Performing Under Pressure. 6 Ways We Can Help Our Young Athletes Perform at Their Best When it Matters Most.

"Acting like you have been there before". Football great Barry Sanders said it best, and it applies to dealing with difficult situations. Let's explore.

Good morning,

We are all under pressure to a certain degree.

Keep up with responsibilities and obligations and home and at work. Balancing multiple priorities. Paying the bills.

Our young athletes have pressures as well. Many are different that what we, as coaches and parents, think. We are not growing up in 2020. Tough for us to know.

As a young athlete I don’t remember ever feeling bothered by meaningful game situations. Overtime or hitting with game on the line. Tryouts never seemed to bother me either, although was disappointed with that outcome a few times.

I do remember something happening in my late teens, however. When playing junior hockey, I started to feel more nervous before games. I did not feel at ease during the games. It was almost like I was trying too hard, maybe I did not feel like I belonged. For the first time, admission was charged to get into see the games back then. I remember feeling somehow that made a difference. Silly really. Looking back, I wished that I had some advice on how to deal with those feelings of nervousness. I was never able to shake it and there is no doubt it affected how I played.

At a young age, there is an ease in playing our favorite game. In our day, we learned the game on the frozen outdoor rink or on the local diamond. We played pick up games of everything. We created championship situations all the time. Sometimes we won. Sometimes we lost. Without even knowing it, it had an impact on when our organized teams had meaningful games.

photo from wellmind.

Today, our young athletes don’t develop these skills unless we create that environment as coaches. Game like situations, with the clock ticking down or next goal wins scenarios are not as frequent outside of games or practices, and in practice we must create them. Bringing this together as a coach and trying to use my experiences as learning tools in helping young athletes, I always had game on the line scenarios in practice. We always spoke as a team early in the season about focusing on previous successes, and on the skill portion of the situation and less on what might be at stake or the outcome.

As coaches, giving our young athletes the tools to deal with stressful situations and letting them experience, are some of the most valuable lessons we can provide. Those situations teach a lot.

Photo by Samuel Castro on Unsplash

Let’s break this down in helping our athletes be at their best:

What is pressure?

There are a lot of definitions available, but the one I like is the feeling when a situation threatens to overwhelm our ability to execute.

Sometimes the situational importance is inflated by the burning desire to achieve an outcome. This elevated situational importance can be externally loaded by coaches or parents. It can be internally loaded ourselves.

  • It could be we do not want to disappoint.

  • It could be the negative repercussions of a previous failure. It could be fear of the failure.

  • It could be the need to impress or showcase our hard work.

  • It could be the impact of realizing what is at stake in a championship moment.

Pressure and the heat of the moment is often associated with a negative outcome, also known as choking. Choking can refer to the situation overwhelming execution in a turning point moment.

Courtesy of Ohio University, full reference below

Recently, with the 2020 World Series involving the LA Dodgers, we were reminded of one the greatest baseball moments of all time. An injured Kirk Gibson hit a 2 out, 2 strike, walk off game winning home run to beat the A’s in game 1 of the 1988 World Series.

Gibson’s home run was heralded as a great performance under pressure. Dennis Eckersley, the pitcher who succeeded so many times in those situations before was criticized as having choked under the pressure. In an interview years later, Gibson talked about studying the scouting report on Eckersley, the dominant closer in the game at the time. The scouting report highlighted that on a 3 and 2 pitch Eckersley defaulted to throw the back door slider. Even though, Gibson had a hard time with the fastball due to his knee injury earlier in the at bat, Eckersley delivered the back door slider. The result…one of the greatest baseball moments for Dodgers fans. (clip is below).

Was it a choke by Eckersley? I don’t think so.

Was it Eckersley going to what worked for him hundreds of times before knowing he would succeed? Yes.

Was it Gibson, calm under pressure and focused on the scouting report and not what was at stake? Yes.

His preparation was key. His performance rose bigger than the situation. He was focused on the key to success. Hedge his bets on the pitch coming and put a good swing on the ball.

Performing under pressure is not limited to players. Coaches are also often under pressure, in making critical decisions on strategy and personnel.

photo credit masterfile/radius images

A coach who has a lot of talented players for example, is under pressure to fulfill the potential of the team. The same way a player is under pressure to perform to the best of his/her abilities.

This situation happens every game. There is a favorite team in every game who is striving to live up to its potential. There are players who have performed well in the past, and others strive to do so for the first time.

As long as people keep score, there will be a desire to come out on the winning side. As long as that exists, there will be critical moments during a game where performance can overwhelm the situation, or the situation can overwhelm the performance.

Let’s look at 6 ways performance can be maximized when it matters most:

1. Developing the ability to focus is especially relevant today. We live in an age of distraction. There is some merit to the point of it being harder to focus today than in past years. We live in an age of interruption. With that assumption, the ability to focus needs to be practiced. Let’s use the example of our youth and video games. Often, there is little that will distract once locked into their favorite video game.

Eliminating distractions when the game on the line might prove to be a less instinctive, and require more practice.

This is where the coach comes in. The skill of focusing on the task at hand, at the key process to successful execution needs to be learned and repeated.

A main difference in video games focus versus game situation is exactly that there are more distractions in a live sport.

From being worried about outcome, to the opposing team or players trying to distract you, dialing in to the steps in being successful becomes critical.

2. Build confidence. Performance can overtake a situation if confidence is high. Confidence comes from belief. The #1 source of confidence is preparation. Been there before, even if in practice is critical. Having the presence of mind to remind oneself of having succeeded before is very important in staying ahead of a challenging situation.

3. Having a routine prior to the performance is critical. From the routine on the free throw line to pre-game rituals, the best under pressure have something to bring their focus in to one point. Something that triggers comfort will help with confidence. It is not by accident that we hear so often about our favorite athlete’s routines. This is a process that help the athlete get the mind right. Coaches are the same.

They will have a process of how to cover key points before games, during practices, during timeouts. They understand that most situations are repeatable. When the team is struggling, or when it is rolling. When it has had a tough loss, or a big win. The comfort comes from the routine.

4. Focus on the present. Not thinking of what is coming or the impact of the outcome or what is at stake. Michael Jordan has been quoted as wanting to block out what was at stake in big situations. Instead focus on the present, and the key steps to success.

5. Channel the nerves. Famous author and speaker Simon Sinek talks of framing the increased heart rate and sweaty armpits as excitement instead of nervousness. The role of the coach is to frame these situations as opportunities. In fact, some of the best coaches will talk of all the work in preparation has given the athlete the opportunity to excel. Players can be taught to channel the nerves and turn them to feelings of excitement while focusing on task at hand.

6. Framing thoughts in our minds from looking for reasons to fail to looking for ways to succeed. We often see teams win for the first time in their school or organizations history. The players that struggled in winning the big game did so until they won. They struggled in big situations until they did not. Everyone has a first time. That first time is predicated on doing the work to get to that opportunity. How we think in situations where the game is on the line can be controlled. Why not control it to the positive?

The Physical Movement is a weekly newsletter delivered to your inbox. If you enjoyed an article, learned something or benefited from the article, please feel free to subscribe and share.

Share The Physical Movement: Play. Lead. Be Strong.

In 2020, the winning teams in the NBA, NHL and MLB all had managers/head coaches whom had not won their league championship priors, not at the that level. While the teams had a few players each with championship experience at the highest level, the head coaches did not. You can’t win the big one until you do. You can’t coach players to the next level until you do. You can’t succeed as a player in pressure situations until you do. It all starts somewhere.

I remember coaching 18u baseball a few years back against a team where the coach on the other side was a yeller. He was not yelling positive encouragement, but rather pointing out the obvious to his players. When a ball was hit to center field and dropped in front of his player for a single, the yell from the dugout was to “get to the ball quicker.”

This was 16 and 17 year old boys, in a tournament elimination game. You could see everyone on their side tighten up. All the players where nervous. They were the underdog and the yelling showed their nerves were a little frayed. The situation started to get bigger than the players. In the 10-15 minutes after that comment, our players hit the ball just out of reach of their players. They did not seem to be able to get to the ball.

Was this coincidence?

Our team went on to have a big inning, never looked back and that was a pivotal point in the game.

One could make the argument that the coaches comment came from nervous energy. He did not channel it right at all.

The situation was bigger than the coaches performance.

How we frame the situation is critical.

Players can be taught to frame on the positive. Pull up past success, not failure and focus on successful steps in execution they have practiced before.

This is a skill to develop for coaches as well, and not let any situation overwhelm us.

It is not a coincidence that at the highest levels, most coaches keep an even keel regardless of the game situation.

Top performers don’t let the situation overwhelm them.


The below resources were used in gathering info for this article.

Ohio University Graphic:

Kirk Gibson 1988 home run is a classic under pressure moment.