It’s safe to say that the sport as a whole has evolved greatly with greater technical efficiency. Athletes are in the continuous search for improvement. Forever searching, analyzing, tweaking and testing. Picking up those key little 1 percenters here and there. It’s become almost an art form.
Even with all the preparation and training, as with all big stage competitions, what will be the likely defining element is not the science behind the sport (as these athlete’s aren’t machines). The tournament will be decided for the most part by how the players handle these pressure moments.
In all walks of sport, fans and spectators can list those defining moments when competitors capitalized or faulted under pressure. What they did in the clutch moments.
So, how can athletes perform under pressure?
The extensive analysis after these moments reminds us of the extreme pressure that sports players can so often face. There are few of us who could withstand that level of pressure and perform to our optimum ability. And yet time and time again these players perform incredible feats while the whole world watches. So in today’s blog we explore one reason why sports players can and do perform under pressure.
We often say that although you can’t always control the situation, you can control how you deal with it. This is what makes stress management important as it helps you to learn how to recognise and respond to stress in demanding situations. Psychologists often talk about perceived stress rather than stressful events because the same events are not necessarily considered stressful at different times of our lives or by different people. Instead our brains tend to appraise every situation in order to determine whether it is likely to be a threatening, stressful situation or not.
A rustling in the trees…
To use a simple example our ancestors would have had to appraise situations as being either threatening or challenging. A rustling in the trees could be a tiger ready to eat them (a threat) or it could be an antelope ready to be hunted that would provide food for the family for a month (a challenge). Today the difference between threat and challenge does not necessarily mean life or death but our brains and our bodies respond in the same way. When we perceive a situation that is potentially stressful the ‘fight or flight’ response kicks in, our heart rate increases and our body releases stress hormones such as adrenaline. However researchers have found subtle differences in how our body responds to a stressful situation that we perceive as ‘challenging’ and one that we perceive as ‘threatening’.
In a stressful situation that we feel we can manage, for example a challenging task at work, our heart rate increases and our body releases adrenaline. This relaxes our blood vessels allowing more blood to flow to our brain and muscles in anticipation of the challenge. In a situation that is seen as a threat, for example a task in work that we will not be able to complete and which has serious consequences if we do not, our heart rate also increases but our blood vessels constrict and our blood pressure rises .
“…These subtle differences can predict how well we perform…”
Challenge or Threat. Which on is it to you?
These subtle differences can predict how well we perform. One group of researchers asked members of a baseball team to give a speech for 1 minute about the feeling of stepping up to bat at the start of a game. They measured their heart rate and blood pressure as they did this and then tracked them throughout the season. Baseball players who had a ‘challenge’ response to this situation (those whose heart rate increased and blood vessels dilated) did much better in the following season than those who had a ‘threat’ response . Another study went a step further, they manipulated whether golf players felt ‘challenged’ or ‘threatened’ by changing the wording of the instructions for a putting task that they gave them while measuring their heart rate and blood pressure . Those who had been made to feel threatened not only landed fewer putts but had less effective muscle activity when swinging the club compared to those who were made to feel challenged.
Going into this weekend these teams will again have the mountainous test of keeping cool under pressure. Maybe you’ll spot these moments of the players appraising these demanding situations. Will it be a threat or challenge?…
- Blascovich, J., et al., Predicting athletic performance from cardiovascular indexes of challenge and threat. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2004. 40(5): p. 683-688.
- Moore, L.J., et al., The effect of challenge and threat states on performance: An examination of potential mechanisms. Psychophysiology, 2012. 49(10): p. 1417-1425.