Nicola’s Signature Article:
Performing Under Pressure

Hello readers!

I must say great topic choice by you all and I’m not surprised it came out top of my last twitter poll as I get asked many questions on this when doing appearances too. I’m sure many of you will have all seen a thrilling winning moment in sport where the difference has been a tenth of a second, a kilogram, a blade of grass, or a winning goal with seconds to spare, but there is a whole host of preparation that goes on behind the scenes by athletes for that one moment and the difference could be down to the smallest of margins. Physicality and fitness count for a large chunk of performance and peaking at the right time is hugely advantageous, however, I would say psychology counts for a larger part of performance.

Even something like the 100m sprint when you think it would be purely based on power and speed, it is to a certain degree, but if you can’t handle your nerves on the start line or apply that strength and power at the right time in a race because the pressure of the occasion has got to you, then there’s probably always going to be someone better than you that has the full package of performance skills. The more you move from the power-based sports, towards skill based sports is when psychology really starts to play an even bigger role within an athletes performance. In terms of hockey, we are well into that latter category but we also have team dynamics to master too.

So, how do you get about 30 athletes all performing well and on the same page?

Firstly, it takes time. Time to build a culture and the foundations that you all buy into and thus creating the power behind performance. With that comes the team identity. What we bring as a team and what our brand of game is. This then allows you as an individual to see the bigger picture and understand where you fit into it …… and then comes the part where you explore what works for you individually to meet all the above goals and bring your best game for the team. This can take years to perfect, but when you have it and it all comes together, you feel unbreakable. You can spend years training your mindset and learning how to cope with pressure for potentially a few moments during big games, but those are the moments in sport that win and lose you medals. Under pressure your mind if untrained will become heavily influenced by your emotional state and execution of basic tasks can really suffer. Your concentration will be on anxious thoughts like, what if I do this and this happens, which will most likely negatively impact on your actions that follow. It is tricky, but the key is to remain focused on the present moment and not dwell on mistakes in the past or worry about outcomes in the future. The other key one is to make as many decisions as possible on logic and not emotion. Taking emotion out of the game is one of the hardest skills but can transform your game.

How do I keep my focus and confidence under pressure?

I use a mixture of things to help keep me in the best state of mind and playing my best hockey. During a game, although this is now habit and happens automatically, I will constantly ask myself after an action, “what next”, “where do I need to be”, “what do the team need me to do”. This sort of questioning means I am always looking, always solving, always making the best decision by the team and keeps me well in the moment. If I have made some mistakes and I am starting to become anxious I use self-talk. I use 3 words to help get me back to where I need to be; strong, calm, and aggressive. You might be wondering how just these 3 small words could make a difference, but they were created by me and they all have underlying meanings on and off the ball which I can focus on and start to build back the confidence in my game. In terms of logic over emotion, luckily I am pretty calm and consistent when it comes to general life and also the heat of the match, so I think I am good at keeping composure and clarity on situations. However, my emotional state is more affected by the expectation I put on myself and whether I am hitting it or not. Nerves and confidence mainly influence this, which is why I developed the self-talk strategy.

What do I do to settle the nerves before and during a game?

For many athletes, nerves are a huge hurdle to overcome and of course I am no exception. Having a routine doesn’t completely free me of all these feelings and emotions but I have learnt to embrace the butterflies in my stomach and change my thoughts around it. It used to make me feel hesitant and unsure about myself but now it reminds me how much I care about the sport and my teammates and also shows my desire to win. If I didn’t have nerves I would be concerned, its totally normal but having a routine can help desensitise you to those moments so you can still perform. A phrase we like to use is, “control the controllable”. As an example, some thoughts may be, there are more people watching than I thought, they are all cheering for the other team, the game is delayed due to a technical fault, the media are asking for an interview, we’re not in the same changing room as last time. There are so many things that could change and they are all things I cannot control. What I can control though is my internal thought process. I also use visualisation the night before and pre game. This is basically a “mental warm up” and it uses imagery to help condition you to think clearly and execute actions when the pressure is on. I will see myself doing positive actions over and over again until I feel prepared and that I have familiarised myself for what I am about to face on the pitch. It can take anywhere from 30 seconds to a few minutes and I just decide depending on how nervous I am or what information I need to remind myself of from the briefing and tactics. This is a really good way to calm nerves and put yourself in a good mindset, especially if you are a visual learner!

The final thing to share is, embrace everyone for being individual. What works for you might not work for others and so you have to trust and embrace that individuality. We work very hard on that as a squad and I put my whole trust in my teammates that they are doing the best job they can physically, mentally and emotionally to give their best performance. I have really come to appreciate the power of the mind over the last few years but I think the earlier you can learn how to handle pressure as an athlete, the better. It is inevitable you will face it, so be ready and enjoy the challenge!

I am on the lookout for more topics to write about, so if there is something you would like an insight on or for me to write about, I would love to hear from you via social or my website 🙂