How to Manage Performance Pressure?
As an athlete, the ability to remain calm and perform under pressure is probably one of the most important attributes to race day success. Athletes train for months, even years at a stretch, but often fail to live up to their potential on race day because of performance pressure — also known as performance anxiety. Even the best athletes in the world often suffer from performance pressure. The heat of the moment, the sense of the occasion, and the realization of what lies at stake often cause an athlete to panic, make irrational decisions, and rethink whether they are ready to conquer the challenge ahead. So the big question is — can we manage performance pressure? And can we harness it in a positive way? But before we explore that, let us first understand what triggers performance pressure.
The human body has two broad types of responses — the sympathetic and the parasympathetic response. During key moments, also known as “fight or flight” or “perform or perish” situations, the body triggers the sympathetic nervous system due to the sudden release of catecholamines, which lead to an adrenaline release. This adrenaline rush also triggers other responses such as acceleration of heart rate, dilation of blood vessels, and in some extreme cases, even shaking and tunnel vision (loss of peripheral vision).
Professional athletes, or seasoned runners, will find it easier to manage performance pressure because they have been in such situations several times in their careers. While an amateur runner might face jitters at the start of their first marathon, a seasoned runner knows how to adhere to a well-defined strategy.
As runners, we can follow a few basic tips to help perform well under pressure and for better management of performance anxiety.
Practice, practice, practice
As athletes, the safest way to manage performance pressure is to show up prepared. Your training phase is the most important part of the process. It will reinforce the fact that you are physically prepared to handle the task ahead. During key moments, you will be able to think back to those training sessions where you dug deep and pulled through. Consistent practice will help you.
Focus on your breathing
At several points in the race, you will feel bouts of performance anxiety. One simple way to manage these ebbs and flows is to take a moment to focus on your breath. When the mind wanders, try to simply bring the focus back. You can experiment with the 2-2-2 or 4-2-4 breathing technique (2-2-2 refers to 2 counts of breathing in, 2 counts of holding the breath, 2 counts of breathing out) during your runs to figure out which pattern works best for you.
Play it down
Another proven strategy to combat performance anxiety is to play down the situation in your mind. Try to think of the situation as “just another training run”. Remind yourself that you have trained hard for it, and only need to execute what you have already built over the training phase. After all, it’s all a part of sport!
Before important races or events, take some time to visualize the race. Imagine yourself running on the course. Imagine the pain — and imagine yourself embracing the pain with a lot of confidence. This will mentally set you up to better handle the situation on race day. Visualization is also used extensively by a lot of athletes as part of their mental training process.
Remember the why
Eventually, your body will hurt. At some point in the race, the pain will inevitably set in, and there will be some performance pressure. After all, we are only human. The beauty of big races and massive occasions is that they push you out of your comfort zone and help you transform into a more refined version of yourself. At such times, do take a moment to remind yourself why you are doing this. Think about the sweet taste of achieving your goals. After all, we all know what they say — pain is temporary, pride is… you know the rest.
To sum it up, you have various tools in your arsenal to combat the performance pressure that often builds up as you approach a race or an important event. Try some of the above techniques during your training or time trials to understand what works for you. After all, athletes can never fully eliminate performance pressure, they can only train themselves to manage it better.
1. Jansen AS, Nguyen XV, Karpitskiy V, et al. Central command neurons of the sympathetic nervous system: basis of the fight-or-flight response. Science 1995; 270: 644-6.
2. How cells communicate during the fight or flight response. University of Utah. https://web.archive.org/web/20130808004906/http://learn.genetics.utah.edu/content/begin/cells/fight_flight/ (accessed May 29, 2021).