The keys to learning how to handle pressure and bringing it under control, according to Henk Verschuur, manager of Johan Cruyff Institute Amsterdam and professor of the Master in Coaching
Call it psychological warfare. Or call it pressure. Call it transfer responsibility. Or call it evading the pressure. At the moment of facing an exam, the pressure is there. Before a competition, a match, the pressure is there. And let’s not kid ourselves, we all feel it at some point; our own pressure, through wanting to do things well, and the one that others put on us, expecting results. But what is pressure really? Is there a way to combat it? Can we learn to assume and deal with it so that it is not a determining factor that harms our performance?
Henk Verschuur, manager of the Johan Cruyff Institute Amsterdam and professor of the Master in Coaching, gave some clues on how to learn to perform under pressure in a webinar of the Female Coaching Network. Henk shared with a wide group of coaches techniques on how to work on their own pressure and help their athletes to face it. Here, we offer a broad summary of what he offered in a session of more than an hour of pure coaching.
Henk is manager of Johan Cruyff Institute Amsterdam and professor of the Master in Sport Management and of the Master in Coaching, member of the executive board of the IWUF (International Wushu Federation), the largest martial arts federation in the world, and a member of the Dutch Olympic Committee organization NOC*NSF. He has also played key roles in (inter)national sports federations, participated in negotiations between sport ministries and international sports sanctioning bodies and has been a national and international coach for more than 3 decades and produced over 50 international titles (World, European and Intercontinental titles).
Help yourself before helping your players
Very often in sport, we overlook the position of the coaches and we tend to have only instruments to help our athletes. And that’s not where we are going to start. We’re going to start just thinking about what you actually experience whilst you perform under pressure. Imagine for instance that you are a coach that has lost quite a few matches. And the next match is going to be ‘make or break’ while the Executive Board has told you that if you lose one more match they will throw you out. How do you react then when you have a group of athletes that you have to coach? Are you going to radiate your tension or are you just simply going to stay calm and cool?
The root of the pressure
The first thing that actually makes your pressure go up is calculating the unknown. What you don’t know, you estimate to be large and negative. Have you ever had the experience when you were in another country where you have prepared so well and you take a lot of stuff in your suitcase and think about the fact that you might do a trip in a forest and some unknown territory while the next time you go to the same country you just take with you shorts and flip-flops? That’s what we call estimating the unknown as big and negative. And that’s actually the same thing that happens to your athletes.
How to face the unknown?
The first step that we have to take is to consider the following question: where do you have to influence and what is not yours? Very often we estimate that there is not so much in our own power and we see ourselves incapacitated, and therefore more or less paralyzed, and we can’t really do what we need to do. We always look at the athletes, but how do we actually look at ourselves?
Assessing the environment
Also a very essential question just to lead into performance under pressure: is there really such a big difference in playing a match on a pitch when it’s the final of the World Championship compared to what you do in a regional match or are there many more things in common? Is it not only another pitch and opponent? Or is it really so much more? How much does it really differ? Do you as a coach react the same under all circumstances? Can you perform under pressure yourself? Have you ever checked that? Have you had training? Do you do this on a competent conscious level? Calculating the unknown is one of the things that make pressure go up. You can beat around the bush, but we have to admit that to a certain extent we are all human beings and we as coaches do that. That’s why I found it so important that we here at the Institute focus on the coach first before we actually focus on the athletes.
The ‘layered cake’
Imagine you are doing some shopping for Christmas and you are walking in a really crowded store and somebody bumps into you while you are carrying two or three bags and that person wasn’t looking and bumps into you. Let’s compare this to when you’re walking on the beach with your loved ones on one of those nice summer holidays and somebody bumps into you. What’s actually the difference? The difference is the layer cake. The experience that you’ve had and the emotions that you stacked up during that day or through that period. So that is also something that influences you as a coach. We as coaches always focus on the athlete. But can we convey trustworthy messages and can we show trustworthy behaviour while we’re not really sure if we are conscious and competent enough to deal with our own emotions?
Dominate the situation vs the situation dominates you
Evaluating the unknown helps you to see what is really true, what is really needed to prepare, how much tension you really need to have. What is yours really tells you where you can have certain kind of controls or do you feel that everything is controlled by the environment and are you are just a simple subject to it? Simply asking this question gives you some insight into what is yours. And that will help you to limit such things that might need a little bit more attention or more professional attention.
Focus attention beyond the coach
Have you ever watched those matches where you see that the coach is just showing his passion, trying to give instructions? But have you ever looked away from the coach and looked at the behavior on the bench? How do your assistant coach, your physiotherapist, your doctor and your team manager actually react? Have you ever given that attention? This is something that I would advise you to do. Look at your staff and see how they perform, because very often their verbal or non-verbal behavior will influence the performance of the athletes. Look at the matches, don’t look at the coach, but look at the behavior of the people on the bench. People who are there as your staff, but also the athletes who are the reserves. Because very often, the coach is competent enough but then the other ones show a different behavior. If you were an athlete, do you still remember how demotivating it is when you see that your coach is stressed or when your coach is OK but the rest of your staff is stressed? One important point, because the more you look at it, the more you understand that if you do everything on a conscious competent composed level you can be the best staff, providing the best help for the athletes.
Work on your own balance
An angry coach cannot coach somebody who needs to be calm, a coach that fears for his own position or has doubts about his own competencies or doubts about the team and shows that he can’t really coach confidence into the team. That is something we know. And very often, at least one thing is sure: you might hide it but people can sense and see it, so the first thing that you have to do is work on your own balance. This is not tricks and tools. But that’s a way of thinking and having some essential insights and how to actually use principles to put yourself first in balance under pressure and then apply the same to your athletes. If you truly understand what the insights are, then you can be a better coach.
Eliminate control to have control
Make sure that from having no control you get in control, because performing under pressure is about feeling no control. Set your goals. How do you want to behave? What do you want to reach? But create things that are tangible for you. Say to yourself that if it comes to those things that will disrupt your fine preparation, like busses that are too late, logistics that don’t function, athletes that don’t perform well, that this is information. Set yourself a goal that you would say to yourself: OK, this is information and I’m going to digest the information and I have the competencies to react and respond to it properly. Set yourself a goal for how you are going to behave under pressure. Say that you are going to stay calm. You’ll make mistakes, you’ll feel that you have set yourself goals and maybe you won’t reach these goals instantly. But there is one strong force. The things you give attention will grow. So if you give attention to the fact that you have to set goals, I can assure you that this will most surely help you reach those goals.
Regulate the tension
Tension regulation is a very simple principle: tension regulation is about being aware of what raises your tension. Awareness is the key word here. As soon as you are aware of tension, your tension will drop. Tension regulation starts just simply by the fact that you are going to give attention to tension. Tension regulation is something that you can handle if you are going to combine two things. One is setting goals and the other one is visualization. Imagine a situation or take a memory from your history as a coach and think about that situation, and imagine that you are going to manage it in another way where you have no tension, where you don’t lose your temper, where you are actually calm, overseeing the situation and understanding what your athlete needs. Because as soon as you have to perform under pressure, you don’t have any control. If you perform under pressure, you will see so many possibilities within your own way of capabilities to really tap into that and find a proper solution or a proper way to coach your athlete, or surprisingly, you might even coach your athlete in the same way as during a training session whilst this person is performing on the highest platform, aiming for a title. I know that by now you understand that I am simply talking about if the situation really differs so much from training? So set yourself a goal, understand that you need to regulate tension by the awareness that you have of tension and then visualize how you are going to react in a certain case. Do something that is tangible for you. I think there is one big secret in all of this: you are allowed to be there, nobody else. The same goes for the athlete: you have worked hard, you have found your way, you found your destination, you have found a place where you can use your talents, and it’s a privilege and a joy.
Control your mind
The addition of setting goals, tension regulation, where you’re aware of tension and training visualization and where you look at yourself and think about how you’re going to react all together is called mind control. The more you do it, the more you will master it, but it will be a natural process. Even if I take an example like driving a car: if you start to drive the car and somebody cuts you off whilst you’re driving at 120km/h, I think you will inhale really strongly and exhale really strongly and then you’re going to drive at 60km/h on the highway because it’s your first experience. If it happens for the tenth time in a year or even when you’re driving for many years you just see it, you take it as information and I think that you will perform steadily and correctly as you’ve done before and only see it and just pursue your way. This is pretty much the same. A disruption in what happens is information.
Making decisions under pressure without thinking too much about the risks
What is the worst that can happen? I invite you to think about that. What’s the worst thing that is going to happen? You know, if you start with these thoughts up front, I would say it’s harder to imagine this when you are in the finals or in an Olympic match when you are going to get gold or silver. Let’s just downsize this to the principle where you’re making your regular training and you start to really work on these principles in your preparations. It’s about training, attention and awareness. This is not something that you should do for the first time when you are in a big match. If you want to find solutions you have to have an open mind because an open mind works the best. As soon as you think about risks, your mind is going to close and be limited to the basic knowledge that you have and maybe some creative power. The first thing that I would do is downsize it and say: OK, what’s the worst thing that could happen? Maybe you lose the match, but if you lose the match and you learn and make some opening for yourself, lean back and release the pressure a bit, you might find a solution that might not work straight away in the match you have now, but it will certainly give you some security that the next time that you do it, you are more open to it. It’s just a matter of asking yourself if you have estimated everything around it that paralyzes you from really and truly making a decision. Because you don´t have the stress of making a decision, you have the privilege and the power to make the decision. You are there, you’re allowed to do this, and you are also allowed to make mistakes. Perfectionism is not a human principle, please remember that. You’re allowed to make mistakes, but if you look at your mistakes as information, it will help you recuperate, refresh and reframe and that will surely help you move forward.
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