There are few bigger compliments for a sportsperson than to say of them that they ‘perform under pressure’ or are ‘a big game player’. Conversely there are few more devastating moments than an athlete ‘choking under pressure’. But why does pressure have such an effect on us, how can we cope with it and does the Bible give us any pointers?
One of the strange things about pressure is that whilst we talk about ‘clutch players’ who perform under pressure, there is a sense in which this is a misleading description. Pretty much all players (even the ones we think play better under pressure) don’t, they just don’t underperform quite as much as the rest! Sure adrenaline plays its part in helping players to be faster, stronger, and fitter in the moment, but in terms of technique, pressure is a killer.
Pressure distracts us from the skill we are trying to execute and causes us to falter when in training we could do the task easily. This is why top coaches instruct players in numerous techniques to shut out the pressure and focus on the skill they are performing. Routine, mental triggers and focus tools are all helpful.
Really this is what a big game player is; someone who is able not to get caught up in the moment as much as others, but focus on their routine and execute the skill. This is why golfers or kickers have a totally rigid routine, why greats like Roger Federer talk about ‘being in the zone’ in terms of ‘shutting out all the noise’; pressure is a hindrance to performance and so shutting it out is the best way to perform under it!
Interestingly, one of the important ways of shutting out the pressure is to unload the mental burden that comes with it. This means not being distracted with anything else (the crowd, the score, the opposition, your parents in the stands) but only thinking about the skill right in front of you. It shouldn’t surprise us that because God knows us best, His word, the Bible, has wonderful resources to help us do this.
1 Peter 5 v 5b-7 (NIV) says “God opposes the proud but shows favour to the humble”. Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you’.
God calls us to unload our burdens on Him - the sovereign Lord who feels no pressure and who cares for us. Contrary to what we may think, these verses say someone who is anxious is not humble but proud because they are trying carry something God has said to them they can’t bear and a load that He has offered to carry.
When we cast our concerns on God then it means that we are liberated from any extrinsic thoughts. God is carrying our burdens, so we don’t need to, therefore we can just focus on the skill and the moment. To the extent that we do this, we will find ourselves more ‘in the zone’ and will perform better under pressure.
So why not try some practical, biblical steps to help yourself perform under pressure? Pray before the match or race and commit your concerns to God. Ask Him to help you to stay in the moment. If in the match you feel the pressure crowding in on you, why not prayerfully envisage each burden like a heavy bag that you are giving over to Him until no burdens remain and you are free from the pressure?
Nothing else remains, just the skill, just this moment, focus on it, trust Him with the rest and execute. And of course should you miss or make a mistake then you can trust God with that too, which enables you to refocus and go again!
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A weekly devotional for sports people