Remember Sean McColl's statement last weekend when he was commentating finals in Kazo, second Bouldering World Cup 2016? He was talking about the importance of self-confidence as this is a key to being successful. However, his statement included another huge component of competing: dealing with pressure.
Competitors are often under big pressure - everyone wants to win, to do well. Everyone wants to be the one to be remembered. The field is close, very close, and as so often, the difference between winning or failing, getting into (semi) finals or not is extremely close as one (bonus) hold, one movement to get a plus can make the difference. The results of this year's Men's Bouldering World Cups boldly visualize this: hardly anyone has made it to finals twice, the podiums have been mixed thoroughly.
So, dealing with pressure is a mundane companion of the life of a competition climber. How you deal with pressure differs between athletes and is dependent on your mental strength. While some might see it as an additional burden, others take it as a challenge which gives them an extra boost to perform well. So, what type of person are you?
Basically, there are two types of pressure: internal and external pressures.
Let's start with the latter. External pressures can feel both manageable and intense. As soon as an athlete is successful, public expectations are rising - media attention contributes to this. Expectations of media might be most noticeable for outsiders as they tend to claim victories already in advance, talk about the favourites, etc. Particularly in competitions in the athlete's home country with a home crowd, this external pressure can be very much enhanced by both the media and the crowd. The pressure is high as everyone is watching and expecting them to win. And it is true, winning in one's home country is the best experience one could have.
As said, how one deals with this external pressure can differ between athletes and is dependent on the athlete's mental strength. If taken as a challenge, media attention can be seen a stimulus as one's repeatedly reminded of one's own strength and abilities. Moreover, one can be sure that one's cheered on in the crucial moment and that all readers, spectators and listeners keep their fingers crossed.
On the other hand, if pressure is a burden, the fear of failing can occur. When we are afraid of failing we stop focussing and think of consequences instead what in turn leads to less risk-taking and to an increased fear to make mistakes. Now, think of an example yourself: how well are you normally performing when being afraid of making mistakes and thinking of consequences instead of concentrating on the moment?
External pressure can also be amplified by your direct environment - people that are close to you, like friends and family, colleagues and coach. While you can decide yourself to read the news or forecast about your competition, it's hard to escape from your direct environment. The main problem is the direct human contact as it adds a personal component to external expectations and pressure. Pressure in the media can be rather ignored than when a coach or your parents demand success.
Last but not least, pro climbers might be exposed to additional pressure - they get paid for their performance. And whether they can make a living out of their sport depends, among others, on their performance.
On the other side, there's internal pressure. Many athletes constantly put themselves under pressure to be successful. To some extent they expect more of themselves than others. In extreme cases, this can even lead to dissatisfaction with second places - only victories lead to satisfaction. Obviously, such an extreme perspective is not healthy either and can lead to both health and psychological problems, too.
Whoever demands top performance from themselves, tends to train longer and harder, thus giving too much. In addition, the risk of being injured - or not letting injuries heal - increases vehemently. Without taking breaks, the chances of getting into overtraining rise which in turn lead to a decreased training progress. Because of injuries which are not healed up permanent health problems can arise.
Another consequence of too much internal pressure can be on a mental level. Having high expectations of oneself - to always ever be successful - can irritate or even be paralyzing. Once again, the fear of failure might be put in the spotlight instead of the actual act. Other sports have shown in the past that this - in the worst case scenario - can even lead to burnout or depression.
So, is pressure bad? What can we do to deal with it better?
No, pressure is not only bad. As said earlier, athletes who take it as a challenge normally climb better. It's not wrong to have expectations - in contrast, it fosters motivation for training and competitions. They are therefore incredibly important to have. Moreover, there are studies that support the theory of a higher level of concentration and ambition when feeling tensed.
Overall, setting goals and having expectations are really important and helpful to have - as long as you don't lose your sense of reality. Realistic self-assessment helps to better deal with pressure. You learn to accept when someone else is better. Well, even the best of the best have to accept when someone else gets better and beats them one day... or they have to accept that they get older. Instead of taking failures as personal catastrophes and putting yourself even under more pressure, it really helps considering pressure as a challenge. Challenge is a positive approach that awakes positive feelings and an optimistic attitude - even if you don't know the outcome for sure, nothing speaks against a positive one. 😉