Performance Psychology Part I
Performance psychology is often misunderstood by athletes. Many athletes try to do something ‘special’, rather than simply trying to do what they’re capable of. They believe that it’s all about getting ‘psyched up’ and energized. While there may be some truth to both of these notions, the reality is a lot more nuanced. Performance psychology is all about the ability to access the performances you’re already capable. It’s not about ‘rising to the occasion’. It’s about being able to consistently performing to your potential regardless of the external circumstances that may make doing so more difficult.
In this chapter, we’ll explore the relationship between pressure and performance, how this relationship often leads to different levels of psychological arousal, as well as how to manage your arousal. Your arousal can be too low or too high, and you’ll need to be able to identify when you’re experiencing either situation as they require opposite strategies to move arousal towards an optimal state. Once you’re close to an optimal level of arousal, you have to learn how to effectively execute your performances. The strategies to do so will be outlined below. Finally, all of these skills need to be practiced in training to ensure that you possess the skills to do what you need to do when it matters most, in competition.
Pressure and Performance
The Yerkes-Dodson law describes the relationship between the pressure one feels and the performances they achieve. When graphed, the relationship between pressure and performance is in the shape of an upside-down U. In other words, performance will continue to improve as pressure increases up until the ‘optimal’ amount of pressure. As pressure continues to increase, performances will then become worse and worse.
What’s important to understand is that this relationship is true for ALL athletes. The difference is that some athletes will perform optimally with much higher levels of pressure than other athletes. There are some athletes that seem to get better as the pressure increases, up to and including the biggest competitions. These athletes seem to get better as the lights get brighter. This same relationship holds true for them as well, it just may be that there are no competitions that create enough pressure for their performances to be compromised.
For instance, in life or death situations never seen during competitive sports, these same athletes would likely experience a decrease in performance due to unbelievable pressure of that environment. If you’re one of those individuals that does the best when it’s most important, you’re probably not worried about optimizing performance psychology. You already know what you need to do. Just enjoy the pressure and get after it!
For the rest of us, as pressure increases arousal, it’s hypothesized that there is an optimal amount of arousal that stimulates performance. While pressure tends to be related to arousal, individuals can learn to regulate their arousal regardless of the pressure that might be presented by the competitive environment. The more you possess this skill, the better you’ll be able to perform regardless of the context. We’ll explore how to do so below. Further, it’s possible that ‘high-pressure performers’ individuals are simply able to keep themselves in an optimal state of being, regardless of the pressure. They use the environment to elevate their performance without getting too aroused. If it’s the latter case, the good news is that it is a skill that you can improve with practice.
There is a myth that some individuals elevate their performances under pressure. While this may be true to some extent in rare individuals, more than anything else, those that perform well under pressure are able to maintain their performance rather than increase it. This brings us back to the idea of not doing anything ‘special’, just being consistent with achieving the performances you’ve already demonstrated. While this might not seem particularly important, it becomes relevant when we consider that you simply need perform how you have in the past rather than trying to do anything different. In and of itself, this can remove pressure from the situation.
What’s critical is to get a better understanding of how much pressure and arousal is appropriate for you for each circumstance. The more you can control your arousal, notice when it’s out of line, and do what’s required to bring it back into alignment. We’ll get into that below.
As discussed earlier, your level of arousal is going to influence your performance and do in a dramatic way. If you can learn to appropriately manage your arousal, you’ll be much more likely to perform at your best, and be able to do so with consistency regardless of the circumstance. This is a critical skill that will make competing much more enjoyable and rewarding.
While there is a direct relationship between pressure and arousal, in that more pressure will lead to more arousal, you can influence that relationship. This is critical because too much arousal AND too little arousal can both lead to less than optimal performances. As we’ll see below, in situations of low pressure, there are strategies you can use to increase your levels of arousal. In situations of high pressure, there are strategies you can use to decrease your levels of arousal.
Regardless of the competitive or training environment, possessing the ability to regulate arousal is a critical skill. In some cases, you’ll need to increase your arousal to get closer to your optimal state. In other cases, you’ll need to decrease your arousal to get closer to your optimal state. Both skills are important to be able to perform at your best regardless of the situation.
We’ll explore the strategies to accomplish both tasks in upcoming articles