Why being tough on yourself might not always be the best idea! and why less is sometimes more

Top athletes are tough on themselves. It is a key component of success. Keep pushing harder. Go beyond the comfort zone, bounce back fiercely, and push beyond the self-imposed limiting beliefs. 

Think of all the great champions in your sport: they are relentless and mentally tough as nails!

Those who are not sufficiently tough on themselves may not go the extra mile to do what is required to become or remain competitive. They will give up, give in or concede.

So why then might it not always be a good idea to be tough on yourself?

The answer is that sometimes being gentle with yourself is of greater value to your development and progress.

Simply put, less pressure is sometimes more effective. 

Champions know when to be tough and when to be nurturing.

Let me explain: it is all about how the mind works, especially in learning.

The mind learns best when relaxed, open and calm and in a nurturing environment. Think back to a situation at school, perhaps in math class, when you were not “getting it”. Typically you would get frustrated with yourself and other people would get frustrated with you too.  You feel under huge pressure to perform but somehow cannot. The harder you try, the worse it gets. Confusion, frustration, and even anger start to build and before you know you are either in a real tizzy, or you have switched off to protect yourself from further humiliation and pressure. And now you start to hate math and despise the teacher.

Becoming agitated, confused, angry, judgemental, resentful, impatient and frustrated in the learning process is not unusual. The brain is trying to grapple with a new idea that may contradict an old idea that is deeply planted form previous learning or conditioning. When this contradiction happens we must become aware of it and rather than push our brain to “get it”, it is best to “back off” and give the brain some space to work it out.

Pressure in learning does not speed it up! It shuts down the mind. Puts us in “fight and flight” and shuts down our access to our full resource of intelligences.

So the key here is to remain calm, relaxed and allow the mind to process the new information quietly and thoroughly. You may have noticed that often in these scenarios where we got all worked up in a learning scenario that it is when we gave up, finally surrendered that the understanding then strangely came: “Ahhhh, now I see!” 

So learning requires a calm, relaxed (yet energised)  and ideally even playful mind. In that state the mind is open, all intelligences are available (intellect, intuition, numeral intelligence, language intelligence, spatial intelligence, memory, analytical intelligence, strategic intelligence, to name some of the most used ones. Our mind is in an expansive receptive flexible mode.


Now think back to a day in sports when you were not “getting it”. Did you relax or did you get angry? Did you allow your mind to fully switch on and process what needed to be learned, or did you get mad and chuck the racket, club, ball or whatever your sport is about and let off a whole load of profane colourful language.. and then storm off the training ground? I see some smiles!

So added pressure is not very good for learning. The rule is: the less pressure the better. We must be of course make sure our brain and body are  sufficiently energised though through proper rest, hydration, nutrition and oxygenation.

So where does pressure come in?

Well, once you have learned something and grasped it sufficiently, then pressure is very useful in improving your results. And that pressure might come in different forms for different people. Internal pressure, external pressure, imagined pressure, “real” pressure and so forth.


I see this very clearly with golfers. Let’s say they are good at the long game but struggle at aspects of the short game, typically putting. They know they must get very good at putting to win however do not enjoy it (partly because they are bad at it) and so show up for the putting lessons already under pressure. 

“I must get this right fast” might be what is going on in their head. That is pressure and it does not help.

Relax. Breathe. Loosen your body. Centre your body. Focus your attention on the external task at hand (rather than the internal chitter-chatter and self judgements)  

Listen keenly to the instructor or coach. Remain loose and calm. Engage all your senses (gently) into the learning. Give up the idea of having to achieve something. Rather, get curious about what is being shown. And if you find yourself still getting tense and annoyed, gently hum a tune! This will get you (and as a result your nervous system) out of the highly “significant” state of mind into the relaxed open curious playful beginner’s mind.

When I go rifle shooting and switch from engaging in casual enjoyment with my colleagues to engaging in competition with them, I instantly switch mental modes and crank up the imagination that I am under extreme pressure, life threatening pressure. I imagine a highly trained enemy shooter opposite me in the far distance with his sights on me. If I do not get him, he gets me! I take the shot and hit the target bull’s eye! 

Now this scenario works for me (I was in the military) and due to its nature might not work for others. It might be too intense. You need to find what works for you.

This imagined pressure (imagined or real works very much the same way for the mind) helped me get super focussed, squeeze out any mental lethargy that would slow down the best application of my learned skills, got me super concentrated on the task leveraging all my abilities, all my senses, all my mental power, all my bodily coordination. The result always surprises my fellow shooters as the difference in results from just casual play to full intensity is big.


So in summary the general rule is this:

When learning new skills, re-learning skills or adjusting existing skills: less pressure (internal and external) is best

When already at a level of basic proficiency: then more pressure helps drive more proficiency and greater results. Both internal (self-talk, imagination, visualisation) and external (peer pressure, media pressure, coach pressure, financial pressure, etc) 

Note: if for any reason your confidence is broken or breaking (lost a series of tournaments for example and are haunted by the humiliating defeats) then reduce all pressure, get fully relaxed and get busy with the business of healing your psyche/emotions. Once healed then gradually increase the pressure.

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