If you want to consistently play your best when it counts the most, then the one mental skill you must master is how to stay loose and relaxed (and a little excited) under pressure. The very best athlete in the world will falter and under-achieve if he/she gets too nervous before or during their performance. Tight muscles don’t work well. They ‘ll cause you to fatigue prematurely, they’re more vulnerable to injury, will wreck your mechanics and throw your timing off.
What can you do to develop the skill of staying cool and calm in the clutch?
Learn to control your breathing: One of the very first places that nervousness expresses itself in your body is in your breathing. When you get uptight, your breathing begins to get progressively faster and shallower. That is, it moves from slow and even in your lower belly to faster as it moves up into your upper chest and throat. Those athletes who “choke” under pressure are either unknowingly holding their breath or barely breathing from their throat.
By slowing down and deliberately lowering your breathing into your diaphragm, you can train yourself to calm down when you’re getting nervous. Try the following exercise:
Inhale slowly through your nose to a slow, but comfortable count of four, being sure to fill your lower belly with the air. Hold your breath to a comfortable count of four. Then slowly exhale through your mouth to a comfortable count of six. Repeat this sequence, being sure that you remain comfortable throughout, without getting light-headed. If you find yourself getting dizzy then adjust your count both on the inhale and exhale until you feel more comfortable.
Practice this exercise daily, perhaps right before bedtime for 5 to 10 minutes at a time. This kind of regular practice will soon enable you to get really good at calming yourself down quickly. Without regular practice, you’ll never learn to master the breathing pattern and will be more vulnerable to hyperventilating should you remember to try this when you’re in a highly pressured situation.