How To Help Your Athletes Have Courage Under Pressure

Athletes thrive on competition. Yet many have a significant fear of failure. It looks different from one player to the next, but the bottom line is that many athletes are risk averse. A basketball player passes up the open shot. A hitter takes the first pitch when the game is close, even though it was right down the middle. Despite their competitive natures, athletes need to foster courage.

A Lesson From A Daredevil in Training

Not long ago my wife and I were taking a walk through our neighborhood. We came up on a young child riding a small ATV, a four-wheeler.

At first we saw him riding on the pavement, getting faster as he got a feel for the steering. His turns were gradual at first and then sharper.

On our next lap around the block, he was flying through the open lot across the street. As we got closer we watched him speed up as he hit the bump of the sidewalk and the curb. Even through his tiny helmet you could tell he was focused. We smiled and waved. He was five years old.

Training Courage

The little ATV rider was taking gradually increasing amounts of risk. With each progression his confidence grew in his ability to successfully rise to the challenge. He was building courage, not just physically, but mentally.

Fostering courage now will serve him for life in school, sports, and the career path he chooses.

How To Cultivate Courage

Unfortunately, too many athletes are afraid to fail, to let their parents, coaches, or teammates down. But in sports, failure is inevitable. Athletes have to know how to handle it when it does.

One way to buffer your players against fear of failure is to foster their courage. Here are 3 tactics to help you do just that.

1. Put Players On The Spot In Practice

I recall a story from Steve Kerr’s short stay with the Portland Trailblazers. Kerr was struggling to drain opportune threes, a rare occurrence for the guy with the highest percentage from downtown in NBA history. His long time shooting coach, Chip Engelland, came to his rescue with a “30-minute, 7 shot workout.”

The two would sit on the sidelines after practice and chat. After a few minutes passed, Engelland would yell for Kerr to “go.” Kerr would sprint off the bench and spot up on the wing. Engelland would make the pass, Steve would shoot. Then the two would return to their conversation on the bench.

Engelland was putting Kerr on the spot. He had to execute on demand. Through this counterintuitive drill, Kerr’s confidence grew and he regained the courage he needed to be clutch.

2. Praise Courageous Behavior

You’ll get more of what you praise. I call it praising the process. If you want more courageous actions from your players, then praise the times when athletes demonstrate courage.

Maybe she makes a diving catch in right field. Maybe your kicker made a tackle to save a special teams touchdown. Maybe a role-player stepped up when a starter was injured. Maybe a junior player hung in there with the “big boys” in a practice drill.

Be on the look out for courage. Then praise the player by highlighting what you saw and what you liked about it.

3. Foster A Courageous Mentality

Sports legends are remembered for their courage. Michael Jordan took game-winning shots. In a Nike commercial he talked about how many he missed. He could have gotten gun-shy after those misses, but he didn’t. Derek Jeter wanted people to hit the ball to his side of the field so he could make a play. Michael Phelps loved swimming against the best in the world on the biggest stage.

Talk to your players about wanting to make a play. Encourage them to take initiative, call for the ball, and put themselves in position to make a play.

At a basketball camp I went to as a kid, the coaches fostered this mentality. At the end of practice they asked for a volunteer to shoot free throws. How many sprints we had to run weighed in the balance of that camper’s ability to hit a foul shot. Notice, they took volunteers. Not everyone wanted to step up. But we all wanted to have that kind of courage. For some, just volunteering was the courageous act of the day.

Choose To Cultivate Courage

The messages you send and the behaviors you praise as a coach carry a lot of weight for your athletes. Choose wisely. Choose to cultivate courage. Put players on the spot, encourage appropriate risk-taking, don’t condemn failure, and praise courageous acts. You want players who will not back down from a challenge and will step up when the pressure is on. Courage is crucial.


Question: What difference would it make if your players had more courage under pressure? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below, or on Facebook or Twitter.



Please note: I encourage reader discussion, however, I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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