"They let the pressure get to them," or some variant of that utterance tends to be a part of broadcaster bingo, especially around NCAA Tournament time.
Pressure, though, is one of those concepts we seem to take for granted. A few things happen when a player feels pressure, including (but not limited to) muscles tensing, thought process speeding up, temperature rising and focus shifting.
While there are plenty of ways to combat these unwelcome occurrences, I believe it's also worth discussing why they happen in the first place. After all, as Hoosiers might tell you, the basket isn't any higher in a big game, nor is the court any bigger. Pressure only exists when we assign special value to an event.
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Here are a few places that contribute to pressure and some strategies for combating them. As always, reaching out to your local sport psychology consultant could be extremely effective in helping athletes defend against pressure.1. Coaches
Coaches will always be a primary source of pressure for athletes. Coaches put pressure on athletes for a variety of reasons, including as a motivational tactic. However, each athlete responds differently to types of pressure. One player might thrive knowing there's a player behind her, ready to take her spot; the next might excel knowing she's the only option and the team needs her to perform.
Be sure to determine the right buttons to push with every athlete when deciding between high expectations, trust, criticism, social comparison, broader implications, reduced playing time and every other motivational option at your disposal. Check in regularly and track results to ensure you're putting your player in the best place to succeed.
The world turns, clouds drizzle and parents – with wonderful intentions – put extra pressure on their kids. I won't go into too much detail on this and parents can offer helpful insight to kids, but try to remember all the other places they're receiving pressure.
I do occasionally see parents putting pressure on kids because they lack motivation, but often, the players in question are actually responding to great pressure (internal or external) by shutting down or not trying particularly hard. Differences between lack of motivation and shutting down are subtle, but crucial. Look out for signs of a player being overwhelmed, burned out or playing below their potential – if they're exhibiting these signs, they might have too much pressure on them, already.
Yes, temperature has a huge impact on pressure. Have you ever ordered hot wings that are just a few notches too hot, and tried to carry on a conversation? Pretty darn difficult to concentrate on what you're trying to say.
Imagine trying to make decisions during a close game while overheated. If you notice your players succumbing to pressure, be ready to help regulate their temperatures with water and rest.
A growing concern every year. Between live footage, websites, blogs, newspapers and more, the interest in high school sports continues to surge. While high schoolers find this coverage exciting, it can also be extraordinarily difficult to process at such a young age.
Remember, big moments are only "big" because of the value we attach to them. The more hype, the more attention, the more pressure. A young quarterback missing a throw might be seen by those in the crowd, those watching the online stream, those following along on Twitter, and everyone in the community once the highlights get released.
I don't think enjoying high school sports is evil, but remember to keep coverage and conversation responsible and respectful. Remember, they're kids, and kids have enough pressure elsewhere!
5. Self worth
This one could be an article unto itself, but we'll skim the surface for now. Athletes, young, old, professional, amateur, will often consider themselves athletes throughout life.
Sport participation often infects every aspect of an athlete's life. Like dye in water, or creamer in coffee, sports gently imbue themselves in the person and leave them completely changed. This is often a positive, as sports give players friendships, improved health and a host of other benefits. It can be entirely neutral. However, this can also be a negative and create added pressure for high school players.
When an athlete ties their identity to the results of athletics, rather than the athletics themselves, they risk losing a sense of self-worth when results go against them. If a player needs to play well, because failure means they lose self-worth, the pressure they face in any given game or matchup will be far greater than what their teammates experience. This can be motivating, but it can also be devastating when things go wrong, especially considering many young athletes do not have the skills to work back from such devastation.
Coaches, too, might experience this type of pressure when their entire identity revolves around winning. A loss here or there, regardless of the conditions, might see a coach developing some insecurities and making mistakes they don't normally make. As much as anything on this list, I'd really recommend seeing a professional for this one, but focusing on one's identity outside of sports (or, at least, outside of results) is a great place to start.
It's only your future, what's the big deal? College pressure becomes problematic when a players focuses more on college than on actually taking the steps to get to college athletics. Much like dating, putting an intense focus on goal, rather than on improving yourself, will make a connection harder to come by.
However, it is easy and natural for the mind to wander into wondering about whether someone (or some school) will ever like you enough to talk to you! Understandably, the question of playing college ball hangs over many an athlete's head. Combat this by returning focus back to the game and back to improvement.
7. Comparison to teammates
What high schooler isn't worried about what their teammates are doing? Comparisons to other players are inevitable and can cause extra pressure to those trying to keep up with the Joneses, Jameses and Williamsons.
Hopefully, this motivates a player, but it might also allow them to obsess over someone else instead of focusing on their own performance. A coach doesn't want their receiver thinking about how his teammate would catch the pass thrown his way, you just want him locked in on catching that ball and running. Point out what is unique in a player to allow them to focus on themselves.
Connor Hartley is a mental performance consultant from Tacoma, Washington. He teaches mental skills to athletes, musicians, students and other types of performers, including elite athletes in soccer, basketball and golf. Hartley has a master’s degree in mental health counseling with a focus in sport psychology from Boston University and a bachelor’s in psychology from Loyola Marymount University. Reach him on Facebook (Hartley Performance) Twitter (@connorhartleySP) or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.