A famous sports psychologist beautifully illustrated the physiology of what happens when we are under pressure. Place a 12 foot long 2 X 8 piece of wood on the ground, and ask one of your players to run across it. What happens? That player doesn’t even think twice. He or she says, “No problem,” and runs across the board with ease and enjoyment. Now take this same 2 X 8 and raise it 8 feet by stretching it across two ladders and ask that same player to run across. What happens?
The player now slows down and thinks through each step and consequently, under-performs. What changed? The thought process of the player. Rather than staying focused on the process (which remains the same in both scenarios), the players focus shifts to potential outcomes: “what if I fail?”
When we find ourselves in high pressure situations, our brain begins to think ahead and simulate potential outcomes. This can be, and has been, a vicious cycle for many players.
How do you manage it?
When players are playing at their best, their focus is in the moment and not on the potential outcome. John Wooden, a legendary NCAA basketball coach said, “I don’t worry about winning and losing [outcomes]; I worry about practicing details that give us the win [process].”
This is why practice is so important (…we talkin’ about practice?). When you practice extremely hard and focus on the details, you develop your concentration muscle. This will help avoid the fictitious outcome being played out in your head when the stakes are high.
When Michael Jordan was asked about his nerves of steel when it came to taking game winning shots, he said, (and I’m paraphrasing) ‘when I practice, I practice with an intensity that would simulate game like conditions. So, when it comes time to take a shot with a lot of pressure tied to it, I’m relying on muscle memory.’ I can’t even begin to stress how powerful this mindset is.
You can’t allow yourself to focus on the future or on potential outcomes. Not only does it not help you, it destroys you. Focus on processes that allow you to be your best. Some might refer to this as being in the zone, I say it’s being in the now.