Ollie Hynd MBE. Image by David Baird (www.david-baird.co.uk)

Dealing with pressure in sport and how you view failure

Way back in 1898 Dr Norman Triplett published in the American Journal of Psychology his findings that some athletes achieve significantly greater results when racing with either a pacemaker or other competitors rather than racing solo [1]. Other athletes perform much better in familiar, safer environments like at training where we either know the competition (training partners or team mates) or when training on our own [1]. The work done by Dr Norman Triplett, over 100 years ago, highlights a key factor in Performance Mindset.

Pressure can either bring the best out of people, or it can be crippling and stop people from performing at their best! The question raised 100 years ago, still stands today; what dictates whether an athlete will react positively or negatively to pressure?

So, in this blog, performance mindset and lifestyle mentor at oneathlete, David Jackson talks about dealing with pressure in sport and how you view failure…

What dictates if an athlete will react positively or negatively to pressure?

It’s such an important question because if we can understand what causes the difference then we can start to work on improving our own reaction to pressure in sport, so that it can have a positive effect on us. The biggest factor comes down to our personality and how we perceive failure. This is because pressure is very closely intertwined and connected to failure. The ‘what happens if…’ is a question linked to potential future failure, which can create pressure in our own mind as athletes. So how we view failure can have a big impact on the perceived pressure we then feel. Do we see failure as confirmation that we can no longer succeed and that we are no good at what we do? Or do we see failure as something that has to occur as part of a learning and development process, which can be simply used to help identify areas of weakness that we can then go away and work on improving?

The two views are extremely different and linked to your personality and performance mindset. One may resonate with you and sound familiar, the other completely alien. However, just because you think a certain way towards pressure and failure now, doesn’t mean you can’t change and improve how you think about it in the future.

Having a growth or fixed mindset

Dr Carol Dweck describes two distinct mindsets she observed from her research; growth mindset or a fixed mindset [2]. The two mindsets she describes are very distinct in their view of competition or challenges. Those with a fixed mindset being scared of competition or challenge for fear of failure and those with a growth mindset who relish challenges and competition as they know even if they fail they can use the experience to make improvements.

Developing a growth mindset so we’re less scared of failure and therefore our performance less affected by pressure is something we can all do. First, we must realise that failure is part of a learning process; it’s not something to be feared but used as part of a learning experience. Just because at times we fail, doesn’t mean we can’t learn from it, improve and be successful in the future!

Michael Jordan famously said, “I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life and that’s why I succeed.”

If you get nervous when competing against others and worry about failure, remember the race or competition is ultimately with yourself, you’re only trying to improve yourself and success is determined by what improvements you make day after day, week after week and year after year. Not on whether someone else beats you in one race. Long-term development is what’s important and that comes from focusing on improving yourself as an athlete rather than comparing yourself to others.

For those that relish competition and pressure brings the best out of us, we need to ensure we can still perform when there is no pressure or competition around us. In training we must still have the ability to perform to the highest level when there is no one to race against, otherwise our training will suffer. Remember that beating others is not the ultimate in terms of long-term success. Success comes from developing yourself as an athlete to the best of your ability. Not beating your arch-rival, but beating your previous personal best. After all, what’s the point in beating someone if you don’t improve yourself? If you struggle with motivation during training when there’s little or no competition, try imagining racing against your personal best or another competitor if it helps bring the best out of your performances, even in training.

Listen to Para-Swimmer Ollie Hynd MBE talk about success, hard work and how he views failure:

Need some help developing a growth sports performance mindset?

If you’d like some help to develop a strong, growth sports performance mindset, we’d love to hear from you and how we can help. You can email jacko@oneathlete.co.uk

[1] J. Afremow, PhD. The Champion’s Mind. 2013. Rodale Inc. p145.

[2] C. S. Dweck, PhD. Mindset. 2006. Ballantine Books. P10.

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