Pressure in Sport

In this article on pressure in sport, Roberto Forzoni identifies the sources of pressure in sport, and then offers a twenty-five step strategy to deal with these pressures.

Alan Pardew Roberto Forzoni PsychologyIntroduction

Pressure is very much part of sport, whether you’re an under 11 trying to get a game in an Academy football side, or a multi-millionaire playing at International level, irrespective of the level you compete or the money earn, most athletes will feel pressure at some point in their career. Athletes need to understand and acknowledge that they will feel pressure in certain situations and develop strategies to deal with it. Pressure is an individual thing and the perception of pressure changes over time. What was once seen as exciting might, on a different occasion, be seen as pressure (or vice-versa); this can be particularly true when the high levels of expectation are put on athlete or team; these expectations can be self-imposed, through the media, fans, manager, coach, team-mates or family. What one player perceives as pressure another will thrive on as a challenge. Most athletes at the elite level have developed coping skills to deal with pressure situations to varying degrees; that is why they are where they compete at high levels.

“The ability to handle and deal with pressure is the crucial most important factor distinguishing winners from those who run them close”

So what is pressure and where does it come from? Pressure is generally seen as a negative feeling of anxiety when a task appears too tough to handle. It is a perception on the part of the athlete in terms of the way in which he views the situation. It comes from uncertainty; not knowing how you might cope or not being sure how you will respond in a certain situation. So it is closely associated with uncertainty and doubts on your ability to deal with a situation and the consequent worries on the outcome. Issues might lead to the following self-talk: “I’m the No.1 seed and I’m expected to win”, “I should have no trouble with..” “My ratings /rankings are at stake”, “What will so and so think if I lose?” etc. The pressure player’s feel at many junior tournaments is obvious; take tennis for example. The constant exclamations from players shouting excuses for everyone to hear (e.g. “How can you hit such a bad shot?!” or words to that effect). Why do they do this? Some players will try and convince that shouting helps to vent their anger, to channel it out rather than keep it in. Not true. Mostly, it is a simple self-esteem / ego issue whereby players are telling everyone who cares to listen that this is not how they ‘normally’ play. Trouble is, much of the time, it is. So players end up giving a running commentary of their errors, telling the world to protect their self-esteem and ego (“I’m not this bad usually….honest” is the message they are offering). In a way, sport is synonymous with pressure. Competition is about putting obstacles before you and seeing how you cope. The higher the prize the bigger the obstacle, the bigger the potential pressure. Conversely, the bigger the prize – the bigger the enjoyment when you succeed. Winning big games doesn’t come without pressure. The bigger the game, the more the pressure. Good players deal with it. Great players love it and play better under pressure. In fact, they thrive on pressure – and they train themselves to make sure they perform well under pressure. Before major competitions or events, players experience a similar psychological build up (in terms of the expectations and media coverage and external expectations). More experienced players interpret this pressure differently; they are generally more excited by it, whilst the less experienced player might find it more stressful. Handling pressure is a key aspect of elite performance, probably the single most important factor when you are competing at a high level. How you handle ‘pressure’ situations will determine how successful you will be in your sport

Sources of Pressure Where does pressure come from? There are multiple sources of pressure, most of which are outside of a player’s control. An important point we shall deal with later is that it’s generally not the source of pressure that causes the problem – it’s how the player perceives the source and consequently reacts to the ‘pressure’ situation. Pressure can come from both external or internal sources. External sources include the media, fans, management, other players etc., whilst internal sources come from doubts / worries / injury / form / mistakes. The rewards might put players under pressure – the need to perform to justify the money

Some of the primary causes of pressure include:

  1. Expectations from the media
  2. Expectations from the fans
  3. Expectations from the manager or team
  4. Expectations from the National Governing Body
  5. Expectations from the athlete / player themselves
  6. Environmental issues
  7. Career development issues
  8. Interpersonal relationships
  9. Demanding nature of work
  10. Personal issues

Expectations General When you perform at a high level (and this could mean being one of the best in your group or class as well as being one of the best in the world), there will always be some expectation to perform. This goes with the territory. You need to accept it and deal with it if you are to achieve the higher level of performance you want. With high rewards also come high expectations – expectations of the media, fans, management and yourself. How you deal with expectations will determine how successful you ultimately become. Elite athletes are always being evaluated in one form or other. Evaluation may occur over 60 times a season (most people don’t like to have one form of work related evaluation once a year with one person – their boss!) Athletes are constantly evaluated by the media, fans, manager, chairman, the board, plus everyone else who wishes to offer an opinion on Sky, radio, internet or through the media.

Expectations from the media Major events such as the World Cup Finals, Olympics, Tennis Grand Slams and Open Golf Tournaments are widely reported on within the media. Nowadays, that is not restricted to press and a few TV spots. Now, there may well be TV channels dedicated to specific event 24/7. Internet coverage adds a whole new dimension, particularly with telephone access. A news story can be with you within seconds of being put in the press, TV or internet. This can bring with it a high level of expectation over your performance. Where once you may have been confident in your preparations, the constant high level of questioning or simply reports run as part of normal coverage, can lead to you starting to question your readiness. This can have a negative effect on your level of confidence and subsequent quality of performance.

Expectations from the fans Fans expectations can lead to higher media coverage or vice versa. The media itself can have a massive influencing factor in the expectation of fans. This in turn can lead to higher expectations than the situation warrants. When England set off for the World Cup Finals in June 2010, the first phase group stage started with matches against USA and Algeria; high levels of expectations for easy wins lead to frustrating crowd reactions when the team drew the two matches, leading to Wayne Rooney commenting when leaving the pitch after the 0-0 draw against Algeria and saying “It’s nice to get booed by your own fans. Very loyal, for ****’s sake.”

Expectations from the manager or team The way in which a manager or team delivers their expectations can have either a highly empowering positive effect or add negative pressure. It depends upon the relationship and history of the manager and team. If there is a high level of respect and cohesion between members, then high levels of expectations can enhance confidence amongst individual players and the team as a whole. Previous performances would be a crucial influencing factor here; if the high expectations led to previous successes, then further expectations are likely to lead to further success. Unfortunately, the converse is true. Had there been high levels of expectations which were unfulfilled, then further levels of expectations will are more likely to lead to unfulfilled performances.

Expectations from the National Governing Body Where the NGB funds the athletes, high levels of expectations can lead to enhanced pressures to perform to maintain funding or ranking points. It depends on the athlete’s perception of the funding. If it is perceived as informative to confirm the NGB believes on your ability, then the chances of expectations enhancing performance increase. If the funding is deemed as controlling, it is likely to have the reverse effect.

Expectations from self Regardless of external expectations, players may put unnecessary pressure on themselves by giving themselves unrealistic expectations. This could include the common use of negative language “I should not do….or I must do…..” when realistically, all you can do is focus on the right things and accept what happens, i.e., accept you may never be perfect, but can prepare for optimal performance. Sometimes the more you win, the more you feel you need to win and then your form may dip as you take your mind off what you were doing (a process) and start thinking of what you are expected to achieve (an outcome). Consequently, may not handle the situation like you may have done in the past, instead you withdraw or put yourself under pressure, rather than focussing on what you can do to solve the problem. Issues include:

  • A perceived constant pressure to perform
  • Worrying if you are good enough / still good enough / should be at the competition
  • Poor form
  • Team losing
  • Selection uncertainty
  • What happens if I fail?

Many players feel they need to perform at a higher level for certain games, matches or competitions, particularly televised events for example. In the Premiership every game is like that. In order to reduce this perceived pressure, players should focus on sustaining a high performance during training and look to simply replicate training performance in the match. It sounds simplistic, it’s not. It is also accepted that you cannot recreate the external ‘pressure’ of the occasion (fans, media, TV etc) in training, but you must try. In training athletes and players need to have a ‘match mind-set’ and create situations in their mind that they want to overcome. This will make it easier in competition. Many players expect to have a certain level of performance during training, and a higher one during matches – that difference in levels can produce pressure for one player – for another that difference can help produce an exceptional performance 

Environmental Issues By creating an environment conducive to high performance (including player autonomy, confidence building and building good interpersonal relationships) levels of perceived pressure can be minimised and the best opportunity for optimised performance will be maximised. Issues to consider include:

  • Organisational issues
  • Training issues
  • Culture of the organisation and team
  • Enhance levels of communication
  • Maximise interpersonal relations (not ignoring players that either perform poorly or are injured
  • Ensuring players do not discover issues through the media
  • Ensuring no false promises are made
  • Management, coaches and players relationships

Career development issues Many career development issues need to be handled with some planning in order to minimise disruption on performance. These transitions can occur throughout your career and include physical transitions, career transitions and practical issues of changing clubs, management, coaches or teammates.

Interpersonal relationships One of the key issues, and one of the most neglected, in minimising pressure with athletes is the interpersonal relationship between the athlete and their surrounding support team (including family and friends). Athletes need to know how to handle and interpret unhelpful comments from others, particularly those outside their immediate support team. Family and friends can inadvertently add unnecessary pressure by what they say and how they say it.

Situations to consider will include:

  • Criticism form manager / players / coaches
  • The coach or manager that is difficult to approach
  • A lack of support when playing poorly
  • Dealing with other support staff – physio / fitness / admin etc
  • Dealing with other players not pulling their weight
  • Handling cliques between players
  • Dealing with abusive fans

Demanding nature of work Elite level sport requires long hours of training and dedication. This can also contribute to the feeling of pressure. Consideration needs to be given to many aspects, including the following:

  • Long training sessions
  • Extensive travel requirements
  • Long stays in hotels
  • Being alone
  • Lack of variety
  • Inflexible working hours
  • Injuries

Personal issues Without due care, family issues and personal relationships can really get in the way of performance. Athletes need to learn the hard lesson of separating personal life and professional life. When you cross the white line, personal issues need to be left aside until after you’ve finished. This takes some mental strength

Strategies for dealing with pressure in sport Elite athletes learn how to handle pressure by handling pressure. In order to progress through any sport, athletes need to develop a certain level of mental toughness. They learn to handle pressure situations or they do not progress. It’s a simple as that. To leave the development of handling pressure to experience alone, athletes may be missing a massive opportunity to ‘get there quicker’ by using tried and tested strategies from athletes have used previously. So the message here is – learn through experience but get there quicker by developing techniques to help you deal with pressure situations better. Our starting point is to change your viewpoint. Pressure is all about your perception of the situation.

A 25-step guide to improve how you handle pressure situations.

1. Pressure or challenge: It’s a matter of perception

One of the first things you can do to help deal with pressure situations is to check and change your view of that particular situation. For example, one player may relish the opportunity of playing in a high level tournament because it shows how far he has come and how well he is perceived by his sport (you simply do not get into elite competitions unless you deserve to be there), another player looks at the competition as a risk of embarrassing himself, of losing, or not being able to perform. A similar thought process occurs when playing certain opponents (lower ranked / friends / club –players etc). One player relishes and enjoys the challenge whilst another simply sees the potential negative or the ‘pressure’ in the situation. Enjoy the challenge.

2. Why play? Why compete?

When confronted by a situation you perceive as ‘a pressure situation’, then that is a great time to remind yourself why you actually play and compete in the first place. Athletes tend to forget the reason for playing when the occasion becomes so big in their mind, that only the outcome becomes important. Whilst the outcome is always important in elite sport, to focus only on the outcome, rather than the journey, is a sure way to increase pressure levels. Remind yourself that this is what you want to do. This is what you do well. This is why you play – to play in big arenas, to compete against the best players in the world, to play in front of big crowds, on the big occasion. – “This is why I play”

3. Acceptance

Don’t think it all has to run perfectly and you cannot make mistakes. Don’t start thinking you need to ‘up your game’. Most athletes end up performing at below their training level in high-pressure situations because they feel they need to play better than training. Whilst the additional adrenaline rush at big tournaments can help increase level of performances in calm athletes and players, these athletes tend to simply repeat what they do every day, with consistency, on the big occasion. That’s the big secret. If you do not believe this, then it’s time to revisit your training level and perhaps increase that as a starting point.

4. Preparation

Confidence comes from preparation. If you know you’ve done everything you can do to prepare, you are less likely to feel the pressure – If you are able to isolate your thoughts to your performance and nothing else. This is one aspect of dealing with pressure that many athletes do address. Unfortunately, you may be the best-prepared athlete in the world, but if you cannot deal with other sources of pressure detailed earlier, you will not perform to your maximum level. In some cases you may still win, but why not work on every aspect of potential pressure and develop strategies to deal with them – whether internal or external sources.

Good psychology is about having a very specific plan and sticking to it. It is not just about being positive. Knowing how you will handle every situation, how you’ll respond, change, adapt, you will give yourself the confidence that you are best prepared. So have a plan and stick to it!

5. Control the controllables

One of the best ways of dealing with a potentially pressure situation is to focus on the things you can control. Normally it is the things that are out of their control that athletes focus on and which end up causing so much frustration and anxiety. The two primary causes of pressure are (1) the result and (2) the opponent; worrying about winning can certainly cause some interference in performing at your maximum, particularly in important matches. Worrying about your opponent, whether because they are a lower rating or deemed to be a better player, has the same effect.

By focusing on things you can control, you will benefit in many ways. Firstly, if you can control it, you are able to think positively about what exactly you will do, and just as importantly, how you will do it. Secondly, whilst thinking of something you are in complete control over, you are less likely to give unnecessary time to think about the things that you cannot control and are likely to interfere with your performance.

Remember, you cannot control the score, your opponent, the media, fans, media, manager and support staff. You can have an effect on all of these and you can focus on how you respond to the influence of all of these uncontrollable factors. Remember (1) your physiology (how you carry yourself), (2) your focus (what you decide to focus on) and (3) your self-talk (what you say to yourself). Key controllables are your Work rate, Attitude, Responses and level of mental toughness – remember WARM as an acronym.

6. Stay in the now

Pressure comes from thinking of what might happen in the future (I need to win this match / perform well) also what has happened in the past, specifically negative events and errors; ironically worrying about particular situations enhances the chance that it will happen again.

One of the best ways to deal with pressure is to think of the situation as a challenge and work out what you can do to handle the challenge in the most positive way – so if you deal with what is happening right now, and what you can do right now, to effect what is happening – you will go a long way towards dealing with a potentially pressure situation.

If you have one foot in the past (“How did I hit that bad shot?”) and another in the future (“I might lose this match”), you cannot be fully concentrating on the only thing that matters, what’s going on right NOW. So, when the going gets tough, minimise your thoughts regarding what has happened and thoughts on what might happen in the future and ask yourself one question – “What can I do NOW to make a difference?”

7. Choose your attitude

By choosing to face a situation positively, you can go a long way to deal with the situation in a way that will help rather than hinder your performance. When approaching any situation you can decide to be really upbeat, change your physiology (body language / upright etc), focus (what you are thinking about) and your self-talk (what you are saying to yourself. By putting things in perspective (“this is only a tennis match – I love tennis!”) and deciding to give it your absolute best, regardless of what happens, you will again give yourself the best chance of performing at your best. Three things to change to stay positive:

  • Change your physiology
  • Change your focus
  • Change your self-talk

Q, how can you look at it differently? First thing to remember is that if there’s no pressure, there’s no value! Pressure normally means you’re where you want to be! Sounds crazy. Then “I’m the No 1 seed” becomes… “Great..that’s what I always wanted”; “I’m expected to win” becomes … “Fantastic, I remember when I was expected to lose!” Different strategies to best handle and conquer pressure work with different players

8. Be willing to fight for every ball

Here, your focus is to fight for every ball. Fight to stay in the game – every point, Fight to improve 2nd set (or second half)…every match, Remember here, you don’t necessary fight your opponent –only the ball. Don’t make it personal. The intention is to say, “if you are going to beat me, you’ll have to work the hardest you’ve ever worked. Don’t underestimate that inner strength and willingness to do whatever it takes to give yourself the best opportunity to win.

9. JUST DO IT!

Some players like going into matches and just doing it, rather than think too much about different things. These players trust what they’ve learnt in practice, maybe going for targets on court, relaxing on shots and serves. This player will just “let it happen”. This generally happens more when players are on a good run of form. Learning to ‘let it happen’ and ‘trusting’ your game because you know you’ve trained hard and long enough, can be a great ‘stress release’ in high-pressure situations.

10. Think Process (technical)

You might focus on some technical aspect of your game e.g., with your forehand it might be knees / angles / or follow through. With your serve it might be toss / knees / contact point etc.

11. Focus on something specific

By focusing on something very specific that you need to do, you do two things: (1) your mind is focused on something relevant to giving you the best opportunity to play the best you can on the day and (2) you are not thinking of irrelevant issues or distractions. A tennis player might focus on the sound of the ball, the feel of the shot, “Bounce & Count” (from the Inner Game), the arc or trajectory of the ball, the height of the ball over the net or the angle of the ball bouncing after hitting the floor; a footballer could focus on the ball contact when passing.

12. Play like it’s a buddy hit with your best mate (or a training session).

How do you feel when you play for fun? Develop a ‘play for fun’ mentality – think that you’re playing a friend. Playing in training like it’s a match, and in a match like it’s a training session really can help here. When I used to play football, some of my best performances came following a 2-3 minute pre-match routine of thinking I was playing in the park with friends, and playing ‘world cup’ football

13. Develop an ‘unconditional’ awareness of your play

No more…. “Haven’t got a clue” when asked ‘What happened there?’ Make a decision to ask yourself “What’s going poorly and why? / Where did I place that ball my opponent hit a winner with? / Pace / Depth / was my opponent moving or stationary? was I moving or stationary? Was it unstoppable?” Unconditional refers to not judging your performance or shots as ‘bad’ during a match. Being judgmental on court is sure to effect your emotional temperature. Judgments become generalizations. Judgments distort perceptions of what happened and become self-fulfilling prophecies “What a lousy serve” becomes “I’m serving badly” becomes “I have a terrible serve” becomes “I’m lousy at tennis” becomes “I’m no good at anything”!! Remember the consequence of telling yourself certain things.stress / anxiety / anger / frustration. So let your ego go and see how good your tennis really is.

14. Play like your role model

Ask yourself how your favourite player would play in this situation. How would they react to an error or a bad call? By acting like a top professional or even a colleague that you admire, you could give yourself the greatest opportunity to perform at your best.

15. Develop a focus chamber

Almost acting like you’re in your own ‘mental tough chamber’. No one interferes with your psych today. “Today..I’m mentally tough and if I’m not, I’ll act it anyway” Leave out, ratings, good luck, hard luck, personal issues, winning, losing, excuses, should have, could have, would have and bring in. “My mental computer. Remember what I’ve practiced. It’s game time..let’s bring it on – I’m ready”

16. Ask yourself the right questions

The quality of the questions you ask yourself will reflect the quality of your performance, so ask yourself the right questions.

Inappropriate questions include:

“How can you do that?”, “What the hell was that?”, and “How can you say that’s out?” are probably not the best questions to get you ‘in the zone’.

More appropriate questions to ask yourself

“How did I win that point? / Where did I put that shot that set up a winner for my opponent? / Was he moving when he hit that winner? / How am I doing and is my game plan working? / Am I mentally tough today? / Is my plan working? DO I need to change?” might be more sensible questions to ask!

17. Develop a ‘no excuse’ attitude

Never have a story of why you failed. No ‘but’ or ‘if only’. Analyse where you went wrong and put It right in training and the next match. You never have to say..“I should have won but ..”, “ I could have beaten him / her..if..” Have no ‘buts’ of ‘ifs’ in your game. Don’t look for excuses Just go out and play. Reflect well and learn.

18. Watch what you focus on and how you focus on it

Your feelings are simply a reflection of the meaning you give to something. So if you see something as a threat you will feel anxious, see it as a challenge and you might feel excited!

19. Gain experience in different situations

Experience gained from intentionally putting yourself in different situations can be invaluable. For example, a young elite tennis player will gain invaluable experience by entering overseas competitions. Conversely, understand that every time you step up a level, you are giving yourself an opportunity to show your skills, and challenge yourself to step up a level. Whatever the outcome, you should come out a better player if you are willing to analyse and learn from the experience

20. Use experience coaches and staff, or staff that you have really good rapport

It’s important that your support staff can handle the situation and not get anxious from the pressure of the situation. Using experienced or calm support staff that you get on well with, could be crucial in helping you progress and deal with pressure situations. On occasions you have no choice on the staff; in these cases you need to develop other strategies to cope with situation or staff that you feel may not be the best for the situation or you. Deal with it.

21. Learn lessons everytime

In order to maintain constant improvement, develop the attitude that the match or competition is not over until you have learnt from it. Learn to know how you feel in particular situations and how you dealt with it; particularly when you perform well under what could be called a high-pressure situation. Remind yourself that “pressure tells me I’m where I want to be”

 22. Fear of failure – worry

Fear of failure and worry comes as a result of you thinking about what might happen, particularly negative consequences and outcomes. Instead, focus on your strengths, on what you’ve practiced and on what you can control. You might even occasionally ‘turn off’ in the game when appropriate and think of something totally different from what you are doing. For example, a football player walking 40 yards to take a penalty might benefit from thinking about time spent with his child on the walk up to the kick, before going through his practiced pore-kick routine; the small ‘distraction’ from the moment can have a massive impact on reducing tension and perceived pressure. Obviously any strategy needs to be practiced and specific for a particular player. What works for Player A would not necessarily work for Player B.

 23. Controlling emotions

Small things can take you out of your ‘comfort zone’, e.g. a foul, a referee or umpire decision, a tackle, a bad pass or shot etc. By practicing the above strategies, (e.g. control the controllables – ignore the rest, stay in the now etc) you will give yourself the best opportunity to stay emotionally in control. By being emotionally in control, you will maximise the chance of making better decisions.

 24. Play every ball like it’s the last you ever play

Some players who are about to stop playing competitively, or come toward the end of their career, start playing really well. How would you play if it was your last game? Would you have no fear or worry? Would you just enjoy the game? Would you play the best you’ve ever and feel like you’re enjoying your sport more than ever?

 25. Enjoy the ride

Understand that the journey to achieve your goal is a long one. Don’t let it pass you by just focusing on the outcome. By enjoying moments every day, not only will you enjoy the ride much more, you will end up reaching your goal quicker, and in a better frame of mind too!

With all these options, practice in both training and competition. Remember to have patience in your game plan and strategy and remind yourself constantly on your plan

“Pressure’s a Privilege” Billie Jean King

Summary

 

Expect and embrace pressure. It’s part and parcel of elite level sport. If you want to do anything at an elite level it’s there waiting for you, and it’s great.  Develop the attitude “Yes it’s pressure and I can deal with it”. Pressure tells you you’re where you want to be. Embrace it – “Feel the fear and do it anyway!”