Performing At the Highest Level in the Biggest Moments

March 18, 2019

Zack Etter

When it comes to performing at the highest level in the biggest moments, talented athletes fall into one of two categories. Some athletes get better under pressure, rising to the top of their game in critical moments – and others don’t, succumbing to the situation and performing at a level that isn’t what we’re accustomed to seeing.

The difference between these athletes lies in the strength of their mental skills. An example of an athlete who dominates big games and uses all the mental skills he has to his advantage in huge moments is Juventus’ Forward Cristiano Ronaldo. This past week, with his team down 2-0 in aggregate (and 2-0 on away goals) heading into the second leg of Juventus’ Champions League matchup with Atletico Madrid, Ronaldo did what he does best, scoring three goals en route to his team’s 3-0 victory, advancing them to the next round.

Big moment. Big performance. Rinse and repeat. Whether it’s Cristiano Ronaldo, Tom Brady, LeBron James, or Tiger Woods, what separates these athletes from players who don’t always perform up to expectations, such as Neymar, Chris Paul, or Rickie Fowler?

  • Athletes who perform well in big games are able to manage their performance anxiety.

Note that it’s not that athletes who perform at a high level don’t experience anxiety, they just deal with it in a healthier, more efficient and productive way. For example, Cristiano Ronaldo uses mindfulness meditation during games to relax his body and bring his mind into the present moment. He takes opportunities before set pieces, penalty kicks, corner kicks, and other stoppages of play to reset his breathing and his mentality. Finding a system of breathing techniques that works is paramount to an athlete’s ability to stay present and grounded during a time when external forces are creeping into their thoughts. Forces that tell them “this is a huge moment,” and “there’s a lot riding on this performance.” Mindfulness meditation helps the athlete accept those thoughts, decide that they’re insignificant and not real, and move forward so they could simply focus on their technique and training.

  • Athletes who perform well in big games use Visualization as part of their preparation.

It’s an old saying that “games are won and lost in the offseason.” To a large extent, this is true. Athletes lift weights, condition, watch film, and prepare for their performances weeks and months prior to the event taking place. But what about mentally? Athletes who perform well in big moments are able to objectively visualize all the different scenarios they could encounter in their performance and create a mental roadmap for how to navigate each situation. As I discuss in My Mental Playbook, objective visualization doesn’t mean laying in bed the night before a performance and picturing being successful, envisioning dominating, and building confidence that way. Confidence doesn’t come from hope, it comes from preparation. Preemptively putting yourself in adverse situations mentally to consider “How do I respond when my team is down 2-0 going into the second leg?” or “If I mishit my fairway drive on the 3rd hole, how am I going to temper my emotions, change my gameplan, and save par,” is the true way to build confidence. The athlete is truly prepared when they have mentally considered all possible outcomes and created a plan for how they’ll respond physically, tactically, and mentally.

  • Athletes who perform well in big games have a Growth Mindset and decide to “Be the Storm.”

Big moments come with expectations and responsibility for athletes. Ronaldo knows that being down 2-0 in aggregate going into the second match of a Champions League battle is why Juventus brought him there. Tom Brady knows his role on the team is to pull off a close game late and lead them to victory in the final minutes when called upon to do so. These athletes have a growth mindset, and take the challenge on because they genuinely love being put in these situations. They consider it an opportunity to compete at the highest level, to show off all their hard work, and to play the game they love. They consider the nervous feeling they have before the performance a blessing that they’re lucky to have. They consider pressure as a privilege — it means you’re doing something important. Finally, a big moment with a great deal of scrutiny could feel like a storm is brewing. These athletes decide to BE the storm and impose their will, determination, and ability onto the situation. Their mindset, in this respect, is elite.

While the athletes I’ve referenced are fiercely talented, notice how none of these mental skills require any sort of physical or tactical advantage over their opponent. To dominate in big moments means controlling your emotions, managing your anxiety, remaining objective and calculating, and genuinely enjoying the moment and the challenge and considering it a privilege to partake in.