Performing under pressure is what most athletes yearn for, or maybe even avoid. You may be imagining yourself in the big moment with the entire crowd watching and holding their breath as the end of the game looms. You get ready to seize the moment that you have performed countless times, but you begin to feel anxious and start to try a little harder in order to perform at your best. The tension in your body starts to increase as you are about to perform. You may take a breath to gather yourself, but as you get ready to shoot that shot or serve in tennis, you choke (i.e., performing a skill you have mastered and then are unable to perform). Most of you are familiar with choking or may have seen it on TV and you may be wondering what was going through their mind at that moment. Figuring out how to manage those moments can be complicated and overwhelming.
Mindfulness could be an intervention that you utilize to help focus your attention on the present moment during those pressure situations. As a reminder, mindfulness (i.e., intentionally focusing on the present moment) is a strategy that was discussed in a previous blog a few weeks ago (One with the Moment, You Be), if you need a refresher on what mindfulness is check out this blog for some more information.
Recently there has been more research on mindfulness in respect to sport performance. Specifically, Wolch and colleagues (2020) examined the effectiveness of a mindfulness intervention on performing under pressure while shooting free-throws in 32 male recreational basketball players who had on average eight years of basketball experience and attended a university in the northwest region of the United States. A low pressure phase was implemented as a pre-test where the participants completed a few surveys and they performed 20 free-throws. Depending on their free throw performance they were placed into two groups, a control group who received a 15 minute lecture on the history of basketball and the intervention group received a 15 minute guided mindfulness meditation. Next, participants completed a high pressure phase (two weeks later), where the participants were informed that they were being recorded and that if they had the highest free-throw shooting percentage they would win a gift card. In addition, the participants completed their 15 minute session of mindfulness or the history lecture. The researchers included a few surveys to measure mindfulness and anxiety, as well as they recorded the number of free-throws made and the quality of the free-throw shot (i.e., 0 for an airball, 5 for a clean swish).
The results from the participants’ performance indicated that on average the mindfulness group made more free-throws (70.7%) during the high pressure phase than the control group (61.6%), but this was not statistically significant. In regards to shot quality, there was no difference between the two groups. In addition, during the high pressure phase, cognitive (i.e., thoughts you are saying to yourself) and somatic (i.e., body tension) anxiety decreased for the mindfulness group.
This is one of the first studies that examines the effect of a brief mindfulness intervention on performing under pressure. Although the participants did not perform significantly better it is important to note that the mindfulness group did have decreases in anxiety. With that said, implementing mindfulness training on your own may be a beneficial way to prepare you for your athletic performances. I would encourage you to try out some mindfulness videos when there is no pressure involved rather than just trying it before a big game. Similar to other skills it is important to practice these consistently in order to improve your ability to focus on the present moment, even during pressure situations. If you are interested in learning more about mindfulness or other mental skills, please contact Western Washington’s Center for Performance Excellence to work with one of our sport and exercise psychology graduate students (https://wp.wwu.edu/cpe/).
Wolch, N. J., Arthur-Cameselle, J. N., Keeler, L. A., & Suprak, D. N. (2020). The effects of a brief mindfulness intervention on basketball free-throw shooting performance under pressure. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 1-17.