Why athletes put too much pressure on themselves

The majority of athletes have high goals and high expectations of themselves to perform. This is something that has been taught from an early age in sport - that the way to success is to repeatedly deliver good results and performances.

Picture of Av: Tommy Davidovic | Cert. Coach (CPCC, PCC, CTPC) & Mental Tränare.
By: Tommy Davidovic | Cert. Coach (CPCC, PCC, CTPC) & Mental Trainer.

The balance between managing expectations, performance and striving to reach high goals while trying to be realistic and stay grounded creates a fine line that many athletes find themselves on the wrong side of. They lose their footing and are dragged into an annoying cycle of high expectations, doubt, and inaction. As an athlete, the assumption is that mistakes are not allowed because everything has to go perfectly if you want to have a chance of reaching your goals. When those all-too-often unrealistic expectations are not met, the inner critic takes over and you end up in a cycle of self-loathing that can make even the most experienced athlete start to doubt themselves.

The root of the problem

While it may be tempting to want tools and exercises to help you manage the pressure you put on yourself, I know that would be the wrong place to start. Imagine yourself walking around in a pair of shoes that create blisters on your feet. Of course, you could invest in buying different patches to use every time you wear the shoes, but wouldn't it be better to just switch to a pair of shoes that don't give you blisters all the time?

So let's start by understanding what this is all about. Of course it is about things like expectations, performance and so on. But the interesting thing is what lies beneath this, what it really means.

This can of course be more or less different depending on the individual. But in general, we have learned over the years that the things that make us feel pressure have a certain importance, weight and ultimately lead to certain consequences depending on the outcome.

So it's less about where the pressure comes from, and more about what failure means!

Here are some examples:

Sports performance requirements

The world of sport is largely about performance, of course, there is no denying that. When you win you have succeeded and when you lose you have failed. It's that simple, isn't it? Well, not really, but we'll get there later in the article. Regardless, we have learned that the best performers are the ones who get the most playing time, attention and appreciation. This can also be reinforced by coaches who reinforce positive results and achievements with praise, and negative results and failures with criticism. Nobody likes to be scolded or criticized, so the pressure increases because we want to avoid it.

Consequences

How do I think my situation will be affected if I fail? Will I get less playing time, less sponsors, worse contracts. What will others think of me? These and other potential negative consequences add to the pressure, whether they are real or imagined.

Your value

For many athletes, their identity and self-worth lies in what they do and achieve. An athlete who does not achieve their goals may feel that they are not good enough or that they have failed themselves and others. This can create a sense of inadequacy and lack of self-confidence. 

Your future

In our society we have created a belief that as long as we perform well, succeed at things and look good in various ways - we will be successful. So much so that we desperately avoid failure like the plague. This is not helped by the fact that we are constantly fed success stories and perfect pictures on social media. So much so that failure is seen as something ugly, and a sign that you might not have what it takes.

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The way we think creates barriers

A sports career is never straightforward and there will be obstacles along the way, not even the best athletes of all time made it through their career without making mistakes and failing. If Michael Jordan missed 9000 shots during his career, it will happen to you too. If we look at the NBA, the shooting percentage is between 44% and 46%. In the NHL, the average is below 9% and in the best European football leagues, the average is between 7% and 10%. This means that the majority of our attempts will not only fail, but are part of the journey that needs to be experienced.

Truth or assumption?

I want to be clear that I am not here to say that all the meaning and significance that the press is often charged with is wrong or false. However, I do believe that there is a perceived truth and a fact-based truth, which is often not so easy to draw the line between. Moreover, I know that many times we use what we think are facts as a way to confirm our beliefs about how things are.

Good results do not lead to success

And losses do not lead to failure either. In fact, although they often go hand in hand (those who are successful have to win a lot sooner or later), they are not directly linked. This is a gross simplification of life and a false belief based on fear. Similarly, we assume what others think and what will happen as a result - but as far as I know, neither I nor you can see what will happen in the future. 

Closing you to learning

When the focus is on avoiding failure, the consequences that follow, worrying about what others will think, how this will affect your career, etc. we close ourselves off to all forms of learning, development and the ability to experience joy in the moment. Things that are actually necessary for your continued success and ability to continuously perform.

Putting you in the future

All the "what ifs" in your mind also make things worse, both by sacrificing the present, getting stuck in the future or making it harder to focus on what you actually need to do here and now. And if you didn't know it already, focus and presence are the two most important things you need to get into flow and perform at your best.

Everyone becomes an opponent

Competing and being challenged by others can be a source of excitement and drive, but there is another side to the coin - with more and more pressure on our shoulders, we tend to see both teammates and opponents as threats. It becomes easier to start comparing your performance and at the same time create a constant feeling of inadequacy and pressure which prevents you from performing freely and at your highest level. It's no wonder that it can be perceived as a burden and that the athlete is a little extra tense when it's time to perform at the next opportunity. 

Athletes leading the way: Joel Thulin

We have helped athletes like Joel, a hockey player who was experiencing a lot of pressure to perform. With the help of The Flow Mindset, Joel not only managed to handle the pressure, each season since then has led to a personal record and a new step in his sports career. In the 22/23 season, he also scored the most points in Östra Hockeyettan, finishing sixth in the entire Hockeyettan. Listen to Joel as he talks about his journey in the video below.

How you can start relieving the pressure

To break the negative cycle of expectations and self-criticism, it is important for athletes to develop sound strategies and a new approach to deal with it. Ultimately, it is important for athletes to understand that everyone is human and will face challenges and failures. Creating a balance between ambition, aspiration and realistic expectations is crucial for a sustainable sporting career on a mental level. Mental health in sport is as important as physical health. It is important to create a culture in teams, clubs and society where athletes can manage their expectations in a healthy way. Encouraging athletes to seek support and the provision of mental coaching resources can be a step towards an environment where athletes do not have to constantly live with excessive pressure on themselves. 

Below are three things you can start working on to change your mindset and develop your ability to handle pressure. 

Shift your focus

By reducing the attention you pay to results and outcomes. This can include setting goals that are about tasks and things that you can do regardless of results and outcomes. It may mean shifting your focus for a little while from all the pressures and worries of a competition, for example, to what is actually fun and enjoyable about competing and practicing your sport.

Challenge your truths

When the perceived pressure feels overwhelming, it is a golden opportunity to challenge your inner truths and assumptions. Sometimes it is the very beliefs we have about ourselves, others and our performance that contribute to our anxiety and nervousness. By questioning and re-evaluating these thoughts, you can discover new perspectives and possibilities. Ask yourself: Are my fears really true? What is the worst thing that could happen, and how likely is it? This process of self-reflection can reduce pressure and open up a more relaxed and confident attitude.

Develop your empathy skills

This is the skill that most people need to practice the most. It's easy to be nice to yourself when things go your way. But the trick is to practice and use empathy with ourselves when the pressure and fear of performance takes over. It is only in resistance that you train the most powerful part of empathy, which is unconditional empathy. Empathy here means making room for and accepting our feelings, not blaming or shaming ourselves for their occurrence, and treating ourselves with the same care and understanding we would offer a good friend in the same situation. By approaching our own experiences with this compassion, we can reduce inner criticism and create a more supportive inner climate. This self-empathy creates a foundation for inner calm and strength, which not only helps us deal with nervousness and pressure, but also promotes greater separation between your value as a person and your achievements. Which is the basis for becoming fearless and thus able to perform consistently at your best.

It requires work

For athletes, regardless of level, sport or experience, the pressure can be too much. The difference is not that some elite athletes don't feel pressure, but rather in how they view the situation, choose to respond and deal with it. Of course, this does not mean that you become immune to pressure and stress, but rather that more of it is required before things start to get messy. It is therefore completely normal to feel pressure on special occasions, but if it happens so often that it both interferes with your performance and your ability to enjoy sports, you can benefit greatly from working with mental training. Just like in the physical and technical part of sports, it takes both time and training to develop. This can of course be done on your own, but we usually recommend saving both time and frustration by using a mental coach for this.

For those who want to know more

If you are an athlete who is curious about what mental training is and how it can help you in your sports career, you can read more about mental training here

If you want to read more about what we offer for mental training, you will find the programs here.

And if you have a question or want to get in touch directly, you can contact us here.

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About the author

Picture of Tommy Davidovic
Tommy Davidovic

Cert. Coach (CPCC, PCC, CTPC) & Mental Trainer who helps athletes get guaranteed change and results fast. Creator of the Flow Mindset method that has helped athletes around the world break their old records and made competition fun again.

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