What gives us a winning edge in performance? It’s becoming increasingly evident that what we do with our mental faculties creates or destroys that edge. Check out this short video from The Economist: What makes elite athletes thrive or dive under pressure?

Sports psychologists help athletes manage their thinking so they’re in control of their psychological state. Helen Davis, a sports psychology consultant, says she encourages athletes to view pressure as a challenge. She directs athletes’ focus to specific things in their thinking that help them perform, rather than focus on uncertainties they can’t control. 

Dr. Jamie Barker, a lecturer on sports and exercise psychology at Loughborough University, zeros in on the reactions athletes have and how those reactions affect their performance. He compared athletes that thrive with those that choke under high pressure and found that they go into one of two states:

  • Challenge state: The body releases adrenaline, opening blood arteries, which increases blood flow to help the body thrive.
  • Threat state: The body releases cortisol (stress hormone), constricting arteries around the heart, which decreases blood flow and chokes performance. 

Dr Barker suggests a visualization. He has them imagine a scale:

  • On left side: imagine the demands that cause us to perceive a situation as a threat (threat to ego, uncertainty).
  • On right side: imagine the resources we have to influence our performance (self confidence, perceived control, social support).

The main job of a coach is finding ways to shift athletes’ mental states from perceiving threat to perceiving challenge. By working on refining athletes’ mental edge, we help them create a winning edge.

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