How do elite athletes handle pressure?
The new Telegraph Women’s Sport Podcast discovers key to success, writes Sarah Mockford
The phrase “pressure is a privilege” has been used by so many sportspeople since it was coined by tennis great Billie Jean King that it has almost become trite. Yet there is undoubtedly truth in the benefits of reframing what is often perceived as a negative into a positive.
It certainly worked for Maggie Alphonsi at the 2014 Rugby World Cup. Having lost the two previous finals, the back-row changed her mindset for that tournament and duly helped England to lift the trophy in Paris.
“It was about reframing the word pressure, changing my language,” Alphonsi told the first episode of The Telegraph Women’s Sport Podcast, which launched this week and is hosted by Olympic gold medalwinning hockey player Sam Quek. “Going into 2014, I did feel, and many of my team-mates felt, that pressure on our shoulders because you reach a point where you go, ‘I hope that we’re not going to be a nearly team.’
“I worked to change my thinking. So, every time I had negative thoughts, self-doubt about my ability or how I performed, I would write it down. It worked so well; it was cathartic. I felt like I was able to release it and let go of it if I had negativity. Then I came back stronger the next day.”
It is a point emphasised by sport psychologist Helen Davis, who is director of the Think Believe Perform consultancy and has worked with elite athletes in a wide range of sports.
“One of the things that I like to talk about pressure is challenge and threat states – whether you view it as a challenge or as a threat,” said Davis on the podcast.
“Generally speaking, if you view something as a threat, you’re looking at the uncertainties of the situation, the danger it might be to your self-esteem if you don’t win, what other people are going to think. It’s going to be really painful at the end of the race.
“When you have a challenge mindset, you’re focusing on the resources that you have to cope with the demands of your situation, what things build your self-confidence, what things do you have control over, what things you would need to be doing to help yourself perform well. And those little shifts in thinking from a challenge to a threat mindset can be all it takes for somebody to actually change how they feel.”
Preparation is crucial, too; knowing that you have done all you can to perform on the biggest stage. Take the Lionesses’ triumph in football’s European Championship last summer: the pressure on the team grew as the tournament progressed and the fact they were playing in England only added to it.
Yet Ellen White, who started every game up front for England, insists that the team were able to cope with that pressure, having discussed such scenarios before the tournament.
“We felt lucky to have that pressure,” White said on the podcast.
“We’d spoken about it prior to the tournament, how to deal with the crowds and the media, breathing techniques and that type of thing: if you ever did feel too much pressure, how to speak to one another and that communication. So, we’d done a lot of work beforehand and we did feel really prepared. We knew that anything could happen, but felt we had the tools to know what to do.
“For me, doing all the one per centers – making sure you’re eating the right food, training well, sleeping. Everyone had their own processes, but we all understood each other’s processes that would help them to perform at the highest level. I feel like we had done all the work, so we were in the right place.”
Lifting the trophy at Wembley catapulted White and her team-mates into the public eye, with the Lionesses cutting through the public consciousness like never before. Yet there is still plenty of work needed to close the visibility gap in women’s football, which is why the Football Association and Google Pixel have teamed up to create Pixel FC. White, who retired after the Euros, explained: “They’ve got content creators who are going to showcase women’s football in a new light and are going out to Australia and New Zealand [for the World Cup]. What they’re doing to promote the game is going to be insane. It’s exciting.” As is The Telegraph Women’s Sport Podcast. The first episode is focused on success and other topics in the six-part series are coaching, periods, ACLS, motherhood and activism, with guests from across the sporting world. New episodes will be released every Tuesday.
Women’s Sport Monthly