“You think you know what it’s like and you think you’ve played under pressure, but you haven’t.”
These were the recent words of professional golfer Rory McIlroy, who just won the PGA Tour Championship last week and has his sights set on the Ryder Cup this week. Great champions and high level athletes seem to have a very unique perspective and relationship with this emotional-biochemical-physical-body-reaction thing we call pressure. It’s the mindset approach and optimization that allows these champions to be aware and respond effectively that makes all the difference in their performance.
Pressure is very real and exists for all of us. It stems from thousands of years of evolution of our brains seeking to protect us; essentially, from failure. As an Olympian, not throwing a javelin far enough may result in a silver or bronze medal; as a caveman, it likely resulted in a lost meal, injury or even death. Unfortunately, our brains haven’t quite caught up to that evolutionary safeguard, which today, can significantly impact how we perform in high-pressure situations (likely not involving saber-toothed tigers).
As Dr. Justin Anderson (Sport Psychologist and Founder of Premier Sport Psychology) puts it, “Pressure just is. It’s there. I don’t define it as good or bad. If you’re playing in a pressure situation, it just means that it matters and that you’ve likely done something pretty great to get there. At the end of the day, pressure is just context; the task remains the same.”
Think about it this way: If we put a board on the ground and asked you to walk across it, would you be able to do so without touching the ground or falling? You likely very well could. Now if we were to raise the board 5 feet off the ground and ask you to walk across, would you? You might be more hesitant. You likely could do it, but at a risk of falling. What if we raised it 10 or 15 more feet off the ground? Would you walk across the board then? At that point, you probably wouldn’t dare walk across – rightfully citing injury or fear. But why not step up to the challenge when the bar has been raised? The board is the same width as it was before when it was sitting on the ground – it’s simply the context that is different. The difference is the pressure you feel to perform, and to perform well (i.e., without making a mistake).
We can anticipate pressure and we know that it will be there at the Ryder Cup. What we see in this particular setting that is unique for many golfers is that golf, which is traditionally an individual sport, will now become a team sport. In addition to the pressure they likely already feel, the golfers will now feel a team aspect: a pressure to perform well and a responsibility to the team. What they do now matters not just for them, but for others, too.
The key for any athlete in dealing with pressure is really pretty simple, and might even seem counter-intuitive. The key is not to try to make pressure work for or against you in that moment. If you’re focusing on what to do with the pressure, then you’re distracting yourself from the task at hand and instead putting your attention on the pressure. Instead, think about what your job is in that moment, for example; first driving (finding a target on the fairway and getting the ball there) and then putting (rolling the ball on a specific line to fall in the dead center of the cup). That’s it. Think, “Regardless of how I feel, regardless of the pressure, regardless of the context, I want to put the ball on that line.”
And that’s where the mindset training comes into play. At Premier Sport Psychology, we work with countless professional golfers on how to sharpen their ability to focus on simply the task at hand. When they do that, the rest begins to fall away – leaving only a single task for them to accomplish and pressure left to deal with itself – or even better, their opponents. Those who work to optimize their mindset and who know there will always be pressure are the ones who not only compete, but also succeed at high levels.