Practicing For Pressure

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Do you know of any players who perform impressively during practice, demonstrating great athleticism, and impressive technical ability, yet who struggle to replicate their skills in competition? Chances are, you’ll know plenty.

But why is this the case? One word…pressure. The ability to perform under pressure is one of the most critical aspects of playing competitive sport, yet it is often the most neglected area of preparation. 

Typically, the vast majority of training sessions involve focusing on skill acquisition which, of course, is important. However, if athletes struggle to manage their internal sense of pressure, their athletic and technical capabilities are essentially nullified.

Executing skills within a safe and controlled practice environment is very different from doing so in the drama and turmoil of a competitive situation, so it’s imperative to dedicate a healthy proportion of training time towards trying to induce feelings of pressure in the minds of your athletes.

Remember, it’s your responsibility as a coach to help your players be prepared for real-life competition, so make sure that you train them under pressure, so that they are able to compete under pressure. 

Visualisation

A proven and effective method for preparing your players to perform under pressure is to use visualisation techniques. 

The more players can see and feel themselves competing successfully in their minds, the better prepared they are for when they have to do it for real. 

A good parallel here is flight simulation training. Before a pilot is given the responsibility of flying a plane, they practice virtual flying in a flight simulator, where they will see and feel themselves performing thousands of safe take-offs and landings before they even come close to stepping into a real life cockpit. Visualisation for athletes does the same job as the flight simulator does for pilots.

However, when you’re encouraging your players to use visualisation, it’s important for them to…

  • Always visualise themselves performing successfully.
  • Make their visualisations as vivid and real as they possibly can.

Other examples of visualisation techniques that your players could practice include…

  • Jotting down performance goals before the start of practice.
  • Discussing objectives in clear detail with teammates ahead of a match.
  • Writing up an imaginary match report before the game, detailing a great performance.
  • Visiting the match venue ahead of time to become more familiar with the surroundings. If this isn’t possible, view some images of the venue online.

Match replication

It may sound simple and obvious (and it is), but making practice as similar to competition as possible can be extremely helpful for improving your players ability to manage feelings of pressure. 

The more you can replicate match conditions, the better prepared your players will be.

How you do this is your decision, but you may want to consider manipulating some of the following variables…

Match time
For example, if you have an upcoming evening match, then practice in the evening.

Match Length
Make practice games exactly the same length of time as matches.

Opposition
Shake things up by bringing in external athletes (such as former players) to practice against.

Game Conditions
If the game will be played with a closed roof, practice with a closed roof; if the forecast is for rain, dampen the pitch etc.

Consequence training

During competitive matches, players are subjected to consequences, ranging from losing the game to getting substituted, receiving media criticism to being dropped. 

Therefore it’s essential for them to be subjected to consequences in practice too, so create drills and scenarios that have a repercussion if your players fall short on an pre-agreed standard. 

However, before you do this, bear in mind a couple of points…

  • Ensure the player’s skill level is at an appropriate standard before you start to apply pressure. If it’s not, work on improving the skill first to get it up to the required standard.
  • The player has to know, and agree with, the consequence before the start of the task.

In summary, you’re simply trying to provide opportunities where your players are exposed to pressure prior to stepping onto the field of competition. 

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