By Amber-Louise Sleight and Ryan Fahy.
Imagine living in a fishbowl, held up on a pedestal by an entire nation expecting nothing less than the win. Imagine training for years and making sacrifices in order to get the best results possible in a sport you’re passionate about.
Imagine not only dealing with the pressure you place on yourself to succeed, but also having to cope with the pressure projected onto you by the people around you.
Professional athletes competing at the top-level understandably struggle with all of this.
Professional speaker and free diver Adam Sellars specialises in pressure and stress management through thought control and meditation. He has worked with athletes from multiple sports including rugby players and marathon runners as well as the Australian and New Zealand Olympic and Paralympic swimming teams. He says there are different types of pressure: the physical and psychological.
Psychological pressure refers to feelings of stress when faced with a situation where a person struggles to cope. Physical pressure is where a person feels physical force.
Sellars can relate to athletes as a sportsperson himself. His struggles with feeling physical pressure led him to becoming a free diver and he is now one of three Aussies who were selected to compete in the World Cup.
It all started when Sellars was invited on a spearfishing trip off Mooloolaba. “I had always been a swimmer, so I thought I could do it,” Sellars says. “I’m used to the water, went out there, could only manage up to 10m in depth before I’d feel this pressure and come shooting back up.”
He says when he saw his friend was able to go down 20m, chase fish and swim through caves he wondered how he dealt with the physical pressure and decided to enrol in a free diving course.
“The only difference between scuba diving and free diving is that scuba diving you go down, you look around and with free diving you look within. Basically, it is saying if you can’t look within yourself and control your emotions and can’t control your brain, this is going to be a very hard sport for you,” Sellars says.
Sellars says throughout the course he also felt intrigued by how different humans deal with pressure.
“This is physical pressure,” Sellars says. “The ocean is actually squeezing your organs in and you have to equalise your ears, but then it crosses over to the mental side too. Everyone gets affected by the pressure. It’s just how you deal with it.”
As an example, he says he knew someone who could hold their breath for four minutes on land, but could only dive down seven metres before “barrelling up in panic”.
“Our brains are really good at keeping us alive, even at times that they don’t have to,” Sellars says.
Sports people not only have to deal with physical pressure in their sporting life, but also psychological pressure in their personal life. The brain has to deal with pressure from partners, parents, bosses and study.
Sellars says the problem with this is our brains can’t distinguish the difference between what is a real fight or flight threat and what is physical pressure.
“Our brains are designed to rush our bodies full of blood and either get us out of that situation, or fight, but the brain can’t distinguish between that and those little bits of stress,” Sellars says. These little bits of stress can include “I don’t know if I can afford my rent this week”, or “it’s exam week and I haven’t studied enough”.
All this stress piles up. Some people experience it consistently and suffer anxiety. Sellars says this then causes the brain to release cortisol which isn’t good for people in large quantities.
“In a real-life pressure moment, like a shark coming at you, we can adapt to that, and within an hour we have processed all the chemicals our brain puts out,” he says. On the other side of the brain however, there is still a “consistent release of cortisol from future thinking or stress”.
This is something Sellars has been working on with the University of the Sunshine Coast (USC) Spartans. He says they have been using mindfulness meditation to bring thoughts to the present moment instead of worrying about the future or dwelling on the past. He says it’s a way to deal with pressure through meditation.
“So when we are competing, about half an hour before – leading up to the dive – we are just meditating, getting our heart rates low, ticking in the present moment and not worrying about what’s to come,” Sellars says. “Not worrying about ‘have we done enough for this. It’s just ‘we are here; we are in this moment’. For example, with the swimmers, it’s about not swimming the race half an hour before, not expending energy both mentally and physically worrying about the result.”
When it comes to pressure in the pool, swimming sisters Taylor and Kaylee McKeown say they feel the pressure to achieve for other people and both girls talk to sports psychologists. Olympian and USC Spartan Taylor, 22, is a breaststroker who confides in a sports psychologist at times when she is feeling nervous, or not as confident as she would like to be. It helps her be in “a positive mind frame for racing”.
“It helps a lot, but sometimes you can’t help pressure and I think I felt that the most when I was at the Olympics,” Taylor says.
Taylor “really wanted” the gold medal in Rio because it’s a life goal, and she also felt the pressure of Australia. She felt people were expecting her to win after she had the best qualifying time going into the 200m breaststroke final. That race was the moment it sunk in that she could win the gold and it overwhelmed her.
“People are trying to be encouraging, but they don’t realise how detrimental saying something like ‘oh, I can’t wait to see you win a gold medal for Australia’ is,” Taylor says. “I take that as I have to win a gold medal for my country otherwise what’s going to happen? I got a message from my high school and they said they have set up the bottom floor, ‘so the whole school can watch you win a gold medal’. I’m like ‘I haven’t even swum yet and all these people already expect me to win’.
“You just feel all this outer and external pressure and that can be hard to deal with and I’m usually pretty good at [dealing with it].” Taylor says sometimes the pressure does get to her and the Olympics was one of those times.
Taylor’s younger sister Kaylee, 15, is an up-and-coming backstroke swimmer who says she believes everyone in sport suffers pressure in different ways.
“If I think about my race too much I get worked up and then that puts pressure on me that I have to do this and I have to do that and to do this I just have to be perfect,” Kaylee says. “I have now learnt that I have to go into a race with an open mind and just do the best that I can because that’s just all anyone can ask for really.”
Sellars says sometimes the brain just needs a rest. “In terms of dealing with pressure, or stress it’s about changing the way we think about incoming pressures,” Sellars says. “The thing with pressure is you choose to take it on. There’s no such thing as pressure dust. No one can just walk up to you and throw a bag of pressure dust on you. They can try and put pressure on you, but only one person can accept that pressure and it’s the athlete. It’s about not accepting it, not making it real. Only you can make it real.”
“When I compete now I just visualise smiling at the end of my dive. Instead of focusing on a result, I focus on my goals, but mostly getting to the end of my dive and being extremely happy.”
If you, or anyone you know, ever struggles with feeling pressured, or stressed don’t be afraid to speak out and seek help.