In Attitude


Staying cool in the clutch. Handling the pressure of the “big one!”

Is choking a most frequent, yet unwelcome houseguest when you compete? Do you have a maddening habit of stealing defeat from the jaws of victory? Are runaway nerves sending your performances embarrassingly off-track? Do you feel that when it comes to handling pressure you’re a “mental midget?” If you answer “yes” to any of these questions, then chances are pretty good that a little relaxation/mental skills training might be just what the Doctor ordered. One of the major reasons that so many athletes and teams perform a whole lot better in practice or the less important competitions than they do when it counts the most is because of an inability to effectively manage the stress. The next two issues of the Mental Toughness Newsletter will address the topic of how to stay cool in the clutch.


“A practical intro to staying cool & calm in the clutch.”

It’s not the best athlete or team that always wins! Instead it’s the athlete or team that is best able to maintain their composure and stay calm under the heat of intense competitive pressure that is most always successful. Simply put, if you can’t consistently control your nervousness before and during performance, then you will always underachieve. If you’ve ever choked before, then you painfully know what I mean. The good news here is that runaway nervousness is not a genetic disorder! It’s not a personality trait! There are specific reasons why you get uptight and equally specific strategies that you can learn to prevent this from happening. Just because you’ve turned into Jell-O and melted down in the past does not mean that it needs to continue to happen. Contrary to what others may have said about you, you are not a hopeless head case!

First let’s start with a basic understanding of where those nasty nerves come from. Most athletes think that what makes them nervous is the size, skill level or reputation of the opponent, how big the game or race is, the size of the crowd, the college or pro scouts in the stands, the officiating, or the game situation when you go in. While these factors may provide you with the opportunity to freak out, by themselves they do NOT cause your nervousness. If you really believe that these external factors make you
nervous, then you will always be at their mercy and have no real control. The fact of the matter is that you do have control! So if these external factors don’t cause your nervousness, then who is the real culprit here? Brace yourself for this one. You are! You cause your own nervousness by two things:

#1- What you say to yourself about the opponent, the game, the crowd, the scouts, etc. and #2 What you focus on before and during your performance.

#1 Self-talk: It’s your self-talk about the competitive situation you’re in that ultimately ends up generating your internal stress. The good news about this fact is that you are the one in control. Therefore you can learn to change your internal dialogue and as a result, learn to stay cool in the clutch.

The coach looks down the bench for a go-to-guy and gives you the nod. You trot onto the field and into the huddle swallowing a little too hard. This is a must-do, game-deciding play. You know the ball is coming your way and you start to think, “Oh God, what if I blow it here? What if I miss my assignment? What if I drop the ball? Then we’ll lose and it’ll be my fault! Coach will never let me play another down for the rest of my life!” Is this a stressful situation? Yes! However, this kind of thinking will get you too uptight to play well and, in a cruel twist of fate, will cause your worst fears to actually come true!

#2 Focus: One of the major causes of stress is focusing on the “UC’s” or uncontrollables before or during the performance. An uncontrollable is anything that is directly out of your control. When you go into a competitive situation and concentrate on an uncontrollable you’ll get nervous, lose your confidence and then perform poorly. Examples of UC’s are the playing conditions, weather, crowd, the play of your teammates, other people’s expectations, your coach and how much playing time you get, the ref’s, everything about your opponent (their size, speed, skills, reputation, character, etc), anything in the past (mistake, loss, failure, or last time you played this team) and the “what if’s” or anything in the future (winning, losing, qualifying, not getting playing time, your expectations, etc.).

Yesterday I spoke with a college soccer player, a back, who was worried that she might lose the ball as she transitioned from defense to offense. Instead of focusing on moving the ball up field, beating her opponent and looking for cutting teammates, she focused on “UC’s”, I may lose the ball (future), the coach will be upset if I screw up (coach and future), I’ll let everyone down (other’s expectations). Her defense was always strong because she consistently focused on things that she could control, i.e. closing down her opponent, making the right moves, the ball and just flowing with whatever the attacker does.

To stay calm under pressure, you must first learn to monitor your self-talk and focus so that you do not let the “uncontrollables” have much “airtime” in your head. This means that you have to be able to recognize when your thoughts or focus are negative and/or on a “UC” and then quickly return your self-talk and focus to things in the performance that are positive and that you can control. The key, two-part skill here is R & R, recognize and return. Keep in mind that negative thinking and a focus on UC’s won’t hurt you as long as you do not let them play in your head for long. You must quickly catch yourself (Recognize) and then bring yourself back (Return) to the proper focus. Learning to “read” your level of nervousness. Once you have some understanding of where your stress actually comes from you then want to learn to “read yourself” nervousness- wise. To do this you must understand that there are three different kinds of nervousness that you can experience prior to competition: “Not enough nervous”; “Good nervous”; and “Bad nervous.” “Not enough nervous” means that athletes aren’t up for the performance. They don’t care, they’re bored or are over-confident. If you go into a performance in the state of “not enough nervous” your play will be flat and uninspired. Simply put, you can’t perform well if you’re too relaxed. A little bit of nervousness and adrenaline are critical for a good performance. In “Bad nervous”, athletes are over-amped, so-to-speak. They are much too nervous, excited or physiologically aroused. This means that the butterflies they’re experiencing are carnivorous. In Bad Nervous, athletes frequently dread the performance and can’t wait for it to end. They’re plagued by self-doubts and negative thinking. They may feel sick to their stomach and even throw up before the start. Or they may have made the performance so important in their head that they press and try too hard. Good nervous is that state you get into just before your best performances.

You are excited, looking forward to the game and feeling loose, confident and ready. You may have butterflies in your stomach but they’re vegetarians and always flying in formation. The question that comes up here is how do you know which kind of nervousness you’re in? How can you tell the difference between these three kinds of nervousness? The way that you “read yourself” is by understanding that nervousness shows up in three different ways: In your mind (how you think); In your body (how you feel); and In your behaviors (how you act). As athletes go from “not enough” to “bad” nervous, their thinking, physical feelings and behaviors change accordingly. Homework: The very best way for you to get a workable handle on the differences between your “good”, “bad” and “not enough” nervous is by closely reviewing past performances in the following way: Pick 2-3 great performances. These will clue you into your signs of “good nervous.” Try to recall what you were feeling right before the start. What was going on in your body? Did you have butterflies. Was adrenaline pumping? Were you feeling loose? Did you have a stomachache? These are your physical signs of “good” nervous. Jot them down. Next, examine what you were thinking right before these great performances. What kind of self-talk did you entertain? Was it positive, negative or completely absent? Were you focusing on the performance or thinking about something completely unrelated? Did you have any self-doubts? These thoughts represent your mental signs of “good nervous.” Jot them down for each performance. Finally try to recall how you acted right before the start. Did you sit off by yourself and mentally rehearse? Did you jump around like a wild man/woman? Did you have “motor mouth?” The giggles? Were you chatting with friends or teammates? Did you carefully review your game plan or race strategy? These are your behavioral signs of “good” nervous. Write these down also. After you have done this for 2-3 great performances, see if you can notice a pattern in how you think, feel or act. This will give you some clues as to what your “good nervousness” really looks like. Next, repeat the same sequence for 2-3 really bad performances, times when you completely fell apart under pressure. What were you thinking right before and during the performance? These represent your mental signs of “bad nervous.” Jot them down. What were you physically aware of? These are your physical signs of “bad nervous.” How did you act right before the start? These are your behavioral signs of “bad nervous.” By comparing several really bad performances you may begin to see a pattern in how you thought, felt and acted. These represent all your signs of “bad nervous.” If appropriate, do the same exercise for performances where you were under-aroused or in “not enough nervous.” Most performance problems, however, are a result of over, not under arousal. If “not enough nervous” is an issue for you, then go through and see if you can determine what your signs are of this state. Your first line of defense in staying cool and calm in the clutch is learning how to “read” your level of nervousness. Once you become aware of the impending signs of “bad” or “not enough nervous”, you can do two things: First, begin to change your thoughts and actions so they mimic those of “good nervous.” Second, utilize one or more of the relaxation techniques which we will discuss in the next issue.


“Nervousness – How can you help?”

While it’s not necessarily your job to keep your child calm before the big game, (Remember, you are NOT the coach), there are some helpful things that you can do if, and only if your son/daughter is willing to listen.

#1 Stay calm yourself – Kids quickly pick up on the tension in their parents.
If you’re relaxed about their performance, it will be easier for them to be. Take a chill pill. Model relaxation for your kids.

#2 Keep the performance in perspective – Athletes choke if they make the game/match too important. Help your child understand that it’s only a game and that there will be plenty more. Keep the game in perspective yourself. Let them know that regardless of the outcome, they’ll still be eating dinner with you tonight. Don’t fall into the trap of getting yourself too invested in your child’s performance or goal.

#3 Behave appropriately at games – Stay in control at games. Don’t yell at the players, your kid or the officials. Don’t bad mouth the coach. Smile and cheer all the good efforts on both sides of the ball, not just your child’s side. Screaming, inappropriate parents kill the fun, make kids tense and ruin a child’s performance.

#4 Stress fun – If your child is having fun they will play to their potential. Try to emphasize that this is what competing is all about, the more fun, the better you perform. This means that you too must have fun.

#5 Keep your kids away from the “uncontrollables” – If they’ll listen to you, try to steer your child’s focus off of the things that they can’t control. This means you don’t talk about how big the game is, what’s at stake, why they have to beat a certain opponent, how bad the ref’s were in the last game, etc. Try to get your children focusing on the things that they can control, i.e. their performance, attitude, how they react to the “UC’s”, etc.

#6 Use humor – If a big game is coming up and your child is freaking, try using humor to calm them down. Getting them to laugh will quickly relax them. Doing something completely unexpected and perhaps silly may do the trick also.

#7 Speaking of distractions – One way to keep athletes away from the stress inducing “UC’s” and to calm them down is to consciously distract them. You can distract them with activities (movies, games, activities), friends, or by using your imagination. There are no limits to your creativity. Just help them change mental channels.

#8 Breathing is good – If your child hasn’t yet reached the stage where they think you know nothing, getting them to slow and deepen their breathing is a quick and effective way to calm them down. You can’t freak out and breathe from your diaphragm at the same time. Have them follow your lead and do a few minutes of deep, belly breathing.

#9 Give permission to fail – As discussed in Vol. 1, #3, fear of failure is a frequent source of nervousness for athletes. Help your child put this fear in perspective with the understanding that failure is a necessary prerequisite for success. Failure is nothing more than feedback on how to get better.

Therefore, you must respond to their failures in a constructive way. Don’t get angry with or disappointed in them when they fail. This will only make them worry more the next time they go out to compete. Teach them to forgive their mistakes and failings and to learn from them. Best way to do this?

Model it yourself and forgive their bad performances.

#10 Keep inappropriate thoughts and feelings to yourself – Let’s face it, we’re all human. You want your child to be happy and play well. Sometimes, when this doesn’t happen, your “evil twin” begins to whisper nasty things in your ear about the coach, the refs, the opponent or even your child. Watching your child compete can be emotionally evocative. Remember, you’re the adult. Be mature. Do not act out these inner feelings! Instead, keep them to yourself, smile and cheer! Sooner or later those nasty feelings will go away!

#11 Protect your child from overzealous coaches – if your child’s coach is one of the main sources of his/her stress, then you may be well advised to find another team. Not only must you do all 10 of the above strategies, but the coach must also. When coaches place too much emphasis on winning, make a child feel that failing is something to be avoided at all costs, yell and scream too much, have no perspective, focus kids on uncontrollables and are generally angry, nervous wrecks at games, then you can be sure your child will never stay calm under pressure, will hate their sport and will soon be a drop-out statistic.


“Training athletes to better handle competitive pressures.”

One of the biggest frustrations I hear from coaches is “why can’t he/she perform this way when it really counts?!! This kid has it all and is awesome in practice. Stick them in the big game/race and it’s like that movie, ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’, someone else shows up to play. They’re no longer aggressive, too tentative and make stupid mistakes! I just don’t understand it! I know there’s more pressure in the games, but why can’t they just do what they do in practice? And what can I do about this?” This is exactly what I hear from many of the athletes I chat with on the phone. The batter who hits great in BP but is stuck in a slump in games. The pitcher who can throw with uncanny accuracy and speed in the bullpen but loses it all on the walk to the mound. The “practice swimmer” or runner who always goes faster in practice than competition, or faster in an off event than in their best one. The tennis player who just can’t seem to close out the match. They play fine until they’re close to winning and then they melt-down.

So what’s up here? Simply explaining this problem away by saying there’s far more pressure in practice than in competitions is not only obvious but it isn’t very helpful. A more practical approach would be to try to understand exactly why athletes do better in practice. Perhaps then we can figure out a way to help them perform this same way when it counts the most.

Let me lay some theory on you here. Try not to lose consciousness! State bound learning theory says that the emotional/physiological state that you learn something in is important in your ability to reproduce those learned behaviors. English translation: If you take experimental rats and get them drunk (an emotional, physiological state), and then teach them how to run a maze, as long as they are in that intoxicated state they will know the maze and be able to successfully run it. However, if you let them sober up, (a very different emotional/physiological state) they no longer know the maze and fail to successfully navigate it.

This talk of alcohol naturally flows into our discussion of your athletes and teams. Practice is traditionally a very different emotional/physiological state for most athletes than is competition. There is much less pressure, less intensity, fewer negative consequences and more relaxation during daily workouts than on game day. The environment in practice is also very different. There are no harassing crowds in the stands, no refs making calls using Braille, no trash-talking opponents nor fair-minded media personalities waiting for a screw-up to post on their front page. However, all of this changes in competition and therefore so does the emotional/ physiological state of your athletes. The solution? You have to begin to shape portions of your practices so that they more closely simulate the same pressure and emotional states found in games/ matches/races. This is not a breathtakingly new concept. Coaches have done this for years. For example, the “two minute drill” in football simulates the pressure of being behind and needing a score with little time remaining on the clock.

The trick for you as a coach is to find creative ways of simulating or reproducing in practice, the pressured elements found in competitions. The more closely that you can match these two emotional/physiological states, the easier a transition your athletes will make moving from practice to games.

Let me give you an example.

Anson Dorrance, the controversy- beleaguered women’s soccer coach from the University of North Carolina, and one of the winningest D-I coaches in history has done an incredible job of bringing the emotional states of practice and competition together. Soccer is a game of individual duals.

To this end, Anson puts his players in what he calls a “competitive cauldron” from day 1 of practice. He has them compete against each other in conditioning, skill execution, sprints, small-sided games, etc. The results of these intra-team competitions are always posted so the players know where they stand. Playing time in games depends on their performance in practice. Many of his players claim that once they get to games they can really relax because there’s actually less pressure on them there.

Using a model like this, you have to be careful to maintain a sense of team. You want your athletes competing with their teammates with the understanding that this will make everyone stronger. In addition, it’s not realistic nor is it desired to constantly compete in practice. You have to allow low-pressured time for the learning of new skills and strategies. This can’t be done effectively if there’s too much stress. Think about your athletes and team right now. What are the things that send them over the edge into “bad nervous?” What are their “hot buttons,” the things that emotionally get them into trouble? Can you somehow integrate these elements into practice? Stress usually is a result of having to face the unfamiliar or unexpected. One way to train athletes to better handle stress is taking the unexpected and unfamiliar and making it familiar.

For example, a college basketball coach got sick and tired of listening to his ball players grousing about bad calls in games. Whenever this happened his team’s level of play would dramatically drop. To combat this he arranged special intra-squad scrimmages early in the season. The refs that he hired to call these games were instructed to be both inconsistent and incompetent, to call charging when there had been no contact and to sometimes ignore blatant fouls. His players were then instructed that their main job was to mentally get themselves back in the game right after a bad call. The complaining quickly stopped.

A football coach trained his players to better handle the stress and fatigue that always came in the fourth quarter by having his players run killer wind-sprints at the end of each and every practice. While they ran they had to chant, “the fourth quarter’s ours” and listen to him tell them over and over again that they were stronger, tougher, and mentally fitter than all the other teams in their league. Soon they began to believe it. They won over 90% of their games during that winning season in the fourth quarter. Many years ago the Russian national soccer team prepared for international competition by practicing in a stadium with deafening crowd noise playing on the loudspeakers replete with ethnic slurs. In the 80’s the University of Virginia men’s basketball team prepared for their first ever appearance in the Final Four by practicing in their home arena filled to capacity with rowdy students.

One additional concept to train your athletes to be calm under big-game pressure: Help them keep their focus off of the “uncontrollables.” Athletes and teams usually perform better in practice than competition because they have a different focus when it doesn’t count as much. In practice I usually find athletes concentrating on all the right things (feel, technique, good mechanics and their particular job). In competition, they unknowingly switch their focus to things that they can’t control like the outcome, whether or not they’ll get enough playing time, will you bench them if they mess up, what if they don’t win or play well, the opponent, the refs, past mistakes, etc. If you want to train mentally tough athletes, then you have to be sure that you’re not getting them focusing on any of these “UC’s.” Instead, keep them concentrating on the game and their job within the contest.


“Inside Choking”

Eric Namesnik, a 400IM’er realized a big dream in 1988 when he qualified for Olympic Trials. Having reached his goals he went into this pressure-packed competition completely relaxed. He had no expectations, (if you take your expectations into your game or race, you’ll end up stressing yourself out and performing way below your potential. Leave your goals in the locker room whenever you go out to compete). Being relaxed and loose (the ultimate secret to peak performance in any sport), Eric went out in the prelims and swam the second fastest time of the morning. He was ecstatic. He had just qualified for the evening finals and had a legitimate shot at making the US Olympic team.

Isn’t it interesting that you will always do your very best when you have absolutely nothing to lose, when you have no expectations and don’t pressure yourself. When you are pressure-free, you simply trust yourself and let the performance happen all by itself. Expectations get you into the “trying too hard” trap. They get you pressing and forcing your performance. “This is a big game and I gotta do well”, “I just have to do it! This is my last chance.” An alarm should go off in your head when this starts to get your attention before it’s too late.

This is where it all started to go downhill for Namesnik. Keep in mind, athletes don’t just choke in the performance. They really start the choking process long before the actual race, game or match begins. Your focus and thoughts about the performance, before the performance have everything to do with whether you soar with the eagles or gobble with the turkeys!

Between the finish of the morning heats and the evening finals Eric had plenty of time to think. He thought that all he needed to do to go to the Olympics was swim the same time he had in the A.M. The Olympics! Oh my God! He was actually going to go to The Olympics! Next, he started concentrating on exactly who his competition was in the final heat. He thought about their reputation, how fast they were, the big races they had won that year and the more he thought about them, the “bigger” they got in his mind and the smaller he felt. His confidence began to slide downhill. Thoughts about his opponents and the Olympics soon drove his stress level into the “red” or “self-destruct zone.” Focusing on the outcome and your opponents are the two key concentration mistakes that lead to a performance-busting stress reaction. In addition, Eric’s self-talk completely changed. In the morning, he had had no thoughts about the outcome, opponents or the Olympics. Now, like a misguided missile, his thoughts and focus were locked onto the “uncontrollables.”By the time the evening race rolled around he was a nervous wreck, totally “in awe” of the competition. The results? He choked and swam, over 3 seconds slower than in prelims! He failed to qualify but learned a very valuable, although painful lesson. He realized that he belonged in that race, that he was good enough to make the US team. However, he had blown it mentally.

Namesnik went on to qualify in both 92 and 96 winning silver metals at both Olympics. These races, while not producing a gold medal effort were both great races for him. And in both of these races he did not make the same mistake he had in 88.

Are you struggling with a performance difficulty or consistently underachieving, call me today. I can help!


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