How does pressure affect performance? Monday 27th March 2017
When considering topics to discuss in this blog, I wanted to find a topic which united both my passion for sport and the interests of you, the reader. There are many big issues within sport that constantly make the headlines, from performance enhancing drug scandals to the use of new technology to improve sporting events. Whilst these are all worthy topics for discussion, I still questioned their relevance and interest to the majority of people.
With a lack of worthy ideas, I persevered with a new line of thought. Why do I compete in sport? Races often go wrong, even at an elite level, and when they do it feels like the thousands of hours spent working hard in training are irrelevant. However, when the race goes well, there is a feeling of elation which stays with you for days on end. This is where the idea of pressure comes in. As a canoeist, these polar emotions are not caused by some strange intrinsic reaction to whether I happened to navigate 25 gates on a white water river faster than the other people around me. Ultimately, like all sports, it’s a trivial concept and it begs the question, why do we care so much if it doesn’t really matter at its base level? The answer varies for everyone, but if you asked the majority of serial winners, people who have been at the top of their sport for years and have won all kinds of medals and championships, they have the desire to always improve, no matter how far ahead of the rest of the field they are. We want to achieve because it feels good, no matter if it’s in the Olympic final or your maths GCSE exam. This desire to accomplish can be attached to anything - a sport, an intellectual endeavour, musical success and so on - but always with the glowing light of success, there is the looming shadow of failure behind it. Most people are afraid of this shadow, and that fear is called pressure.
The element of pressure cannot be ignored, because to care about an unknown such as the outcome of a sporting event or exam creates pressure. If you don’t care about the outcome, you cannot achieve in that particular field and you likely do not take part at all. This isn’t a negative thing as we can’t all have a burning passion for every sport or every activity, but what is interesting is the reaction of people who are under pressure. Everyone feels it, manifesting itself as an almost tangible mental feeling of anxiety, but also physically through increased adrenaline, heart rate and breathing. Using the example of an Olympic final, what is it that causes some people to be in control of the pressure and to consequently do well, and what is the difference between them and an equally skilled athlete who crashes and burns? The answer is an ability to handle the pressure. We already know that we create pressure in our own minds by attaching importance to something, so perhaps there is a way to tame it.
In order to remove pressure from the equation, I focus on the months of hard work beforehand which has got me to the start line of an event or the queue outside the exam hall. If I can look around at everyone else before a race and confidently say that nobody has trained harder or prepared more than I have because I have done everything in my power to be the best for that event, then pressure doesn’t need to be a determining factor because I am in control of what I will do. Whilst the race is technically won or lost in the two minutes that I am on the water, the result is actually determined in the months before, through preparation and hard work. With it coming up to exam season for many readers, the revision that goes into each test in these months is what will facilitate your success or failure. Just as in physical training, a mental toughness is needed in training yourself for an exam and putting in the hours so that the end result is a positive one. When you approach the event knowing that you are prepared and capable of success, pressure suddenly becomes much less of an issue as there is less that is unknown. It can be replaced by a feeling of self-confidence which carries you through the race or the exam rather than hindering your progress as pressure can do.
Personally, I believe that mental skill and the ability to not necessarily ignore pressure, but to control and adapt it into positive emotions is what separates consistent champions from other elite athletes. While there will always be an extra fraction of a second that can be gained from physical and technical improvements, no matter how far we push ourselves in training, the mental side of competition is an area that has been relatively untapped, containing a plethora of resources that can propel athletes towards continually faster times and better results. With new technology and these ideas at the forefront of improving sporting performances, it is only a matter of time before new discoveries and ways of thinking will completely change how we approach high pressure events and the training that takes place so that athletes are prepared for them. This is an exciting prospect not only for the sporting world, but also for you, as many of these techniques and ideas could help you to cope with high pressure situations in your own life and see you achieve in your chosen fields.
Jake Cox, Year 12