How Do Your Athletes Handle All That Pressure?

Athletes face a lot of pressure in sports today. They feel pressure to play at a high level and to earn playing time and scholarships. They feel pressure to recoup the investment their parents have made in travel ball and specialized coaching. Unfortunately, many athletes don’t recognize where the pressure is coming from or how to handle it.

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Pressure Cooker

As a high school and collegiate athlete, one of my biggest frustrations was how I handled pressure.

My response was very inconsistent. Sometimes I rose to the occasion and performed well. More often I got frustrated and acted out in anger on the court. I wanted to play better, but didn’t know how to handle the pressure.

Basically, my frustration built up like a pressure cooker until I exploded – sabotaging my own performance.

5 Sources of Pressure

In a word, pressure boils down to expectations. Those expectations create tension. The bigger the gap between an athlete’s current performance or abilities and what is expected, the greater the pressure.

Before athletes can begin to learn to perform in face of those expectations, it is helpful to identify where those expectations are coming from.

Expectations typically come from 5 sources:

1. Self 

Athletes expect a certain level of performance from themselves. They expect to look a certain way, play a certain number of minutes, score a certain number of points, etc.

2. Coaches

Coaches, like the athlete, expect athletes to play to their potential, carry themselves with composure, and behave a certain way on the competition surface and on the sidelines.

3. Teammates

Similarly, athletes expect their teammates to play to their abilities, treat each other to a set standard, and abide by team norms.

4. Loved Ones

Parents, family members, friends, and significant others may also have expectations for an athlete. They may expect certain attitudes, communications, or behaviors from the athlete.

5. Media

Media expectations aren’t relevant at every level. For the levels at which they are present, media outlets may tote an athlete to have a breakout year, earn an individual honor, or lead their team to a championship.

The bottom line is that athletes don’t want to let anyone down, including themselves.

Is Pressure Bad?

No, pressure can be great for an athlete’s development, motivation, and performance.

The problem comes when athletes don’t believe they are living up to what’s expected of them. This is when pressure negatively impacts performance due to high stress, frustration, or embarrassment.

How Athletes Crumble Under Pressure

When athletes believe they are falling short of expectations, they often behave in 1 of 4 counterproductive ways:

  • Act Out – on or off the field
  • Isolate – pull away from teammates, friends, and coaches
  • Play it Safe – causing hesitation, second guessing, and choking
  • Quit – walk away from the team or maybe the sport altogether (these are your perfectionists as well as athletes in a fixed mindset)

Left to their own devices, most athletes will crumble under pressure. Many simply don’t know how to handle it.

Learning to handle pressure comes from learning the mental skills to manage emotions, control the controllables, and perform even in pressure situations.

Empower Athletes to Adapt to Pressure

Coaches, help your athletes learn to handle pressure and manage expectations. Encourage them to discuss expectations with parents, coaches, and teammates. Show them how to adapt by developing mental skills to elevate their game. Your most mentally tough and resilient athletes will learn to apply new skills and adjust their level of preparation to perform up to the high expectations set for them.

Question: What helps your athletes respond well to pressure?

I’d love to hear from you in the comments below, or on Facebook or Twitter.

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