Riley J. Darveaux, M.A.
We often think of the word pressure in a negative sense. When a game winning field goal was missed wide right, the kicker was “feeling the pressure”. Perhaps “collapsing under pressure” was what happened to the #1 seeded team that found itself on a premature bus ride home after losing in the first round. Such statements have taught us that pressure is a force that brings us down, changing who we are, and making it hard to succeed in “pressure packed” situations. The purpose of this article is to view pressure in a different light in order to see such situations as opportunities for success.
Ultimately, mental pressure can be defined as our psychological reaction to stress. When we are faced with stressful situations, we feel pressured to succeed and meet expectations set by both ourselves, and others. So, in order to embrace pressure, we must first explore and understand stress.
Stress comes in two forms: distress and eustress. Distress is usually what we think of when we hear the word stress. It is the negative stress that we feel when we cannot meet the demands that have been placed on us, and the perceived outcome is negative. On the other hand, eustress is healthy and gives one a feeling of fulfillment, hope, or excitement (ex. stress felt prior to going on a first date).
Both types of stress have a similar effect on the body. Without getting too “medical”, let’s just say that the body starts to sweat, muscles become tense, breathing is constricted, thoughts start to race, and heart rate increases. From a physiological sense, they are the same.
So, my question to athletes struggling with pressure is…”What type of stress are you feeling in those pressure packed situations?” Often times, they come to the realization that they are experiencing eustress (good stress), but misinterpreting it as distress (bad stress). Therefore, rather than using the eustress as a tool to embrace the situation, it is transformed into something negative that inevitably causes discomfort and fear, making it harder for the athlete to relax and perform the task at hand.
I once met a young man playing competitive golf who absolutely loved “feeling the pressure”. There was something about the sweaty palms, butterflies, racing heart, and unknowns that put him in a competitive mindset. He felt as though competition was an opportunity to prove that all of his hard work had a purpose. He truly believed that in order to play at his highest level, he had to feel the pressure. Clearly, he used eustress to his advantage. He took something that is often times seen as debilitating for athletes and used it as a way to enhance his performance.
So, the next time you find yourself in a pressure-filled situation, think about what is really happening. Could the stress that you are feeling be positive? Can it be used to your advantage? This time, embrace the pressure, knowing that what you are feeling is an opportunity to succeed.