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Pressure isn't just for tyres, but it needs to be fit for purpose in sports

Mental skills coach Jason Brennan begins a series of columns with part one of an examination of pressure.

Updated 20.30

JASON BRENNAN IS a highly-experienced mental skills coach who spent the last 16 years based in Wellington, where he worked with the 2016 Super Rugby-winning Hurricanes, the Wellington Lions, the NZ White Ferns and a host of other professional and amateur sports teams.

For more details on Jason’s career and his work in New Zealand rugby, read our recent interview with him.

Jason believes that mental skills is still an undervalued aspect of sporting performance. We spend so much time working on our technical, physical and tactical skills, but are we doing enough to strengthen our mental capabilities?

Over the coming weeks, we will feature fortnightly columns by Jason diving into the field of mental skills and, hopefully, provide you with a greater understanding of this crucial part of sports, as well as a number of useful tools to use in your own endeavours, both in and outside of sports.

We begin today with Jason’s examination of pressure – part one of two on this topic.

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Jamie Heaslip and Cian Healy have two quotes they like to respond with when asked about feeling pressure ahead of a big game.

“Pressure is for tyres,” the Ireland internationals often say, or “Pressure is for diamonds.”

Essentially, they are suggesting that pressure is not for them as rugby players and that they will leave pressure to diamonds and tyres.

The truth of the matter is that pressure is real and it does affect professional and amateur athletes, including rugby players. It is also true that the right amount of pressure is of real value.

Tyres are essential to the performance of vehicles. Without tyres, vehicles simply don’t move.

Jamie Heaslip celebrates winning

The pressure in a tyre affects performance. Too little pressure and the car will badly underperform – it will be sluggish and burn up fuel.

Too much pressure and the tyre will be too hard, too rigid – it will affect handling and will be in danger of exploding (think of Formula 1 tyres).

Fit for purpose

So, a tyre is actually a perfect metaphor for performance, as it needs to be fit for purpose.

Psychological pressure in sports, and all walks of life, is also like this. It needs to be fit for purpose.

Too little pressure and the player or team may not take the occasion seriously, and therefore underperform or not perform to the level the opposition is playing at.

Too much pressure and they may ‘over-perform’. They will be too activated, too hyped-up or too amped. This will lead to mistakes, players firing up aggressively and giving away penalties or gradually burning themselves out over the course of the game.

Dealing well with external pressures and creating the right internal level of pressure, i.e. fit for purpose, are two competitive advantages a player or team can have over opponents who are not as well prepared mentally.

The first game of the season is not the same as a play-off game, a semi-final or a final. Acknowledging this helps lead to different psychological preparation, but not acknowledging the scale of the occasion brings with it the risk of not being adequately prepared.

I imagine Jamie Heaslip and Cian Healy do this well because they have actually worked on it.

Pressure gauge

In my experience, pressure is the one area in mental skills that is most often felt and experienced by players, especially emerging young players – like when they’re making their debut or filling in for a seasoned pro.

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The pressure generated in association with performance, and especially ‘big-game’ performance, is key to growing a high-performance mindset.

I say pressure ‘generated’ because the reality is that certain occasions do have pressure inherent in them. I have heard it said that pressure is solely “psychological” – “that it’s all in the head”, implying that it is entirely self-generated.

I’ve heard coaches and players say things like, “Get over it”, “Get on with it” or “Stop thinking about it”.

From my experience of working with professional athletes involved in high-pressure games, and in my experience as a psychotherapist, pressure is not always self-inflicted. Pressure is not purely psychological. It is genuinely felt in the body also.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a huge component that is psychological. It is that pressure is often self-generated and compounded by negative performance-interfering thoughts (PITS), and I will discuss that in part two of this piece.

The trap that many players, coaches and managers fall into believing is that pressure is all psychological. External pressure exists because there are so many external components at play in sports today.

Pressure, a bit like grief, is a shared ‘group’ experience that is directly related to and as a result of external events. The grief-and-loss process is a process we all experience and one that helps us manage an event that happened outside of us, such as a bereavement.

Pressure is also a process that we get into when trying to deal with external events that are shared and involve many external influences.

Events such as an important or crucial game, a final, a major presentation, or a big deal ‘closing’ – all of these involve many other people apart from ourselves: team-mates, coaches, managers, other players, media, family, friends and bosses.

New Zealand All Blacks Dane Coles

The energy generated from others in relation to the upcoming event is real and is felt energy. This energy is felt in the body and it can get stuck in the body too. Unless, that is, a player knows what it feels like and what he or she can do with this energy.

It is due to the realness of this energy that techniques such as mental skills exist and have been developed to help. The techniques below will help to both discharge or harness this energy – using this energy as opposed to being used by it.

Reframing pressure

On a recent flight, I came across an advert for a new TAG Heuer watch – #DontCrackUnderPressure.

It reminded me again that pressure is an external influence. Just like a watch cracking under the pressure and weight of thousands of pounds of water, a player can feel the weight of pressure to perform to expectations.

They can feel the burden of having to score, tackle or defend, make ground or hold ground. Not to mention the pressure of playing in front of so many expectant faces – often quick to criticise when things aren’t going well.

Some of the best players in the world are superb at reframing pressure and using it as a positive force. Remember, we must embrace a certain amount of pressure to make it fit for purpose.

Having worked with a number of All Blacks and Super Rugby champions, I have seen how the best in the business do this.

When I worked with Dane Coles, the current Hurricanes captain and All Blacks hooker, I was always impressed with how he would thrive on pressure.

The more pressure, the more he would ‘eat it up’. He loved it. He would use this energy to lift his game (especially against certain teams).

He really looks forward to going up against and beating these teams and his opposite player. He energises himself on the pressure, which is also why he slipped into the captaincy role so well after long-time Hurricanes captain and fellow All Black, Conrad Smith, finished his time at the franchise.

Coles is a prime example of a player who can reframe pressure consistently well. He is able to completely shift the perception of pressure on its head and make it work for him.

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Another is Cristiano Ronaldo, the Real Madrid and Portugal football star, who likes to say:

Your love makes me stronger, your hate makes me unstoppable”.

This is an extremely useful reframe by Ronaldo, which bears all the hallmarks of a player who has spent time working on his mental skills.

Techniques

So, what can you do to build up your ability to manage and use pressure?

Below are three techniques that can be utilised to manage felt pressure, or to help generate internal pressure to a performance level suitable for execution excellence.

1. Shake it off

The first technique is a way of discharging excess energy brought on by felt pressure (usually related to external expectations). Too much pressure coming at a person causes a charge in their body that needs somewhere to go.

Have you ever noticed what a dog does right after it has had a fight with another dog or pack of dogs?

It shakes its body from head to tail, literally channelling the energy out through a flick of its tail. Afterwards, the dog is usually calm and in control, as if nothing had happened.

We can do this too, with a little conscious focus of energy – up from our legs, or generated from our stomach or chest, and channelling it through our shoulders, down our arms and out through our fingertips in a flicking motion.

In private, a player can practice this technique in as animated a fashion as they like, but in public or on the field it need only be an asserted flicking gesture in order to expel the charge.

The body will then consciously expel this energy as it has been trained to do. This technique can also be focused and enhanced by connecting it with a psychological trigger word.

I will discuss trigger words in a follow-up article, but for now an example might be the player thinking a word like ‘free’ or ‘gone’ – something quick and easy to repeat on the field.

Some of the Wellington Lions players I have worked with also stamp their feet when expelling energy, while simultaneously thinking of a word like ‘strong’, ‘smash’ or ‘solid’, which we developed and practised in training.

2. Create and satisfy internal pressure

The second technique is about generating an adequate internal pressure needed to play a particular game. Each game has its requirement to win, which in itself is a pressure that can be psychologically self-created, i.e. the drive to win, as opposed to playing well or just doing enough.

The only pressure I feel is the pressure I put on myself to win,” is how tennis pro Andy Murray puts it.

The desire to win is a conscious decision to create energy in oneself, to do all that is necessary to win. A useful way of thinking when approaching a game or a challenge is to concentrate on what is needed to succeed.

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Focusing on success creates an internal energy that wants to be satisfied. The clearest way to fully satisfy this energy is to then bring it to life through action.

We can achieve this by tapping into one of five internal drivers that we all have – Be Strong, Try Hard, Please Others, Be Perfect and Hurry Up; which Taibi Kahler identified in 1975.

In this case, the one called Try Hard.

An internal pressure is then generated by focusing specifically on what is needed to be successful in your role/position, through clear actions.

Everyone had obviously really committed to knowing their role and being really motivated to be accurate, but enthusiastic as well,” Joe Schmidt said after Ireland historically beat the All Blacks.

So, it is about consistently reminding oneself to keep on trying hard to achieve and execute these actions each and every time.

Imagery and visualisation help greatly here too. I often help players to visualise an action in their mind first, before trying it.

Repeating it over and over in the mind, in slow motion and then in real time. Picturing the action clearly will allow the body to more freely perform it.

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Former Dallas Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith once said:

“Dreaming means ‘rehearsing’ what you see, playing it over and over in your mind until it becomes as real to you as your life right now,” which is a good description of visualisation.

3. Transfer pressure to the opposition

The final technique is to harness pressure and transfer as much of it onto the opposition as possible. As Dane Coles does – to feed on it and direct it into useful thoughts and actions.

This can be activated any time prior to the game – the month before, the week before, the day before, even an hour before.

Whenever felt or psychological pressure makes itself known, a player can convert this energy into an idea or phrase or visual picture of beating an opposition player, allowing them to feel how much they want to beat their opponent.

The more visual the better, as they can then practice these moves in training or tap into the energy in the gym; creating an intensity in their mind and body and preparing themselves for when the pressure comes on just prior or during the game.

This will build a self-created expectation – as opposed to an externally-imposed expectation – that will want to get satisfied and can only be satisfied on game day by acting on this energy, and, of course, executing well.

“We got put under a heap of pressure and the boys defended well but possibly we concentrated too much on defending rather than keeping on attacking,” said Richie McCaw, the ex-All Black captain who won 148 caps.

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We’re very keen to hear your feedback on this column and everything else Jason writes in the coming weeks.

What did you find interesting or useful? Do you have your own stories of using mental skills or Jason’s techniques? Or wishing you had at a certain time?

Jason is currently in the process of writing a book on mental skills and would love to hear from you with any constructive suggestions around this column or interest in future pieces.

Please feel free to comment below, or get in touch with Jason at Jason@thinkwell.se.

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