Step Up and Deliver: What Gymnastics Taught Me About Performing Under Pressure

David Sender was my teammate and 2008 USA National Champion in the all around. He's one of the greatest clutch performers I've ever met.

This is a three part series on what gymnastics taught me about acquiring and mastering skills, overcoming fear and delivering clutch performances.

Gymnastics is a sport about delivering under pressure. Even though you can make it a team sport by aggregating scores and swapping out players, there is actually not interaction between your teammates outside of them cheering for you and helping you prepare for your performance, or even between you and your competition.

When you raise your hand and salute before your routine, it is all on you.

There is usually nothing else for the crowd to focus on but you. Your entire team is watching you. There are 2 professionally trained judges whose sole job is the evaluate your performance and grade your 30-60 second performance in executing extremely difficult maneuvers without any mistakes or flaws. Competing in gymnastics is kind of like a basketball game of all free throws.

Talk about pressure.


I estimate that I’ve had saluted for nearly 1,000 routines over 16 years of competition [1], with over 200 of those salutes / routines being performed for a national level competition (Winter Cup, Jr Nationals, USA Championships, NCAA Championships, Future Stars Nationals).

Video: 2008 Beijing Event Finals – Li Xiaopeng PB (Gold – 16.450). Look how calm and relaxed and focused he is before the routine. He’s in control and knows he’s going to nail it. And he does.)

Gymnastics has taught me a lot about how to perform under pressure, in clutch situations.

I don’t think I’m invincible under pressure. I’ve blown it when it counted. I get nervous and fumble my words – especially on camera or in front of beautiful women. I’m no Li Xiaopeng (see video), but I’m certainly much better than I would have been without gymnastics. Here’s what I’ve learned [2]:

Preparation

  • Practice how you want to perform.
    There are a lot of little things that are important in earning a high score in gymnastics like really pointing your toes and going for the stick on your dismount. Some gymnasts don’t put a lot of effort into doing these things in practice, thinking they’ll just “try harder” at the meet. This is stupid and doesn’t work. However you want to show up in that clutch environment, make sure you work on it every time in practice.
  • Create the performance environment.
    While this isn’t always possible, try your best to do some practice in the same environment as when you compete/perform. For gymnasts, that meant having “practice meets” in the gym where you have the same time limits to warmup and then show ONE routine on every event. (Usually we’d do 2-3 routines + 2-3 half routines). It was important to get yourself amped up, adrenaline pumping for these practice meets because that’s how you’d feel in the meet. The closer your practice environment mimics the real thing, the more effective you’ll be under pressure.
  • Visualize perfect performance.
    I talked about this in my skill acquisition post. When you’re not practicing but in dead time (waiting in line, in the shower, commuting) imagine yourself in that clutch situation and doing it perfectly. The day before a meet, we’d just warm up a bit and not really do anything physical. Instead we’d go around to every event and visualize two perfect performances.
  • Prepare all equipment carefully and ahead of time.
    In college, before a travel meet, everyone on the team had a responsibility to pack something: chalk, tape, therabands, etc, in addition to uniforms and personal gear. You got heavily berated if you forgot your stuff (which I have to admit, happened to me more at least a few times). Make sure all that stuff is taken care of well before the performance so you don’t have any additional distractions or worries.
  • Get lots of sleep, eat well, leave early.
    This is obvious but often overlooked. Take care of yourself and make sure you arrive stress-free and feeling good. It’s harder to deliver a clutch performance when you’re rushing into the arena while stuffing your face with a burrito.
  • Practice recovering from mistakes.
    Some gymnasts will salute to show a routine to a coach or a team mate, get half way through, kind of mess up and stop and “start over”. I understand the sentiment here – not letting yourself go through the motions and really practicing perfectly. But I also think it’s important that when you are practicing a “this one counts” performance, you should practice recovering from a fall or a mistake. Otherwise your performances under pressure will be great … until you slip up once, after which you’ll proceed to bomb the rest of the performance because you’ve never practiced recovering.

In the Moment

  • Be aggressive.
    Gymnasts will sometimes become too shy in competition. You get a little nervous and you have some extra energy and you feel like the best thing to do is hold back just a little bit, to control it. No! The best way to manage adrenaline is to expend it. Being aggressive with your actions is a sign of strength. As my coach once put it, better to be so big that you take a step forward, than hold back and take a step back.
  • Don’t try to make yourself better.
    As the counter point to being aggressive, you shouldn’t try to do things you don’t normally do in practice. If you don’t pop your head up or kick your feet a certain way in practice, do not try and do it in the meet, even if you think it’ll make you better. More likely, you’ll do it poorly and then it’ll throw off your rhythm for the rest of the routine.
  • Don’t make a big deal out of the event.
    My teammate and 2012 Olympic hopeful Sho Nakamori had a saying – “Just another day in the office.” Even in the biggest of competitions, we tried to see it as just another opportunity to do our jobs. We were professionals, not in the paid sense, but in the “this is what we do for a living” sense. Don’t blow up the importance of the performance in your head before it happens or when it’s happening. No good.
  • Walk in knowing you’ve done your best to prepare.
    This is sort of like saying “be confident” but not quite. I think it was 3x Olympian Jon Roethlisberger who told me that as long as you work hard and give it your all in training, you won’t have any regrets no matter how the meet turns out. Knowing that you’ve done everything you can and mentally letting go of the outcome helps support a great performance.
  • Have a few phrases/ideas to focus on.
    Most people don’t realize but gymnastics is an incredibly intellectual sport. When you first learn a skill, you are trying to hold a million thoughts in your head ( “Kick your toes, squeeze your butt, drive your heels, hollow your chest” etc). As you get better and chain skills together, you rely more on muscle memory than explicit mental instructions to do certain things. Then you get to the pont where you can do the whole routine pretty well and you’re honing in on various details. You know you’re ready when all you need to tell yourself 2-3 things to yourself to get in the right mindset. (“smooth sailing” or “up and down”).
  • Don’t worry about the competition / distractions / outside stuff.
    When you’re competing at NCAA championships, there are six different teams competing at the same time. It’s insane. People are cheering and making noise constantly. Our coach would make sure we weren’t spending any time watching the other teams. There was absolutely no point. We often didn’t even know what our respective scores were until very far into the meet. Everyone tried to stay in the zone and not get distracted by stuff that didn’t matter.
  • Use music to put yourself in the zone.
    One very specific way to be in the zone is to listen to music. Music is a powerful way to manage your mood and energy. Some people needed music to relax them, others needed music to pump them up. If you can, find a way to use music to get you in the right state of mind – confident, focused and energized.
  • Don’t let the past distract you.
    When I was younger gymnast, our coach would often had a phrase – “You’re competing in six separate meets.” What he meant was that once you finished an event, it was over. You shouldn’t expend any additional mental energy thinking about it. If it was good, great, now think about the next thing. If it was bad, doesn’t matter, it’s over and now think about the next thing. If you have to deliver an important performance, make sure to focus on the present moment and not let the past distract you.
  • Don’t try to be perfect.
    Counter intuitive, but useful and related to the previous point. Expect to make some mistakes. It’s impossible to be perfect and you should never have the mindset that you have to be perfect in order to be successful. Your aim is to be so good that even a few mistakes won’t prevent you from getting what you want. This mindset allows you to recover quickly – which increases the chances that you DO perform exceptionally well and deliver under pressure.

Well,there you have it, everything gymnastics taught me about delivering clutch performances under pressure. What do you think? Did I miss something? Do you want clarification on any point? Let me know in the comments…

FOOTNOTES

[1] 6 routines / salutes per meet x 10 meets per year (2 for nationals, regionals, states, and 6 more regular season meets) x 12 years (6 to 18) + 4 routines / salutes per meet x 12 meets per year x 4 years in college = 720 + 192 = 912 [2] Sorry for the long list! I debated shortening the list to make the post more palatable, but then figured, I’m probably not going to cover this topic again for a while, might as well try to be as comprehensive as possible!
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1 comments
rinkjustice
rinkjustice

Some informational gems here: visualize perfect performance and re-creating the performance environment. I guess this could apply to taking an exam, giving a pitch or any athletic performance.

Great post Jason!

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