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How to Perform Under Pressure in Basketball

October 31, 2017


Confidence is a fickle beast! It can come and go with the smallest of mistakes and successes. For example, let's say that things have been going well and you are feeling good about your performance. Then all of a sudden a simple miss and a turnover have you thinking; "what's going on", "I don't want the ball", "will I ever get my shot back", "I stink", "I hope this goes in". Now I know you're thinking, "How did he know that?" Well, we've all been there and it's not fun. But the good news is it doesn't have to be that way! There are mental skills you can develop to get your confidence back, improve your performance and your mental game. They will help you become more mentally tough and better equipped to perform with confidence when it counts.


During the 2009 NBA Finals, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James were asked what they felt separated them from the rest of the field and they both replied without hesitation, "the mental game." You see, the goal of the mental game is confidence and mental toughness. These are vital components of each individual's and team's success. I don't think it's a coincidence that two of the best players of our day and arguably all-time are that way just because of natural talent and hard work. They are that way because of the time they spend working on how and what they think. Have you noticed that you play better when you are confident and believe you can do it? Kobe and LeBron have, and they know the importance of what I tell people all the time, "how you think affects how you play."


This part of your game must be practiced and developed just like dribbling, shooting, passing and rebounding. A coach I recently worked with said, "When you spoke with our team it helped us realize that the mental game is something we have to practice just as much as the physical game. It gave us great insight as coaches."


The seven mental skills I will address in this article are: 1) Awareness 2) Breathing 3) Managing the Moment 4) Thought Stoppage 5) Positive Self Talk 6) Preparation 7) Attitude. These are skills that we can all master to help us develop and maintain confidence under pressure and ultimately empower us to perform our best on a more consistent basis.


Awareness - This is the base or foundational skill in the mental game. I'm talking about body awareness and mental awareness. Our bodies are very good indicators of what's going on in our heads. How many of you get sweaty palms when you're nervous, or your hands get cold? What about butterflies or a tight stomach? Maybe you yawn like Apollo Ohno or get headaches because your stress is manifesting itself in tension in your neck and shoulders. These are great keys or indicators that you can use to remind yourself to breathe, calm down and get your thoughts on the appropriate things.


If you are aware of what's going on with your body and your thinking then you can start to control it and be proactive about getting your game back on track. I always say, "you can't be in control of your performance until you are in control of yourself." It's all about compensating and adjusting. You can't get back on track if you don't know you're off! So start recognizing these indicators and get control. The first step to correcting a problem is recognizing that one even exists!


Breathing - Now that you are aware of those mind and body indicators use your breathing to get control of yourself. Breathing is the easiest skill, you already know how to do it so use it to your advantage! There are two types of breaths 1) Release Breath - Take a big breath and let it out, this gets more oxygen in your body and gets some tension out. 2) Trust Breath - This is a more calm and gentle breath and helps you feel more in control. As you focus on your breathing and slowing it down you will be getting back in the moment and in a better place to think properly.


Managing the Moment - Managing the moment is one of the most crucial parts of playing with confidence and the mental game! A lot of the other skills, including the ones we are talking about here, are directly related to it. The goal is to get to the point where you use them together to help you be in the moment and play with confidence. When faced with a pressure situation, game winning shot, clutch free throws or just getting your game back, we often think back to prior mistakes or what we think "should" have happened.


Then we start thinking and believing it's going to happen again. We also think ahead about what we "think or feel" has to happen. When you think like this it is just like trying to make two free throws at once or scoring six points on one shot and we all know that's impossible. These types of thoughts cause tension about things that are out of your control and virtually take you out of the game and the moment and almost guarantees you will mess up. Slow down and breathe! Have the mentality to play "one shot or possession at a time." Play in the "NOW" as that is the only play that matters and the only one you have any control over. I heard Stephan Curry say after a poor first half shooting effort, "I have to have a short memory when it comes to that..."


Thought Stoppage - This one is easy. Once you have recognized that your thinking is not what it should be you simply say STOP. Think of a stop sign and don't think that thought anymore. Recognize what's going on, say stop, slow down & breathe.


Positive Self Talk - Once you have stopped the thought replace it with something productive and positive. The mind can only think of one thing at a time so decide to be positive and turn it around. For starters, you could just say the opposite of what you were thinking. Replace "I missed the last one so I'm going to miss this one" with "I'll get the next one" or "I'm a 50% shooter. This one's going in." Studies have found that positive, confident thoughts improve motor skills.


Therefore the opposite is true, negative doubting thoughts make you play/perform below your ability! In the late 1800's, the psychologist William James said, "The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitudes of mind." Choose to alter your life and game by choosing to be positive! I guarantee you will be astonished at the result and the surge of confidence you will feel.


Preparation - In one of my other articles, Winning, I talked about the importance of having the "Will to Win". Coach Joe Paterno said, "The will to win is important, but the will to prepare is vital." What he is saying is that will and talent alone are not enough. If you want to be great you must be willing to prepare and work harder than your competition. By preparing the right way you can go into battle knowing that you have done all you can to be ready. This is a great source of confidence and power. Trust in your preparation and let the challengers come.


I recently saw two amazing examples of the power of preparation. The first was Lindsey Vonn, the 2010 downhill 0lympic gold medalist. Talk about handling pressure, they basically hung the gold around her neck before the race. Add to that the fact that two weeks prior she had a nasty crash and sustained a serious shin injury. She hadn't skied on it since and wasn't sure she would be able to ski at all. After her incredible gold medal performance she said that she just trusted in her preparation, and what she had been doing all year and went for it. Her ability to be confident in her preparation and abilities helped her perform her best.


The other example was a young man I had the privilege of working with a few weeks ago. He is a senior in high school and was going into the state wrestling finals. He had won his region but would, if things went the way he thought, be facing an opponent who had previously beaten him. My client was also injured and not yet at full strength. We talked about how hard he had worked and the strengths he possessed that he could count on. Well, things did go the way he thought and he ended up going against that guy. Suffice it to say my client dominated him 10-0. After the match he said "I just trusted in what I had done all year up to this point. I worked my moves and kept a cool head." His, like Lindsey Vonn's, was an emotional victory having worked long and hard and taken second so many times. They both gave all they had and in the end must have felt as Vince Lombardi expressed, "I firmly believe that any man's finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is the moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle - victorious."


Attitude - Lastly, let's talk about attitude. The great thing is you get to decide how and what you think. The author and concentration camp survivor Victor E. Frankl stated, "...everything can be taken from a man but one thing: The last of his freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way." Nowhere in the rule book of life or any sport does it say that because you didn't get the job done or you made a few mistakes, you must meltdown and be discouraged. Keep your head up and focus on what you can do. Attitude is a decision! Lou Holtz said it best, "Ability is what you're capable of doing, Motivation determines what you are willing to do, Attitude determines how well you will do it." Decide to do it well, whatever it is. Commit to giving everything you have and never give up on you chances. Choose your own way!

All of these skills can help you gain and maintain confidence. They must be worked on during practice so you will be able to use them in a game. Its not rocket science but it does take work, patience and determination. As you work at it you will start to see a difference. You will have more fun and you will maximize your potential.


Remember, confidence is contagious so build on any positive aspect of your game. Take those small successes like getting a steal, an assist, a rebound, a block or just good old fashioned hustle and get into the game, get your game back. Confidence is not passive nor for the faint of heart. It is bold and daring; it makes no excuses and takes no prisoners! Confidence is a state of mind, a state of being, not some unattainable challis reserved only for those select few who reach the summit. It waits for every soul who dares to believe in himself or herself despite the odds or challenge. It waits to squelch the thirst of our doubts and fears if we will just drink the cool-aid. Yes confidence, like attitude, is a decision. We just have to trust and believe in our preparation, our abilities and ourselves! Like the late, great Johnny Unitas said, "... if I don't believe in me, who will." Believe, be confident, be great!

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