Stepping out of your comfort zone is the norm for competitive athletes. Highly motivated athletes are expected to train harder, perform better for optimal results. High performance is easiest under ideal conditions.

If you’ve been competing for any length of time, you know conditions are not always in your favor. Maintaining focus during crunch time, facing adverse conditions, requires confidence, focus and a strong skill set.

How you respond to adversity is what separates the winners from all the other athletes. A small margin exists in the physical abilities between elite athletes. Frequently it is just one point, one shot or a fraction of a second to claim the winning title.

How can an athlete transform from a choker, underperforming when pressured, to a clutch player, rising up to the challenge at crunch time?

  • Challenge – When do you choke under pressure? Awareness of the events causing you to lose focus is your starting point.
  • Story – What do you tell yourself when you’re feeling pressured? Confidence is replaced by anxiety during high pressure moments. Without you realizing what is happening under the surface your thoughts start shifting to the problem. The most confident athletes crumble under pressure. It’s all due to a shift in their perception.
  • Detachment – Many athletes are tied to their story. If something unexpected occurs, then you react a certain way. Fight, flight or freeze are the most common responses. Even though you probably aren’t in a dangerous situation your brain is responding as if you are going to be attacked. What causes you to choke is your emotional response. Clutch athletes size up the situation, without a lot of emotion. Remaining neutral, and slightly detached, dramatically shifts your perception. You want to act, not react, under pressure.
  • Insights – lead to a solution. Take an honest assessment of your typical response to crunch time moments. Often a pattern exists. Sometimes it’s obvious to everyone but you. Discover how you cope during tough high pressure moments. Decide if your response is really working for you now.
  • Preparation: Now that you’ve done some digging around it’s time to plan. Who do you need to become to maintain focus through adversity?  It’s an interesting question athletes rarely ask themselves. Don’t wait for the next crunch time challenge causing you to choke again. Take initiative. Create a new response to those high pressure moments.
  • Coaching – Similar to any other part of your training program, performance accelerates with coaching. Training your mental game is just as important for clutch performance as your speed, agility and endurance training. Frequently poor performance is due to your mindset.

High performance under all conditions requires a strong mental game. Don’t leave that to chance.  Resiliency is an advanced strategy to navigate through the unexpected challenges when competing. Uncover your strengths. Successfully facing adversity builds confidence.

During crunch time the athlete who maintains a strong focus under pressure will outperform even more talented athletes. The insights about your response to pressure plus training to stay strong will transform you from choking under pressure to clutch performance. Now’s the time for you to create a new response.

Challenge: What can you learn from previous experience where you choked under pressure? In your notebook, list the problem and your response.  Now list the new response you’d like to develop. Write down which thoughts interfere with your performance. Now write what you are willing to do differently to change your response. If you can’t think of anything then think of someone else you know who doesn’t let pressure get under their skin. Consider what they are doing that is different from you. Now list what you noticed about them that you could model.

Read more: Sports Mindset Moment – Athletes Creating a New Response to Pain