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Performing Under Pressure

nick ruddock Nov 01, 2015

This blog post has been inspired by the World Championships in Glasgow, where on top of the standard pressure of competition, there were several examples of highly pressurized scenarios and times where impeccable planning and preparation was required.

As a boy scout in my younger years I was taught the motto ‘Be Prepared’ and the World Championships certainly highlighted many situations in which contingency plans were needed and put into place.

From performing floor routines without music, waiting times of up to ten minutes for the judges, hand guard straps becoming loose throughout routines and athletes running out of time following a fall on the apparatus; even at the highest level of performance on the international stage, these things happen. And at the World Championships, they happened a lot.

The various scenarios highlighted the importance of impeccable preparation, and how necessary it is to always be prepared for the unexpected.

The athletes at the World Championships handled these moments with utter professionalism and composure, as a result I’m sure of being placed in similar circumstances whilst training and having a clear understanding of international competitive protocol, all signs of great coaching.

Pressurised training scenarios are an essential stage of pre competition preparation, and the job of the coach should be to make the athlete ‘comfortable with being uncomfortable’ and when in mentally challenging scenarios.

One of my mentors, Dennis Edwards of ‘Performance Impact’ taught me how critical it was to understand the 3 D’s in competition. These are the Distractions, Disruptions and Differences that athletes and coaches face when travelling away from home territory.

The list could be compiled into the 1000’s with various levels of significance, but without a doubt, the distractions, disruptions and differences on competition day should be respected, and plannedfor.

You can break the 3 D’s into numerous topics, including media distractions, nutrition changes, sleep and recovery, equipment, environment, increased anxiety and changes in training volume to name just a few.

The only way to truly prepare our athletes for these circumstances is to make them familiar with them. They need to experience as many as possible BEFORE being thrown into an uncomfortable situation where results matter. Part of the process may require exposing your athlete to failure, but this is a critical process in developing mental resilience and composure in competition.

Here are just a few tips on how you can help prepare your younger athletes for future circumstances, to give you an idea of how you can develop mental resilience and nurture confidence to manage challenging scenarios:

Limit warm up times, or if safe to do so, remove warm up on the apparatus altogether prior to showing a routine.

Don’t let your athletes become too comfortable using a specific beam, set of bars or springboard etc.

Ask your athletes to perform a bar routine with their 2nd (or 3rd) pair of hand guards which they may not use on a day to day basis (if they lose or damage their first pair, they need to be ready to deliver a routine using their backup pair.)

Make the gymnast wait ten minutes before presenting their routine, as if they were waiting for the judges to finish marking a previous routine.

Whilst performing routines, play very loud music or alternatively create an environment of total silence.

Have your athlete perform floor routines to no music, or even somebody else’s.

This list could be endless.

Bob Bowman, coach of Olympic Swimmer Michael Phelps was a master of placing Phelps in pressurized environments;

“I’ve always tried to find ways to give him adversity in either meets or practice and have him overcome it, he’s used to handling pressure situations in training, where that pressure comes from me.”

Phelps’ goggles filled up with water at the Beijing Olympics and he was still able to achieve a World Record time and Olympic Gold. Bowman had intentionally stepped on Phelps’ goggles in 2003 whilst at a World Cup event to prepare Michael for this exact scenario.

Most coaches do their best job to protect the athlete but Bowman knew that exposing him to pressurized scenarios would benefit him in the long run, and it worked.

Facilitating failure is a sign of great coaching. ‘We learn more in defeat than we do in victory’ (assuming there is time invested to reflect) and athletes should be exposed to failure frequently in order to maximize learning opportunities and build mental resilience. 

What tactics and strategies are you using to throw your athletes out of their comfort zone to build resilience by preparing them for the unexpected?

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