What Cool Runnings Can Teach Us About Performing Under Pressure

Matt Long, M.A., M.Ed., CC-AASP

In my previous post, I introduced the idea of making the intangible components of performance tangible.  In the field of applied sport psychology this is often accomplished by way of mental skills.  These skills (i.e., self-talk, goal-setting, relaxation techniques, focus cues, mental imagery, etc.) are the tools that make it possible to address the mental side of performance in measurable, tangible ways.

But to stop there would only skim the surface – the real development and growth happen in the depths, in the complexities that make us who we are.  Ultimately, performing at your best when it matters most is more about how well you know and accept yourself than applying mental skills. 

Now, my goal is not to downplay or diminish the value of mental skills, but to place them in a bigger, more important context.  Without an ever-developing knowledge of self, mental skills become band aids with only short-term effectiveness.  These skills can help you develop and stay in the right mindset, but true long-term growth will only happen with a deeper understanding of what makes you tick.

To help put all of this in perspective, let’s look at the two most popular reasons anyone reaches out to me: confidence and performing under pressure.

1)    Confidence is inseparable from performance.  Many times there is a gap between how an athlete performs in practice and how they perform in competition, and this gap is attributed to issues with confidence.  If an athlete is struggling with their confidence, I can help them develop mental skills like imagery, positive self-talk, and routines in order to help them feel more confident.

But authentic, lasting confidence comes from truly knowing yourself, accepting yourself, and laying out a plan for improving the areas where you desire growth.  This connection of self-acceptance to confidence is laid out nicely in a book I picked up recently called Playing Golf by Dr. Jeff Kaltenbach.  For you golfers, I highly recommend it.

2)    Performing under pressure is often highlighted as the ultimate measure of one’s mental skills.  Your ability to find the optimal mindset for performing at your very best can be tested in many circumstances, from the playing field to the classroom to the boardroom.  Again, I can offer mental skills like relaxation techniques and routines to help you deal with the pressure.

But the kind of mental abilities required to perform under pressure can only be developed over time, through a deep understanding of self and a big picture perspective on competing.  To put it simply, only athletes who understand (and more importantly, accept) the true risks of competition will excel under pressure.  It’s about a willingness to put it all on the line, to risk big, meaningful things, in order to pursue deep learning and self-improvement – this is the only path to the extraordinary.

It is only in this big picture context that a performer can learn to embrace the challenges before them and identify the unnecessary meaning they have attached to them.  This is what is meant by “getting out of your own way.”

And there’s no better illustration of this point than the movie filled with never-ending life lessons…of course I’m referring to the one and only Cool Runnings:

“A gold medal is a wonderful thing.  But if you’re not enough without it, you’ll never be enough with it.”

To truly push the limits of your potential, and reach meaningful gains in critical areas like confidence and performing under pressure, you will have to dive beneath the surface of who you are.  The secret to lasting growth is a self-awareness and a self-acceptance that allows you to embrace the challenges before you.

As always, I am more than happy to help you.  Please don’t hesitate to reach out with questions and/or feedback.