The summer of 2016 sees two 4-yearly high profile sports events taking place: the 31st Olympic Games in Rio de Janiero, and the 15th UEFA men’s European Football Championships in France. For many athletes and players this will be their once in a lifetime opportunity to perform on the big stage. Fail in 2016 and there might not be a second chance. So the pressing question is how can these performers maximise their potential for success?
For all these players and athletes the question of how to ensure they perform at their best under pressure is of critical importance.
For high-level performers in sport, and other performance domains such as medicine, and musical performance it is their preparation for performance that is key. Having the skills and abilities is one thing, but then executing these skills and making the right decisions under pressure is critical for success.
The first big thing to understand about performance is that confidence is key. Confidence to do what you need to do when it matters is a fundamental pre-requisite to high-level performance. That is not that you need to be a confident person but confident you, or the team can do what is required. There are a number of sources this confidence can come form, but evidence suggests that the most important is personal experience. By preparing in the right way you can enhance your belief that you will be successful. Confident performance is characterised by smoother skill execution (doing it better), less delay in decision-making (do it quicker), and less muscle tension (do it more efficiently, and not becoming so tired).
So what needs to be done to develop this confidence through effective preparation?
Well research suggests that the best way to prepare for the 100m at the Olympics is to do the 100m at the Olympics. Anything that is not the same reduces your ability to transfer the skills you have learnt in practice into the performance arena. Obviously you can’t exactly replicate the 100m at the Olympics, but you can think about what the key factors are at the event then look to replicate them. So, for example the race involves waiting around then walking to the blocks. So, do that in practice.
For footballers the games involve playing 11-a-side games, so replicate that. Also, pre-plan for potential unexpected events. This ‘what-if’ approach allows the performer or team to prepare specific response strategies, and also (crucially) develops a mindset that is solution focused ‘what is the challenge and how do I cope with it’?
Research also suggests that those individuals who can pick up on the challenges early are more likely to be successful. You can’t prepare a plan for every single eventuality, but you can develop a mindset that is solution-focused and able to cope with unexpected events. Many sports performers, and performers more generally in other domains are very good at practicing and honing their skills but are far less effective when it comes to practicing for performance.
Those individuals who can achieve the highest levels of performance in competition are the successful ones. It is no use being able to do it in practice if you can’t do it, under pressure, when it counts.
This summer will be a festival of high performance sport at a global level, lets just hope that the athletes, performers, and players have prepared to perform under pressure on the global stage. Otherwise it could be a sorry tale of ‘what if’, in high performance sport there are very few second chances so you need to get it right first time.
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About the Author
Dr Stewart Cotterill is a qualified sport and exercise psychologist, and Reader in Sport and Performance Psychology at the University of Winchester. He has significant expertise working with both individuals and teams in elite sport, and focuses on the psychology of performance.
Read more blogs by Dr Cotterill at https://stewartcotterill.co.uk/blog/