How do I deal with the (often crushing) mental pressure to perform?

Some of us may have experienced that feeling. The one that keeps us sleepless, occupies our thoughts at inappropriate times, and leaves us stressed out, irritable, or depressed. It can make us feel physically ill, incapable of performing like we know we can, and influence our judgement (usually for the worse). It’s the little voice in your head that keeps asking what you don’t want to think about, and telling you want you don’t want to hear.

Most people simply call it “pressure”. It can be applied on us by others, but most of the time it comes from within our own mentalities. And it can be absolutely crushing.

Some of us try to deal with this pressure alone, and may buckle under the weight of it. Some of us deal with it by talking about it with others. What often becomes apparent is that the more we talk about it, the more we see where the pressure is coming from: worrying about not meeting our own expectations, or the expectations of others (who are often not athletes).

But what are these expectations about, really?

What “experts” want us to do

Psychology is the study of the individual psyche. Sports psychology, a field of study that is rapidly expanding, has studied mental pressure at length. One thing that has been under the magnifying glass of sports psychologists is the concept of “choking under pressure”. This meams that you are objectively capable of performning well, and you try to do so, but you get the opposite: a bad performance. They have found that there are four main pressures that can usually be blamed for this outcome: the fact that it is a competition, the presence of spectators or an audience, the potential rewards and punishments associated with your performance, and how much of your ego is bound to the performance.

It’s therefore not surprising that almost all sports psychology methods promote different methods for you to focus intensely on yourself – the one thing truly within your control. Modern sports psychologists are largely fixated on how you can achieve a state of mind that allows optimal performance through these methods. And when they mean performance, they mean things like the automatic execution of skilled tasks, or keeping focused on the pitch. This sounds good, and in many ways is. If you can perform to your best, then you are challenging others as best you can – the essence of Postulate 6.

What they don’t mean about performance is how you in your role as an athlete understand, interact with, and are experienced by other athletes (and sometimes even non-athletes). These aren’t things that are entirely within your control, and that’s where psychology begins to become less useful.

Why other approaches are needed

It’s important to remember that we are not simply individuals playing the same game, and maximize focus on ourselves. As members of our Society, we’re just as invested in how our fellow members thrive and succeed – including when they are our challengers. This requires another approach – that of sociology. It is the study of social relationships and institutions, the social causes of our behaviour, and also their consequences.

A sociological rationale might look like this: Whenever we do sport, we are contributing to our Society. If we do it well (for example, by embracing the postulates), then we are making our Society grow and thrive. Doing it well isn’t solely reliant upon our results, or even that we gave our best performance technically or physically. It’s about our willingness to participate, to challenge and accept challenges, and thereby understand our fellow athletes better. It brings us closer together and binds us to a greater purpose, in which we all mutually invested.

Looked at it in this way, there is very little pressure in the sporting challenge. Sure, we must push ourselves in training and in competition to be the best challenger we can be. But, there should be a great deal more mental anguish for an athlete when contemplating not being a part of it, no matter where we are in our fitness, performance, or experience level. If we are not part of it, if we do not seek it out, then we are not building our Society.

Philosophy as therapy

Mental training and sports psychologists can help us in some ways, certainly. But a solid, ground-level philosophy about why are you in the contest is arguably a much more useful starting point. It is also something that you can come back to as often as you like to regain your focus (and calm). It will help you remember what you are contributing to; that you are part of something much bigger than yourself. Most importantly, it will determine how your fellow athletes will think of and remember you: not as a result (whether good or bad), but as someone they know, understand, appreciate, and emulate. Someone they want to have next to them when the contest begins.

Put that into your mantra and say it three times in front of the mirror every morning.