3 Tips for Playing with Confidence Under Pressure

Sports Psychology Tips: 3 Tips for Playing with Confidence Under Pressure

How do you embrace nerves before big matches?

Some rugby players feel that the best way to mentally prepare themselves for a big game, when they are full of nerves and feeling scared or worried, is to find ways to relax.  They use breathing exercises, mindfulness exercises, grounding exercise, relaxing music or visualise how they want to start the game or respond to mistakes or key moments. 

I’m all for using these methods and work with a lot of my clients to find out what works best for them.  However, it’s important at this stage to get the point across that these techniques should be treated as long term solutions, and seen as a way of life to overcome performance anxieties.  Unfortunately for some rugby players they do not see it this way, they try the relevant approach 2 or 3 times, to some it then has a positive impact on their performances, for other players it doesn’t so they ditch it.  So in effect what they have done is put a plaster over the issue and they’ll likely find it crops up again quite quickly.

Case Study

Here’s a recent example which highlights that mindfulness or meditation is not always the answer to overcoming performance anxiety. James emailed me saying:

“People have always said that I’m a strong powerful lock and have great character, but in big games I rarely show this and dominate. I struggle with my confidence in these big games. I’d read how mindfulness and meditation can help calm you down so I’ve tried it.  I did it for a week, and I found it so hard.  I was rubbish at it.  My mind was always on the go, it wouldn’t shut up.  It’s so frustrating.  What do you think is the best approach I should take to calm myself down before these big games?”

So why is mindfulness not working for James? 

In my eyes here are 3 reasons.  

  1. He is instantly judging himself and his performance when meditating.
  2. He hasn’t given it enough time.  
  3. Meditation isn’t addressing the root cause of the issue, the fact that he lacks belief in his ability in a big game situation and perhaps is afraid of backing himself, he’s worried about making mistakes or letting his team down too may be contributing to the problem.

So what can James do?

You’ll note from my regular blogs that although I do advocate relaxation training and visualisation and use it a lot with my clients.   I also feel that being able to manage your confidence and understand the root cause behind challenges is very important. 

James, like many athletes has been competing in his chosen sport for a long time.  He’s physically strong and has excellent physical skills because of the years of practice, training and experiences in matches – so where does the issue lie?

He plays well in training but under pressure, in big games he is telling himself a story and labelling himself as “poor under pressure”, a “choker” or despite my wishes he may be saying to himself that he is “mentally weak (I hate that terminology as you’ll note from my Demystifying Mental Toughness podcast!)

So if visualisation and relaxation exercises aren’t working for him what can he do to cope better with pressure?

3 Tips for Playing with Confidence Under Pressure

1. See practice and training as a process that is helping you build your skills, helping you learn so that under pressure you can “trust yourself” and “rely on the training.”  Recognising that confidence is not based on your most recent performance, it’s based on years and years of habits.  A good question to ask yourself is – is my training and practice set up to give me confidence? If not you need to do something about it.

2. Take control of your confidence, appreciate that self-confidence comes from within and it is not based on what other people are saying to you.  After all that is why it is called *SELF* confidence.  Try this exercise.

a) Write down the following situation: I’m playing a big match or tournament

b) Make a note of all of the external factors outside of your control (referee, weather, team-mates mistakes, coaches comments…)

c) Make a note of all the factors that are within your control (your attitude, your effort levels, how you respond to criticism…)

Now focus on what is under your control.

3. Identify what is knocking your confidence.  Ask yourself the question – what is distracting me? Is it self-criticism (your inner self talk), unrealistic expectations, self-doubt, other people’s negativity.

So now that you’ve read this post, I’m urging you to take better control of your confidence don’t kid yourself that self-confidence is a bi-product of wins or losses.  You can be pro-active about it, don’t leave it to chance. 

Approach a big match, as if you are Beauden Barrett, arguably the best rugby player in the world.  Approach big matches using nerves as energy to get you going.  Approach big matches knowing your strengths have been built on years of practice and training and understand how this will help your team.

If you’re enjoying reading my sports psychology blogs, please do forward them on to other players, coaches, or parents who would appreciate them.


You can also join our online community – THE SPORTS PSYCHOLOGY HUB – for regular Sports Psychology tips, podcasts, motivation and support.

David Charlton Sports Psychologist

Best Wishes 

David Charlton

Global Sports Psychologist who is located near Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK and willing to travel Internationally.  David also uses online video conferencing software (Zoom, Facetime, WhatsApp) on a regular basis and has clients who he has supported in USA, Canada, South America, UAE, Australian and New Zealand.  

Managing Director – Inspiring Sporting Excellence and Founder of The Sports Psychology Hub.  With over 10 years experience supporting athletes, coaches, parents and teams to achieve their goals, quickly.    

T: +44 7734 697769

E: [email protected]

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