There are three seconds left on the clock and your team is down by one point. You’re on the free throw line with two shots.
How do you handle it?
You’ve likely been in a situation like this (although perhaps not quite as dramatic) where you’re under a lot of pressure to get the job done. It’s crunch time. We’ll likely see some similar situations this month during the NCAA March Madness tournament.
The best athletes have a few go-to strategies that they put into action in high pressure situations to ensure that they stay composed, focused, and confident.
Here are three tips to help you keep your cool when the pressure is on:
You know how to breathe. You take thousands of breaths each day without even thinking about it. But taking a good, centering breath is a skill – a skill that can help you quiet your mind and calm your body. An effective centering breath sends a message to your brain to relax, and it has the added bonus of giving you something to focus on – your breath.
When the pressure is on, take a moment for a centering breath. Breathe in slowly through your nose for 3 seconds, filling your belly with air. Hold the breath for 1 – 3 seconds before exhaling it slowly out your mouth.
Pro tip: To be effective, a centering breath should travel all the way to your belly, filling it like a balloon as you breathe in. Breaths that stop in the chest are shallow and make your body think you’re under stress.
2. Do a Body Scan
When you feel stressed or under pressure, your body feels it, too. Whether you’re conscious of it or not, your shoulders might begin to creep closer to your ears, or your jaw and fists might start to clench. Tension in your body leads to increased heart rate, which leads to increased breathing… and the cycle goes on. Tension can also get in the way of your body moving smoothly and fluidly like you’ve trained it to do.
It can help to do a quick body scan. Wherever you are (standing on the field, sitting on the bench during a timeout), scan (think about) the muscles in your body from head to toe, checking for any tension. If you find tension, for example, in your shoulders, tense those muscles even more for three seconds, before releasing all of the tension completely.
This helps you not only to be aware of what’s going on in your body, but also to feel loose and ready. You might be surprised how much tension is hiding in your body before you get ready to compete.
3. Focus On Now
Under pressure, it’s easy to start thinking about what could go wrong () or previous times when you’ve underperformed in pressure situations ().
Your best chance to stay composed at crunch time is to stay focused on the present moment – the . Breathing and doing a body scan can help you do this because both of those strategies force you to focus on what you’re doing and how you’re feeling in that moment.
To take it a step further, use some effective self-talk. Plan a word, phrase, or mantra that you’ll use when the pressure is on. It should be something that makes you feel confident and prepared, and keeps you focused on the task at hand. Keep it short so that you can use it in the fast pace of competition. Things like “I got this,” “Just breathe,” or “Let’s go” are some examples. Find what works for you and start using your word or phrase in practice so that you’re ready to rely on it when the pressure is on in competition.
Just like any physical skill, these mental skills get easier the more you practice. Make these three tips part of your practice routine. Even though the pressure is never as high in practice as it is in a game, practice is the perfect place to perfect these skills so that you’re ready to use them in competition.
So, next time you’re on the line in those final seconds, or you feel the pressure mounting, use these tips to help you stay composed and get the job done.