Performing Under Pressure: 10 Strategies Elite Athletes Use


Every athlete, no matter the level of skill, encounters moments of extreme pressure and must learn to deal with performing under pressure.

The ability to perform under these circumstances can make or break a career. In this article, we will discuss 10 strategies employed by elite athletes to excel under pressure and achieve their goals. By understanding and implementing these techniques, you too can learn to thrive in high-stakes situations.

Image of Jesus Christ playing field hockey. Practicing red head to blue head.

1. Embrace the Pressure

Accept and Reframe the Situation

Elite athletes understand that pressure is a natural part of a competition. Instead of avoiding or resisting it, they embrace pressure as an opportunity to grow and excel. By reframing pressure as a positive force, athletes can shift their mindset and use it to their advantage.

For example, 

Field hockey players who embrace the pressure of a crucial match might take a deep breath and remind themselves that the opportunity to perform in front of a big crowd is what they have trained for. They might reframe the pressure as excitement and use it to drive their performance to new heights.

2. Develop a Strong Pre-Performance Routine

Consistency Breeds Confidence

Top athletes create a consistent pre-performance routine to foster a sense of familiarity and control in high-pressure situations. This routine helps to calm nerves, focus the mind, and instil confidence, allowing athletes to perform at their best when it counts most.

For example,

A field hockey player who has a strong pre-performance routine might always eat a nutritious meal and stretch before games to help calm their nerves and focus their mind. This helps them feel confident and ready to take on any challenge.

3. Master Mental Imagery

Visualization for Success

Visualization is a powerful mental tool used by elite athletes to enhance performance. By mentally rehearsing their performance, athletes can reinforce muscle memory, increase focus, and develop a winning mindset.

For example,

A field hockey player who uses mental imagery to enhance their performance might close their eyes and visualize scoring the winning goal in a big match. This helps reinforce their muscle memory and increase their focus, giving them a winning mindset.

4. Practice Mindfulness and Meditation

Cultivating a Present-Moment Focus

Mindfulness and meditation can help athletes stay grounded and present, improving focus and mental clarity in high-pressure situations. Regular practice also reduces anxiety and stress, fostering a calm and composed demeanour.

For example,

A field hockey player who practices mindfulness and meditation might take a few moments before a game to focus on their breathing and clear their mind. This helps them stay present and focused during high-pressure situations.

5. Develop a Growth Mindset

Embrace Challenges and Learn from Failures

A growth mindset encourages athletes to view challenges as opportunities for improvement. By embracing failures and learning from them, elite athletes develop resilience and adaptability, which are essential for thriving under pressure.

For example,

A field hockey player who has a growth mindset might view a loss as an opportunity to learn and improve, rather than a setback. They understand that challenges and failures are essential for their development and growth as a player.

6. Use Positive Self-Talk

Boost Confidence and Overcome Negative Thoughts

Positive self-talk can help athletes counteract negative thoughts and beliefs, building confidence and enhancing performance. Elite athletes use affirmations and constructive self-talk to stay motivated and focused under pressure.

For example,

A field hockey player who uses positive self-talk might repeat affirmations to themselves such as ‘I am confident and capable’ to boost their confidence and overcome negative thoughts.

7. Focus on What You Can Control

Concentrate on Effort, Not Outcome

By focusing on factors within their control, such as effort and attitude, athletes can maintain a sense of agency in high-pressure situations. This helps to alleviate anxiety and allows athletes to perform at their best without being overly concerned about the outcome.

For example,

A field hockey player who focuses on what they can control might concentrate on their effort and attitude, rather than worrying about the outcome of the game. This helps them maintain a sense of agency and perform at their best.

8. Build a Support Network

Surround Yourself with Positivity and Encouragement

A strong support network is crucial for elite athletes, providing emotional and practical assistance during challenging times. Surrounding themselves with positive influences helps athletes stay motivated, resilient, and focused on their goals.

For example,

A field hockey player who has a strong support network might have a group of friends and family who provide encouragement and support. This helps them stay motivated and focused on their goals.

9. Train Yourself Performing Under Pressure

Simulate High-Stakes Scenarios

Practising under pressure conditions helps athletes develop the skills and mental fortitude needed to perform at their best when it matters most. By simulating high-stakes scenarios in training, athletes can learn to manage stress and anxiety more effectively.

For example,

A field hockey player who trains under pressure might participate in scrimmage games that simulate high-stakes scenarios. This helps them develop the skills and mental fortitude needed to perform well in high-pressure situations.

10. Prioritize Recovery and Self-Care

Maintain Balance for Sustained Success

Elite athletes understand the importance of recovery and self-care in achieving long-term success. By prioritizing rest, nutrition, and mental well-being, athletes can maintain peak performance levels and prevent burnout.

For example,

A field hockey player who prioritizes recovery and self-care might make sure to get enough rest, eat a balanced diet, and practice self-care activities such as meditation or yoga to maintain peak performance levels and prevent burnout.

Red Head/Blue Head – An All Blacks Case Study:

Dr Ceri Evans – Author of ‘Perform Under Pressure’

Dr Ceri Evans, director of Gazing Performance Systems, has played a crucial role in enhancing the mental skills of the All Blacks rugby team. As the author of ‘Perform Under Pressure,’ he introduced the ‘red head, blue head’ concept, helping athletes transition from a state of anxiety to one of focus and composure. Gazing’s practical strategies have been vital to the All Blacks’ success by promoting mental toughness and resilience.

What are the ‘red head’ and ‘blue head’ states?

The ‘red head’ and ‘blue head’ states are psychological concepts introduced by Dr Ceri Evans, which are used to describe an individual’s mental state during high-pressure situations.

A ‘red head’ state is characterized by feelings of anxiety, doubt, and being overwhelmed. In this state, an individual’s focus on the task at hand starts to slip away, often resulting in decreased performance. Common symptoms of a ‘red head’ state include increased heart rate, shallow breathing, and negative thoughts.

Conversely, a ‘blue head’ state is marked by a sense of calm, focus, and certainty in one’s abilities. Individuals in this state can concentrate on the process, live in the moment, and maintain a clear understanding of their roles and responsibilities. A ‘blue head’ state leads to enhanced performance as it enables individuals to make better decisions, stay composed, and effectively manage stress.

How To Get Out of The ‘Red Head’ State

The transition from a ‘red head’ to a ‘blue head’ state involves recognizing personal triggers, managing emotions, and redirecting attention to the present task. By learning and practising mental techniques to shift between these states, athletes and professionals can improve their performance under pressure and maintain composure during challenging situations.

The New Zealand All Blacks have partnered with Gazing Performance Systems to improve their performance under pressure. By mastering the shift from a ‘red head’ state of anxiety to a ‘blue head’ state of focus, the team has developed unique strategies to stay composed in challenging situations. Gazing’s approach encompasses various aspects of mental skills, including personal motivation and triggers, contributing to the team’s overall success.

Find your triggers… it could be that you stop communicating with your fellow teammates, or keep looking at the remaining time on the clock.

Once you know your triggers, then you can realise you’re in the RED head….

…now get out of the red head, what brings you back to your blue head?

Is it that you have to focus on your breathing, scan the field, talk to your teammates, or be more expressive on the bench?

Now keep doing these things and it will bring you back to the blue head where you can enhance your performance and enables you to make better decisions, stay composed, and effectively manage stress better on the field hockey pitch!

Leave a Comment