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Dealing with Pressure – England’s Red Roses

England’s women are the current world champions and tonight face France in the Rugby World Cup semi-final. Now, as the defending champions they will be under more pressure to succeed then previous world cups before them.

Despite having the ability to perform skills effectively, and having the potential to achieve success, a variety of athletes perform sub-optimally in situations which amplify the importance of doing well, on particular occasions (Lewis & Linder, 1997).

The physiological cause of choking is situated in the pre-frontal cortex (the part of the brain where working memory is used). In stressful situations, the pre-frontal cortex stops working as efficiently as it should, focusing too much on specific details and disrupting the overall process. Therefore, when highly distracted such as in a high-pressure scenario, athletes begin to worry too much on the situation and the consequences of their actions. This results in task irrelevant cues which compromises the working memory.

From the point of view of a sport psychologist, choking can affect over psychological factors. A decrease in performance can potentially lead to individuals being extremely self-critical, as well as perhaps experiencing a decreased self- confidence (Hanton et al. 2010). If athletes feel like this constantly, then performance standards could be severely affected in the short term and long term (Hill et.al 2009). The athlete may begin to focus too much internally, increasing self-consciousness in the athlete, which in turn could lead to the athlete feeling a higher level of pressure.

Some athletes however, do not choke under pressure and in fact thrive in high pressure situations. These are known as clutch performances. As a sport psychologist, being able to increase the chances of clutch performances is something that is very interesting. Iso-Ahola and Dotson (2014) proclaim that, psychological momentum could to be a potential antidote to choking, which may provide the pathway for clutch performances additionally. To put simply, this refers to the added psychological power that gives the athlete the feeling that they have an advantage over their opposition (Iso-Ahola & Mobily, 1980).

By encouraging athletes to analyse their successful performances (Cox 2008), self-efficacy can be attained, which could provide a stepping stone for momentum. Therefore, if athletes realise that they have performed the skill successfully in the past, it could motivate them to persevere and achieve success in present and future competitions, resulting in an increase in motivation.

However, if momentum is not high within an athlete there are other strategies that can be used to reduce the effect of choking. Coping strategies may be used to help the athlete cope with the stress or anxiety they feel when performing under pressure. One way of doing this is by using emotion-focused strategies (Cox, 2008). These emotion-focused strategies include utilising self-talk and social support (Thelwell et al., 2010). Goal setting could also be used as a way to over-come choking, by setting appropriate goals to help allow the athlete to achieve and thus build momentum in this way, which in turn would allow for an increase in confidence and motivation. It will be interesting to see how England manage the pressure of being reigning champions and if there is any choking or clutch performances on show in the game tonight!

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