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For sports professionals, performing on the biggest stages goes hand in hand with pressure in sports; just ask Andy Murray. So how best to deal with high expectations?

One of the underlying causes that can prevent an athlete from reaching their ideal or peak performance state is a perfectionist nature or personal high expectations. While being a perfectionist does have its motivational advantages, it can lead to intrinsic or self-imposed internal pressure and along with it frustration can manifest.

Managing expectations, pressure and controlling anxiety so one is ‘free’ to perform are fundamental requirements for any player. There are many cases where athletes have reported they had limited or neutral expectations and pressure going into competition and excelled in performance.

Pressure can come in many different forms, these could be extrinsic pressures for tour professionals, such as maintaining or improving rankings, winning a major, maintaining a high level of performance or balancing sponsorship commitments.

Excessive pressure can also lead to a manifestation of anxiety or nerves. There 
are two types of anxiety, notably cognitive anxiety (anxiety of the mind) and somatic anxiety (of the body), both of which can affect behaviour or performance. Cognitive anxiety is more to do with internal thoughts, expectations and perceptions, and how the player interprets situations. Examples of this are concern, worry, fear and self-doubt in performance. Increased cognitive anxiety (in the mind) can cause poor decision making on the court. For example, an anxious tennis player may be overly defensive and cautious when there are opportunities to attack. It can also hinder reaction time and anticipation and your ability to process and recall vital information that you and your coach may have talked about before a match.

Hidden pitfalls of somatic anxiety can be an increase in muscular tension or a feeling of being heavy-legged which can impact upon fluidity of movement in the stroke, serve or movement around the court.

In very high pressure situations, the body can go into ‘fight or flight’ mode. The fight or flight mode releases adrenaline and other chemicals around the body when we are fearful or are in danger. This is because an area of the brain called the amygdala – which houses fear – fires a signal to freeze what we’re doing and wants us to get of there quick! This ‘fight or flight’ response 
is a great friend to protect us and ensures survival of the human race, but this function isn’t as helpful for tennis or indeed any high pressure sporting situation.

The amygdala constantly scans and searches for new triggers and situations and compares against old ones. If the player perceives an opponent or new situation as threatening, the amygdala fires a signal to avoid this situation. Physical symptoms are then instantly produced, such as rapid heart rate, increase in blood pressure, muscular tension and shallow breathing.

Of course, not all anxiety is doom and gloom, certain amounts of anxiety or nerves can act positively in the build-up to competition; increasing motivation, desire, effort and to a certain point can help the athlete reach his or her desired level of productive competitive intensity. There is, however, a fine line and too much anxiety and pressure can cause obvious or hidden pitfalls in performance and in recovery.

Managing expectations and pressure are therefore key to performance and the mind and body interaction must be monitored regularly. One effective way is through fully profiling the athlete in a variety of situations, the second is via the use of biofeedback and neurofeeedback which enables tangible evidence to be presented to the athlete about their muscular tension, stress levels and brain states.

by Louise Ellis BASES Accredited Sports Psychologist & Performance Consultant, www.louiseellis.com

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