by Jeff Greenwald, M.A., MFT; sports psychologist
I've been asked how the best players in the world compete so well when the stakes are so high.
"How do athletes deal with the stress with so much on the line?"
Answer: They learn to thrive in it.
Do you know what Pete Sampras told Inside Tennis after his retirement when asked what he missed the most about the game?
He said, "I miss the feeling of being so nervous that I would throw up before the finals of Wimbledon."
We've all felt like that before. Our stomach in knots with anticipation.
But can you say that you would MISS that feeling?
That's what separates the novice from the pros...the response to the nerves.
However, if you have motivation and are open to experiences, you too, can master these situations like a pro.
1 Idea: Find Pleasure in Pressure
To find pleasure in pressure there are three conditions that must be met:
- You know the situation is temporary, and though you will face discomfort, discomfort doesn’t have to be feared.
- You believe that you have options (you have some control over the process and the outcome).
- You have a tool or strategy that you've used before and you know it is helpful (you find that designated spot on the fence to shift your attention AWAY from yourself and allow your mind to reset in the present).
Brad Gilbert and I talked about a variety of strategies on how you can deal with nerves and pressure on his Winning Uglier podcast last week. To listen to the full episode, click here.
1 Anecdote: Pressure at the SAP Open with Lleyton Hewitt Watching. What Can You Learn From This?
So, Imagine being on a stadium court with all of your peers watching you play in the finals of the club championships.
How would you feel?
I had a pressure moment like this in 2007.
I am in the 2nd round of qualifying at the SAP Open playing against Jeff Morrison, who recently won the NCAA in college and was just outside the top 100 in the world on the ATP Tour. He's 23 years old.
I'm 37 years old, 14 years his senior.
On the side of the court watching are Lleyton Hewitt (who was No. 1 in the world just a few years earlier) and a number of other top players and coaches on the tour.
It is the first game of the match and they stroll in right before we start the match. I see them out of the corner of my eye.
"Really," I think. "Hewitt is here. What the hell?"
Morrison has about a 120 MPH serve, but clearly I’m distracted and I can feel the shadows all around me. Let’s just say that my body isn’t quite as flexible!
For the first time in my life, I watch four consecutive bullets blow past me. Yes, I'm aced four times in a row!
I take a very big gulp. For a split second my mind races, "This is embarrassing."
I see and feel the deep rabbit hole waiting for me as the shadow's claws reach for me.
But, I side step the hole and the endless fall--one I've experienced more often than I'd like to admit.
But, then, instinctively, thanks to my studies and years of trial and error using the tools I learned in my sport psychology graduate program, and changes I'd witnessed in so many clients, I choose to smile.
Why? I now know it releases a chemical in our brain called serotonin. It also ignites the parasympathetic nervous system that will, metaphorically, pour water on the fire.
I go on to win the set 6-2. Then, Lleyton invites me to play doubles with him at the US Open. Just kidding. That would have been cool though....
Next time you are in a situation that feels like high pressure--and either your mind is racing or your body is beginning to tense up--remember that you chose to be in this moment and you can control how you respond. Regardless of the outcome, you will be better for it.
When your nervous system screams at you to hide, give yourself that subtle little smile as if to say, "Yeah, but I wouldn't want to be anywhere else."
I share the exact methods I have used to stay mentally strong under pressure in my online course.
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