Deal with Pressure Like an Elite AthleteMay 29, 2014
It seems like professional athletes are masters at performing under pressure. Sports psychologist Nicole Detling says dealing with pressure is a learned skill. She’s coached Olympic athletes through mental obstacles and dealing with stress, and says her exercises can apply to non-athletes in real world situations. She gives you tips for dealing with pressure and performing under stress.
Interviewer: Pressure, whether you're an elite athlete or speaking in public, it can be a killer. Tips to deal with it next on The Scope.
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Interviewer: No matter who you are you deal with pressure, and if you deal with pressure a little bit better, your life might be better. We're going to find out some tips from Nicole Detling. She's a sports psychologist and has worked with Olympic athletes, most recently the U.S. ski team's freestyle aerialists in Sochi. She's also a visiting faculty member in the Exercise and Sports Science Psychology program at the University of Utah. Let's talk about pressure for a second.
Nicole Detling: Sure.
Interviewer: What is pressure? Let's get that definition out because I don't think a lot of people think about what exactly that means.
Nicole Detling: Sure. I think we all feel pressure to a degree almost every day of our lives. Probably what would be a better term for most of us out there is stress. I can't think of a single person I've ever met who hasn't experienced stress on a daily basis. But I would say if we think of stress or pressure, it's more of when you feel that your resources do not match the demands that you are under so whether you have this big project that's due at work and you don't feel you have enough time to complete it, something like that would be stress or pressure where you're under a situation that you have to perform and you just don't feel like you're able to do it the way you want it to be done.
Interviewer: So for Olympic athletes for example, the jump or the trick, whatever they're going to try is something that they're not completely confident with.
Nicole Detling: Maybe not, or they just feel that, "Gosh, I've only done this a couple of times. I'm confident that I can compete it when I don't have all these cameras on me and all these expectations, but gosh, I'm in this situation and all these other things are happening." The pressure can be increased.
Interviewer: So it's a lot like if I'm relaxed and just talking to somebody I'm passionate about, the words flow so easily and my thoughts come out so coherently, but when it's in front of a room of 500 people, all of a sudden I'm a different person. That's pressure.
Nicole Detling: That's pressure, and typically the situation's the same, right? You could give that speech, and you can nail it when no one's watching. It's the exact same speech when there's 500 people there so the difference between those two situations is how your mind perceives that situation. That's where pressure comes from. It's typically something that we create in our minds in response to a situation.
Interviewer: Alright, so now let's talk about this in real terms. So whether I'm an Olympic athlete or giving that presentation, are my strategies going to be the same?
Nicole Detling: You're strategies will be very similar. Yes, absolutely. The things that I teach Olympic athletes are the exact same things that anybody out there can use when they're dealing with stress and pressure.
Interviewer: Cool, OK, well give me so tips how I can nail that presentation that I know I can do anyway.
Nicole Detling: Sure, well I will say the Number 1 source of confidence is preparation so if you're giving that speech, it's probably best that you practice that speech many, many times prior to going into that situation. Practice it by yourself. Practice it in front of friends and family, friendly audiences so to speak, and maybe increase the number of people you're practicing it to each time you practice it so you get a little bit more comfortable. If you step on that stage and you feel like you have put the time in and you are ready, you're more likely to not feel as much pressure in that situation and be able to really nail that performance.
Interviewer: How important is it that I do it in front of other people? Because I feel funny doing that, right?
Nicole Detling: Sure, you do, but you're going to feel funny in front of 500 people if you don't practice.
Interviewer: OK, so you've really... That's an important step is what you're telling me.
Nicole Detling: Sure, it's an important step, absolutely, and it may not be for everyone, not everyone needs to do that, but that would be a good idea for someone who does feel a lot of pressure if they are speaking in front of 500 people.
Interviewer: Do your due diligence that way. What else could I do? What other things could I employ?
Nicole Detling: There's a lot of different exercises that I'll teach an athlete in terms of the thought processes that they have going on in their head. So something athletes hear me say all the time is, "I don't care who you are or what sport you do, how good you are if you look for reasons to fail, you will find them." So in that situation you can look for, "Oh my gosh, what are these people going to think about me. Are they going to know more than I do? What if I sound like an idiot?" Yeah, sure you can find those reasons, but on the other hand, if you look for reasons to succeed, you will find those reasons as well. So in that situation, the speech situation, you can also think, "I have put my time in. I know my material. They asked me to give this speech because I have something to offer. They believe I have something to offer." And so thinking about it in terms of just reframing the thoughts in your mind from looking for reasons to fail to looking for reasons to success, that's one strategy.
Nicole Detling: Another strategy would be using deep breathing techniques, anything that will help deal with the butterflies in your stomach and just kind of calming your body down. Something I say a lot to is, "You have to control yourself first before you have a chance to control your performance." And for many people, that pressure is going to cause anxiety. So the anxiety feelings may be you have to pee 20 times before you perform, sweaty palms, butterflies in your stomach, things like that, and when you feel uncomfortable, you might feel out of control. Imagine how good you would feel if your body felt comfortable and you felt in control of your performance. What would that do for your confidence?
Nicole Detling: So if you do deep breathing techniques or some kind of a meditation prior to going out in that situation, you get your body under control, it's easier to get your mind under control.
Interviewer: So when I was watching the Olympics, I noticed a lot of the athletes listen to music beforehand. Is that their way of taking their mind out of the moment, relaxing themselves?
Nicole Detling: Yeah, and that's actually another strategy is to use distraction, use a deliberate type of distraction, and music can be a great deliberate distraction. So if you have a particular kind of music that you listen to that just helps you feel calm and relaxed and comfortable then absolutely, listening to that music prior to going onstage and performing could be really beneficial for you to get your body under control and then it's easier, as I said before, to get your mind under control.
Interviewer: That seems counter-intuitive that I would want to distract myself from what I was about to do. I would think I'd want to really think about it and make sure I've got my steps down but not so helpful.
Nicole Detling: Well, you know, it depends on the person. Everybody's different so for some people, absolutely not, that would not be helpful at all. For other people, it would be incredibly helpful so part of this whole process is knowing what works for you, and one way to find that is you can find any performance in your life, and sport is one performance, but we perform all day long, every day in everything that we're doing. We perform at our jobs. We perform driving to and from our jobs, some of us better than others. We perform as parents. We perform as spouses. We perform in every aspect of life so think back to a time when you feel that you were performing exceptionally well regardless of what that performance was.
Interviewer: Like that great parenting moment where you really felt you explained something to your children, and they got it, and...
Nicole Detling: Exactly, it clicked. It worked. You got the result you were looking for, and then rewind the tape just a little bit further and say, "Where was my mindset before that? What was I doing? Was I really thinking about what I was going to say and what I wanted to happen? Or was I in the car listening to the radio, and I got home and it clicked?" Right? So what are some of those scenarios where you've had performance in the past, and if you look at many of those scenarios, you'll be able to find trends, and what you did prior to a good performance, that will help you determine some ideas going forward for what may help you in those situations deal with that pressure and stress.
Interviewer: Alright, I'm sure we could talk about this for hours.
Nicole Detling: Easily.
Interviewer: We've got to wrap it up though. Is there a final thought that you have for our audience when it comes to this topic?
Nicole Detling: Probably, knowing yourself. Finding what you need and then finding the tools that are necessary in order for you to really get what you need out of each experience so that you can perform your best every single time you perform.
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