Embrace Pressure, But Also Reduce It

I often advise athletes to embrace pressure, to learn to enjoy it rather than fear it, and to be excited rather than nervous. This can be great advice. For one, it encourages you to seek pressure situations instead of running from them. This is good because great things can only be achieved by overcoming pressure. As the saying goes: no pressure, no diamonds. Also, by seeing pressure as a challenge rather than a threat, you can manage your emotions better and perform better because of this.

However, another piece of advice I give to athletes is the need to reduce pressure in order to perform better. I say this because contrary to what some people believe, pressure doesn't improve performance. With all else being equal, pressure harms performance by interfering with our working memory and muscle memory. In short, it causes us to choke and act too emotionally. When people perform well under pressure, they perform well despite of pressure, not because of it. This is why I tell people to find ways to reduce pressure, so they can play more relaxed and emotionally composed.

But doesn't this advice contradict the advice to embrace pressure? How can you embrace and also reduce pressure? It may seem like these pieces of advice contradict each other, but they actually don't. Embracing pressure doesn't mean you purposely increase the amount of pressure you feel. And reducing pressure doesn't mean you run away from pressure. This is a mistake that many people get wrong. Here is an example to help you understand:
Imagine a boy is thinking about signing up for his school talent show. The boy may be scared to sign up at first because he knows there’s a lot of pressure involved in a talent show. To help motivate himself to enter the pressure situation (the talent show), the boy could try to embrace pressure. He could tell himself that the only way to showcase his talents is by doing the talent show. He also could focus on being excited about succeeding rather than being nervous about failure.

This embracement of pressure is perhaps the best way to motivate the boy to enter the pressure situation. Once the kid enters the talent show, he knows that he will need to reduce the amount of pressure he feels in order to calm his nerves and perform well. He can still embrace the pressure and be excited about doing well, since this also helps reduce pressure. This is often needed, since pressure can sometimes be so high that you can’t completely reduce it, and you can only minimize it by choosing to be excited instead of nervous. But in most cases, you can do more to reduce pressure. To help reduce pressure, the kid can downplay the importance of the situation by telling himself that the outcome isn’t going to drastically affect his future. He could improve his confidence by practicing a lot and improving his self-talk. He can also focus on the task at hand to prevent fear from entering his mind. He can do all of this while maintaining his motivation and courage, and without running away from the pressure.

In summary, to perform well under pressure, you have to first enter the pressure situation, then you have to reduce the pressure you feel so you can manage your emotions better.

This is how embracing pressure and reducing pressure can be complementary strategies. Remember, embracing pressure is meant to motivate you to enter pressure situations and to give your best effort. It can also be used to lower pressure as well. If you’re embracing pressure in a way that increases the amount of pressure too much, then you’re using this strategy wrong. You should never add unnecessary amounts of pressure.

Also remember that reducing pressure is meant to help you perform better in pressure situations that you’re already in. It’s not meant to have you avoid pressure situations altogether. If you’re reducing pressure in a way that decreases your effort, or prevents you from entering pressure situations, then you’re using this strategy wrong.

So my final advice is to embrace pressure, but also reduce it. If you use both of these strategies correctly, you will greatly improve your performance under pressure.

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