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We all experience pressure at different points in our lives. It may be the pressure you feel when you’re presenting something in front of a group of people, whom you really want to impress. Pressure could be the feeling of wanting to play your best knowing that you need to in order to get back in the lineup for the next game. There are countless ways we can experience pressure and I am frequently asked the question “how do you deal with pressure and stress?”… here’s some strategies to help you deal with, and understand, the pressure you’re feeling along with the stress that accompanies it.  

I’m sure that a lot of you have heard the saying, “pressure is a privilege” I know I have…many times. I remember talking to my parents about being really nervous before games because I felt all this pressure to do well. They never said that ‘pressure was a privilege’ outright, but they used to tell me all the time that it was OK to be nervous, that nerves were normal, it wasn’t a bad thing to want to do well, that being nervous didn’t change my ability. But it definitely impacted me on the ice. When we feel a sense of pressure to perform and start to feel stressed or anxious as a result of that pressure, it’s because our mind becomes fixated on the outcome. We may have an expectation of perfection–or near perfection–that is the only result we care about. 

This focus on an external outcome and an impossible ideal of ‘perfection’ causes sirens and red flags to go off in our brains, as a result of the fact that our brain relaying the message that the outcome is out of our control and (perhaps subconsciously) us knowing that perfect isn’t a realistic or attainable goal. As a result of this conversation, our brain triggers of domino effect of chemical signals that produce the physical sensations and feelings associated with stress and anxiety–the desired goal to get our bodies ready to flee. 

Your brain doesn’t like things it can’t predict. Uncertainty and inability to predict a good outcome means that the brain naturally enters into an ‘unsafe’ or fear-based state because it’s simply trying to protect you–to get you to run away from whatever’s making you feel that way.

How to deal with pressure and stress?

Now that we understand what causes us to ‘buckle under pressure’, we can jump into the strategies you can use to handle pressure and stress.   

  1. Train your brain to focus on the very controllable aspects of your ‘performance’ 
    • What is in your control? What is out of your control? Make a list.
  2. Give your brain a concrete direction of focus–a very specific direction to move in
    • Based on the elements you can control, what goals can you set for yourself?
    • EX. I can control my readiness and knowledge of the topic before a presentation
      • “I will block one hour off a day for the next three days leading up to my presentation to practice my presentation”
      • “I will research my topic extensively before beginning the presentation”
  3. Check-in on your progress to help your brain stay focused on the things it can control
    • There are so many things that can impact your ability to stay on track. Create a system of check-ins to hold yourself accountable and keep your focus where you want it.
    • EX. I can control the pace and energy that I play with
      • “I will make sure that my first three strides with the puck are hard, fast, and explosive”
        • To check in on this, when I hear a whistle or get on the bench after a shift, I will ask: ‘Are my first three strides feeling hard, fast, and explosive?’ If yes, what’s working? If no, what can I do to change that?

For a few years, late in high school and early in college, my nerves got the best of me 50% of the time. I was either great or terrible. When I think back on it now, I know that it’s because I had this idea in my mind that I was nervous because I wasn’t ready; if I was ready then I shouldn’t be nervous. 

What I know now is that’s not the case at all. If you’re nervous it means you care! You may care about the outcome, the teammates in your locker room, the coworkers depending on you—and all of that is OK. But, if you want to use that nervous energy to propel you forward, you need to understand that you are responsible for reigning that energy into areas of focus that you can control. 

Pressure is a privilege because it means that you care deeply about something you’re doing. And that’s amazing. But you have to remember that it’s on you to make sure that you’re keying into the things you are about that you have control over!

Lauren Williams | High-Performance Coach 

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