Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Pressure: Causes, Effects, and Coping

So very often athletes come into my office telling me that they're feeling "pressure"-often it begins as this nebulous feeling where there is no distinctive origin. I usually spend some amount of time with the athlete to assist in determining exactly "who and where is it coming from?".  What I still find surprising is that they struggle to find origins of these negative feelings, at least at first. Typically, when an athlete seeks outside support, pressure to perform has been present for an extended period of time and regularly interferes with their performances and in some cases-their relationships and daily lives. 
The good news is, while there is some stress (often of more positive nature) associated with being an athlete, managing pressure feelings is a skill that can be learned. 
First, an athlete must search to identify what induces or 'triggers' feeling of pressure. Is it self-induced, from a coach, parent, significant other? Knowing the source is important. Sometimes the sources are multiple. Sometimes the pressure lies within the athlete themselves. It’s a tangled web, but it can be worked through one step at a time.
Next, what does being "under pressure" look and feel like? This response is different depending on who you ask. Does the athlete fret over mistakes? Are there exchanges of heightened or unrealistic expectations with others? Are the athlete or coach's standards unrealistic? How does the stress manifest: inhibited concentration, somatic (bodily), or in general enjoyment of the sport? How do the feelings of pressure affect mood? 
Also, what does the athlete say to themselves that perpetuates this negative cycle? "Don't mess up", "I don't know if I can do this", or "coach/mom/dad will be mad if I don't succeed" are common negative internalized messages that hinder performance.
Once some possible triggers and awareness have been identified and sorted out, the athlete can start to counter these negative thinking patterns. A simple exercise is to "check in" with their thought patterns during a game or practice with what their thinking of, and insert a positive message when they usually are   and negative.  Use of deep breathing and a few minutes of relaxation is also recommended, especially before competition and when the athlete begins to feel most stressed. 
Over time and with practice, these techniques can help a great deal with athlete perspective and creates a greater sense of control of a situation. 
Countering pressure is a process, but a process worth undertaking

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