Here’s how to deal with the negative thoughts brought on by pressure.

Mental skills coach Jason Brennan returns to look at internally produced psychological pressure.

In my first column, I wrote about the pressure we feel from external forces, outlining three techniques to manage and harness this felt pressure.

In this piece, we look at the kind of pressure that is self created – internally produced psychological pressure – and the related chemical processes that can produce negative side effects.

Here, I provide three straightforward techniques for dealing with these effects.

Jason Brennan worked with Beauden Barrett and the Hurricanes in the past two and a half years. Source: Photosport/Marty Melville/INPHO

Feeling pressure

While we do sense pressure in our head, or more precisely register it in our brain, other parts of our body sense pressure too.

Think of ‘butterflies’ in your stomach before an important event. Under pressure, we also feel changes in our lungs and chest, our upper gut, our heart, our skin, etc.

And for good biological reasons! Although we are highly-advanced animals and our bodies have been evolving for some time, we still have the same early-warning system that we had when we lived in caves.

Our bodies sense or physically feel some of what is going on in our environment. This was very important in ancient times as it kept us alive. We could sense danger, helping us to avoid getting caught and eaten!

We still sense our environment today, like when we walk into a room and ‘sense’ the tension, or ‘feel’ relaxed because of the mood of the group.

In the build-up to an important event, a final or a big presentation, our bodies respond by releasing various chemicals. Those butterflies? That’s our body releasing stomach acid and digesting any fuel there – preparing us for action.

Our bodies release adrenaline and cortisone (often referred to as ‘stress chemicals’) to speed up our heart (pushing chemicals more quickly around our system), increase lung capacity (more oxygen into the bloodstream), tighten muscles and prepare us for battle. Putting us on alert; ready for action.

The Canes worked hard with Jason to build their mental skills. Source: Photosport/Kerry Marshal/INPHO

In the upper gut, we have a cluster of neurons (our message carriers/thinking cells). This is where we get the phrase ‘gut feeling’ from. There is another cluster in our heart, perhaps explaining why we say things like ‘I don’t know, I just have a feeling about it.’

Working with the pressure

So, all these reactions are fine if we feel pressure in the build-up to a big game. The key to working with these chemicals and this energy are:

  1. Awareness
  2. Techniques to deal with it

This is where mental skills really helps – working with this physical energy to get it working for you, not the opposite.

The other main area, of course, is where the majority of our neurons are – our brain – and how they interact with our consciousness – our mind.

Part of my role with players and teams is helping them to acknowledge and separate out the felt pressure that might be building in the team or the environment – with family or friends talking about the game – from the psychological pressure, which the player might be creating, driving and feeding in themselves.

It’s worth noting that pressure in general is a good thing, as it is a great driver of performance.

Think of a deadline or test/exam. We need timeframes and markers to work towards and get energised by – to be productive and achieve results.

Like this quote from boxer Floyd Mayweather:

I don’t fold under pressure, great athletes perform better under pressure. So put pressure on me.”
Mayweather embraces the pressure because he has the awareness that it will help him achieve results.

Floyd Mayweather has always welcomed pressure. Source: Eric Jamison

Psychological pressure that is not useful is the type that is not transferred into action, is not exercised into something useful, is not discharged!

It remains in the body and is converted into emotions such as excess worry (fear), irritability (anger) or state of lowness (sadness).

In its more extreme forms this can lead to anxiety, obsessive thinking and depression – none of which are performance enhancing.


With psychological pressure, most of the action is in our brain, which means this is where the charge is. Firing neurons cause other neurons to fire off and sometimes energy gets trapped there.

We get stuck in an unhelpful type of thinking – negative thinking or negative obsessive thinking.

An unfortunate phenomena then occurs. We get stuck in a cycle of thinking or ‘ruminating’ that does nothing other than make us more anxious, more negative and less confident.

There is a name for these thoughts: negative automatic thoughts, or NATs.

All NATs are also PITs (performance interfering thoughts), as they do just that – interfere and mess with our performance and our ability to put energy into action.

Below are some common NATs. Do you recognise them?

  • trying to predict the future or outcome
  • downgrading and degrading one’s abilities
  • devaluing oneself – like name calling
  • negatively imagining what others will think/do/say
  • the dreaded ‘what ifs’

NATS usually come in clusters of about three to five that feed off each other. With players, especially young players or players new to a team, we work with pressure together by exploring what their ‘pressure cluster’ is and gradually picking them off one by one. As with all mental skills, it is then a matter of practice and experience.

Often young players can get called up suddenly into starting positions, due to experienced players being injured.

These young players need to quickly perform to a high standard. For a team to be most resilient, the player needs to manage themselves physically, emotionally and psychologically. Mental skills techniques provide them with ways of achieving this.

Michael Schumacher has always had a positive mindset around pressure. Source: AP/Press Association Images

The Formula 1 great, Michael Schumacher, said:

I know what I am and what I have to do in my profession, so I can handle the pressure. It is the way I think.

Schumacher understood the kind of pressure he would face and had strategies for handling it.

All of us can get better at this, and the techniques below will help achieve this. These strategies deal with three common NATs, which come as a result of psychological pressure.


1. Fear of the Future

This is a very common NAT, often referred to as ‘future predicting’. Some might also know it as a ‘fear of failure’ or ‘fear of making a mistake’. All of these are variations on the same theme – the future.

Begin with the basic facts – we cannot predict the future! We are terrible at it! Even with all our advanced technology, we can’t fully predict the weather – there are just so many variables. If we could predict the future we would all be lotto winners, right?

We are fooling ourselves if we’re trying to predict the future. Therefore, these negative thoughts are unfounded and not useful.

Step 1 – Simply remind yourself that we cannot predict the future whenever you recognise this type of NAT. Start to reduce the energy being given to them.

Step 2 – Is there something behind the thought that you want to work on? Are you worried about a particular aspect of the game or your performance, such as passing, kicking, flexibility? Or are you worried about the competition, perhaps aspects of their game or your opposite number?

If so, then this is useful information and can be put straight into action. It can help improve training through specific preparation. For example, if you’re worrying about catching/kicking, spend more time on that skill in training.

If, however, there is nothing behind the NAT, then not only is it unfounded but it is also ungrounded and you can see it for what it is – a waste of energy.

Ireland are a team who don’t appear to spend much time future predicting, instead working hard to improve their weaknesses. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO.

2. Excessive self-criticism

Firstly, self-criticism is usually overly harsh.

One in particular is name calling, also known as ‘labelling’ – putting oneself and one’s abilities down. What is driving this NAT is a cluster of negative thoughts.

These types of thoughts can lead to anxiety (fear), but the prominent feeling associated with them is frustration (anger).

Anger is a very useful feeling as it is a doing feeling. It is best expressed or satisfied by doing something.

Step 1 – Recognise that the self-critical thought is unfair. It is harshly judgemental and is doing so in a manner that is derogatory and a put down. It does not take into account many aspects of a person’s real abilities and experience. It is, therefore, not a very good judge of performance.

Step 2 – If there is frustration or anger sitting behind the thought, then use this energy. These feelings can be motivators to run faster, hit harder, push further, show power in a directed and useful way. In fact, this anger can build more strength and self-confidence.

Many successful high performers have converted these NATs into ‘I’ll show you’ thoughts and gone on to achieve great things.

3. The negative ‘what ifs’

Perhaps one of the most common NATS, these are similar to future predicting but bring slightly different energy. Future predicting is more about imagining a negative outcome, whereas the ‘what ifs’ are about the potential for certain things happening in the future.

These thoughts seem reasonable (like they are based on reason), that they are a good thing to think about (because what if implies it is possible, it could happen).

Step 1 – If these thoughts are there and they are negative, then recognise them as this – call them negative thoughts.

One way of working with them is simply by balancing the spreadsheet – if you are going to imagine a negative possibility, then the proper thing to do is to equally imagine a positive possibility. This is only fair. Otherwise, don’t do either of them and wait to see what unfolds.

Step 2 – A very useful way of managing this energy is to let the energy play out. In a ‘what if’ scenario, follow it through to its conclusion. Allow oneself to imagine what might happen, including what might happen next, and what you could do after that. Have a useful plan already formulated, an action that will allow you to get back in the game.

This is an excellent resiliency technique.

In high-level professional rugby, which is a fast-paced and unrelenting game; a player needs to rebound quickly from mistakes and refocus. Having a mental plan of what to do straight after an error allows the player to absorb the mistake and move on quickly.

The All Blacks are generally excellent at rebounding from errors. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

One example of this is when players encourage each other by calling ‘next five’, helping team-mates or themselves to refocus on the next five seconds and what they can do to get themselves back in the game.

This is a perfect example of a team who has prepared to deal with those ‘what ifs’ by developing a simple action to get back into the game.

The very best teams and players in the world recognise that having these kinds of mental skills plans is crucial. All Blacks out-half Beauden Barrett understands this:

“There are other physical things, but I think if you get your head right [and] your approach to the game [you give yourself a good chance to succeed]. That right balance is crucial.”

The techniques above and from the first column will help you formulate your own plan for managing and using pressure to achieve better results – whether that’s on the pitch or in your work.

I’d like to hear what you do to deal with pressure. What techniques have you used in the past? Have you attempted to use any of the techniques mentioned here or in the previous piece?