4 Steps to Succeeding in Critical Moments

posted on: January 19, 2014
author: Brian Lomax


There are moments or situations in all sports that are crucial to deciding the outcome.  In tennis, it might be a tie-breaker or a 10 point tie-breaker in lieu of a 3rd set.  In football, it’s the two minute drill.  Every sport has at least one, and to be the best competitor you can be, you need to recognize the importance of these moments because they are both exciting and dangerous when it comes to the result.

Recently, I’ve been working with some competitors who are struggling at these times in games and matches.  They’re good enough to get themselves to the critical moment, but lack the necessary competitive skills to consistently succeed in these situations against equal or greater opposition.  Let’s look at a few typical responses to reaching these critical moments.


When facing opposition that you believe to be “better” than you are, you can become contented that you have pushed the opposition to a certain competitive point.  For example, in tennis you may observe this when a player takes another to 4-all in a set, and then begins thinking to himself that he’s quite happy that he’s won 4 games in a set.  Unfortunately, this feeling of satisfaction is deadly when it comes to winning because you’re already happy prior to the conclusion.  The motivation to keep competing at your top level is now gone.  Invariably, the better player will win this set 6-4 because he isn’t concerned with winning 4 games, he’s concerned with winning 6.


The game is on the line and the spotlight is now on you.  How do you react?  If you’re like a lot athletes, you don’t want to be in that situation.  You don’t want to be the person who let the team down when it really mattered or the one who chokes when the pressure is on.  Even if you’re a great competitor now, you’ve been here.  You’ve experienced it because it’s part of the learning process albeit a painful one.  I remember playing in a Little League All Star Game when I was 12.  It was the bottom of the 6th and we were trailing 6-5.  There were 2 outs and I was in the on-deck circle.  My thoughts at that moment?  I wanted the player at bat to make the 3rd out.  I didn’t want to be the one who lost the game especially since I had made an error in the top of the inning that allowed the go ahead run for our opponents.  This is not the attitude of a great competitor.

Lack of Recognition

The last typical reaction to the important moments in competition is actually no reaction or recognition at all.  It’s a lack of understanding that something big is about to happen and you need to pay attention.  If you’re competing against an opponent with a lot of experience, he’s going to step up his focus and intensity at this moment in time.  If you don’t do the same, you’ll probably lose because you didn’t realize something extra was required.  I see and hear this reaction all the time and it can be a difficult hurdle to conquer for up and coming competitors.

What Should You Do?

1.  Do you know the critical moments in your sport?  You have to know what these are if you’re going to succeed at them.  As mentioned earlier, each sport has some typical situations so talk to your coach if you’re unsure of what they are.  Discuss ways of recognizing them when they occur.

2.  Love these moments!  It’s in the critical moments that we separate ourselves as competitors from the rest of the crowd.  You have to relish the opportunity you have in front of you.  Even if you typically dread these moments, you must say “I love the two minute drill” or “I love tie-breakers”.  While you may be lying to yourself at first, repeating these affirmations will seep into your mind and help you reframe your attitude.  Soon you’ll be much more positive and optimistic when the time comes.

3.  Raise your focus level and intensity.  Getting to this moment isn’t what should be satisfying us.  Succeeding in this moment is our new motivation and since the result is still in doubt, we must bring more energy and intensity to the situation.  From a mental perspective, we must “go for it!”  Since optimal excitement and arousal levels differ for all competitors, this will take some trial and error on your part, but don’t give up.  Once you find your optimal level of energy and intensity in these moments, your success rate will improve dramatically.

4.  Play your game and simply execute.  Just because we are raising our awareness, focus, energy and intensity, that doesn’t mean we should all of a sudden change our game plan.  Playing your game is what got you to this point so don’t abandon it now in favor of something that you’re not quite as good at executing.  There may be times when you take a bit more risk, but it should only be within the framework of what you are good at (aka, Your Identity).

Work on these 4 steps in practice and competition.  It will take some experimentation on your part, but that’s how we learn and improve.  Through patience and hard work, you’ll start winning in these critical moments.

photo credit: Marianne Bevis via photopin cc

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About the Author

Brian Lomax founded PerformanceXtra™ in 2009 with a mission of helping athletes achieve their goals and their top performances more consistently through a progression of mental skills that enables them to focus on what is truly important.

Learn more about the author: https://performancextra.com/brian-lomax/

8 responses to “4 Steps to Succeeding in Critical Moments”

  1. Charlie Simmons says:

    Well-written, and very valid from my personal experience. Now, where I (and I suspect, many) need some more input is step 3. That is, exactly HOW to I *raise* my “focus level and intensity”. Obviously, in tennis, tie breakers and critical games (to close out a set win, or prevent a set loss) are these, and I tell myself to focus more, and like to say I “welcome tie-breakers” (and NOT “dread” them, as I’ve heard others remark)…but still, I don’t feel I’m getting “in the zone” as Joe Montana used to say! Further suggestions are welcome!

  2. Brian Lomax says:

    Hi Charlie,

    Yes, step 3 is the hardest one to regulate and there are many factors that go into playing your best in these moments. Much of it depends on your own personality when it comes to raising your energy and adrenaline. Examples of how to do that are jumping up and down, slapping yourself on the thigh, telling yourself “come on” or “let’s go”, fist pumping, etc. Some of these you may be comfortable with and some you are probably not.

    When it comes to being in the zone, it’s key not to over-think the situation. That’s why I suggested in step 4 to just play your game. Your game should be intuitive and not something you should have to think about. In between each point, get yourself to a positive viewpoint no matter what has occurred on the last point. Of course, getting into the zone is a whole different topic than this blog post! 🙂

  3. I LOVED what you had to say in today’s blog. I like how you brought some of your own experiences into your examples. You are authentic and real and that makes your advice so belivable.

  4. The mental game is complicated or not…..there are two areas of tension; your ratio and emotions. The ratio is about understanding and the emotions about feeling. The connection is experience (state of mind) and is translated in self-belief and self-confidence or lack off. Therefore positive experiences will amplify control of your emotions. The more a player is in control of his/her thoughts the less emotions have a control on the player. 1. play all the points with equal importance, 98% of the time the winner has won more points then the opponent 2. there is only one moment at the time, so LOVE/FUN all the moments. 3. play every point at OPTIMAL focus and intensity, the more positive experienced player the more he/she will play in the ‘ZONE’ 4. playing your game is always the objective, if necessary adapt if not then not.

    • Brian Lomax says:

      Hi Walter,

      I like the points in your comment and certainly agree that this is what we should strive for to perform at optimal capacity. However, we are human and therefore not perfect. 99% of players cannot do this for an entire match. I’m suggesting that players have more of an awareness of the situation at hand. Awareness is a good thing, and although we don’t want players to play with less effort on any points, the fact is that some points are more important than others because of how tennis is scored. I emphasize that point not from the perspective of effort, but in terms of reacting to lost points.

      From personal experience, I know that I’ve lost matches because I didn’t match my opponent’s uptick in intensity and focus in a crucial moment especially in tie breakers. Experienced opponents will do this and as a competitor, you must be aware that that is going to happen. They are going to step it up. From a focus and intensity perspective, I have completely changed my approach to tie breakers, and now I win close to 90% of them and I attribute it all to awareness of the situation. Unfortunately for me, I had to lose some big matches to get this lesson, but thankfully I did.

  5. Steffani Lomax says:

    This is an excellent article and I can apply the concepts to a recent tournament experience. I was competing in a national women’s tennis tournament and had four 3-set matches and I only won one of them. In one match, the player was stronger, however if I could win one set, why couldn’t I win two? In another match, I was surprised to defeat a former top national player 6-0 in the second set, so when we played the 10-point tie-breaker in lieu of the 3rd set, I think she viewed the match as starting from scratch and she really stepped it up. I got a little nervous and didn’t play as aggressively as I had in the second set. Perhaps I was too happy with my second set victory. In the other match that I lost which was in doubles, we were up 7-5, 5-3 and really should have closed it out, but we started thinking about the win over the #2 seed rather than continuing our same level of play.
    You have provided really great advice in this post. Thank you!

    • Brian Lomax says:

      Thank you, Steffani! It’s great to bring some awareness to how we’ve reacted to these situations in the past, and then learn how we can do better in the future. I’m sure your game will continue to get better and better!

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