stay in the moment. That is where high performance lives and thrives. Generally, when you focus on outcomes then your mind is in the future. And sometimes our mind is in the future worried about repeating the past.  When you focus your mind on the process, on what you want in the moment, then you are best prepared for your best performance, and cues keep you in the here and now.

There is a wise old saying; ‘nothing changes if nothing changes’.  What this means for many is that if it feels as though something in your performance is not working, then you must take it upon yourself to commit to changing something, anything is better than doing nothing. Really, what have you got to lose except another frustrating and disappoint day when you are actually meant to be enjoying yourself. Your choice! It’s surely worth a try.