Performance Pressure: Olympian insight on crushing it
By Greg Bach
Samantha Peszek, Olympic silver medalist and NCAA gymnastics champion, knows all about pressure.
After all, when you’re competing in a sport in which an untimely wobble or the smallest of steps on a dismount can wreck scores and crush dreams, you’ve got to find ways for handling it.
And the 2013 USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame inductee’s approach is one that young athletes in all sports can take with them to their games, meets and matches, too.
“I used to channel all of the pressure as positive adrenaline,” says Peszek, who won the NCAA all-around title in 2015 as a member of the UCLA gymnastics team. “So, at meets when you get this butterfly feeling in your stomach you can either look at it as a negative and get caught up in the pressure or see it in a positive way and say, ‘I’m really excited; I have a lot of adrenaline.’”
Too many kids’ performances are derailed by pressure: whether it’s from coaches, parents or even the athletes putting unnecessary burdens on themselves. So, learning how to manage the pressure, and not be consumed by it, is something athletes in all sports must be taught and work through.
“For me I always thrived on the pressure,” says Peszek, who was part of the silver medal winning squad at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. “So, the more pressure that I had the better that I tended to do.”
It was the behind-the-scenes work that Peszek put in at the gym that enabled her to not allow the pressure that accompanied meets to sabotage her focus or belief in herself.
“The harder I worked the more confidence that I got, which made me less nervous because I was so well prepared,” she says. “So I was more excited to show everyone what I had been working on rather than thinking ‘I hope I do a really good job.’”
It’s an important point for coaches to keep in mind as they work with their athletes. By bolstering confidence during practice sessions kids will go into those games and meets feeling more relaxed and ready to compete, with less chances of pressure situations handcuffing their ability to perform.
SETTING GOALS, PURSUING IMPROVEMENT
World class athletes like Peszek often point to the process, that daily pursuit of trying to get just a little bit better than they were yesterday as so important, rather than being overwhelmed by looking too far ahead.
“I was always a really goal-oriented person so for me the enjoyment was accomplishing my goal,” she says. “Yes, my goal was to go to the Olympics and to make the World Championships and all these big goals, but I set little goals at practice every single day. So even if it was as simple as I wanted to straighten my legs on this skill or get a little bit more flexible, even the smallest improvement was a big accomplishment for me; so I would leave the gym feeling so good about working hard and getting another step closer to accomplishing my dream. So when I got older that was the enjoyment part for me that I was able to accomplish my small goals that I was hoping would lead me to my big goal.”
These days you can catch Peszek on television, where she provides expertise for the Pac-12 Network and NBC Sports. She also teamed with former Olympic gymnast Alicia (Sacramone) Quinn to create The Gympire, which features workout and nutrition tips for leading healthy and balanced lives; and as one of the all-time greats on the balance beam – she won two NCAA titles on that apparatus – she works with youngsters through her Beam Queen Boot Camps, which are held around the country.
“I like sharing with kids that there are obstacles and that’s part of life and part of overcoming them is to stay consistent and keep showing up and to keep reminding yourself why you do the sport,” she says. “Gymnastics is a good sport because it teaches you life lessons and it teaches you listening skills and discipline and coordination and flexibility.”
And how to handle pressure – which one of the greats of the sport certainly mastered.
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Antonio Pierce, Super Bowl champion and linebackers coach at Arizona State, on pinpointing motives and inspiring young athletes to be their best
Monique Henderson, Olympic track great and college coach, on chasing improvement one fun-filled step at a time