Performing under pressure

Gymnast chalking hands
Author:  Michelle Paccagnella, Psychologist, ACT Academy of Sport
Issue: Volume 28 Number 1

The clock is ticking; there are only five minutes remaining.  Your team has to score four goals in the next five minutes in order to make the final and your chance at gold and glory.  Everyone is fired up and tensions are running high.  The coach is pacing the sideline; the players on the bench are on the edge of their seats, shouting to their team-mates on court.  Some of the players look intensely focused; others look desperate, or slightly ill…

This scenario is very familiar in sport – high-pressure situations when athletes simply have to perform in order to make the next step.  Some athletes and coaches love these moments, however others dread those feelings of pressure.  Pressure has always been an integral part of sports. Exciting competitions often have pivotal moments when the outcomes are decided.  These pressure situations are such an innate part of sporting experiences and yet many of our athletes are not taught how to deal with them. 

So what is pressure?

Pressure usually refers to the feelings an athlete has about performing in a sporting situation. It is often experienced as a compelling or constraining influence on the mind, or an urgent demand that must be met.  Pressure is a feeling that is created by ourselves, when we react to particular events or situations.

Pressure isn’t necessarily bad – it can enhance motivation, concentration and enjoyment.  That feeling of stress that often accompanies a pressure situation can help keep you on your toes, ready to rise to a challenge.

Where does pressure come from?

Pressure can come from a variety of internal and external sources. For example:

  • parental expectations to perform
  • athletes’ expectations about the competition (desired result, anticipated reward, selection opportunities, travel, praise, payoff for all their hard work)
  • other people’s expectations (especially team mates and coaches, but also from other people such as friends, relatives, partners)
  • press and media expectations (newspaper articles, club newsletters etc)
  • preparation for competition (how well prepared the athletes feel, and how ready they feel on the day)
  • crowd or audience effects (their reactions to performance, either supportive or derisive)
  • importance of this performance (selection, one last medal and then retirement)
  • anticipated contest difficulty or importance (eg local club game vs finals at nationals)
  • officials’ and organisers’ actions (the way the people in charge affect the athletes)
  • athletes’ readiness to perform (fully fit, mentally ready, injury-free etc)
  • timing (last 5 mins, need 4 more goals to win)
  • other areas of life that compete for athletes’ attention (school, work, relationships etc)
  • lack of self-confidence (doubting their ability to perform)
  • implementing a new technique in competition
  • repeated errors

Thriving under pressure

The way your athletes deal with pressure is the key to using pressure situations positively. Learning to respond well in a pressure situation will be an invaluable tool for your athletes.

Pressure is an illusion!

The most important concept in dealing with pressure is to start with the realisation that there is no such thing as competition pressure, except what you make of it in your mind.  Pressure isn’t something that happens to us – it is something that is manufactured by our own thinking.  Aside from the physical pressure exerted on one opponent by another on the field, pressure in the competitive context isn’t real – it doesn’t exist.  It doesn’t have a form, a colour, a smell.  Pressure is simply how we perceive the situation we are in.  Athletes need to learn this, because once they understand that pressure is something they create, then they also understand that pressure is therefore something they can control.  By controlling their responses to pressure situations, athletes learn to take them in their stride.

Controlling responses to pressure: tips for athletes

  • Pressure only exists if you are concerned about the outcome. Playing a scratch match and playing in the national finals are exactly the same thing! It’s still the same ball, the same strategies, the same rules – nothing has changed in terms of how you play the game.  So approach pressure situations as though they are practice matches.  Train your mind to stay in the present and let the outcome take care of itself.
  • Learn to practise at the same level you compete at.  Your best possibly match play can only ever be as good as your best possible training performance.  People labour under the illusion that all those little successful moments in training will somehow combine together on match day to bring about higher levels of performance.  This just isn’t true, so learn to train as you mean to play.
  • You must practise pressure situations in training, so they become normal and easy to handle.
  • Ensure you have good preparation leading up to competition.
  • Pressure situations require enhanced communication – practise this in training.
  • Never, ever give in – maintain commitment and desire in the face of adversity.
  • Learn to focus on the right thing at the right time, regardless of what is going on around you.
  • Often athletes (and coaches) rush things when they are under pressure.  This detracts from performance, communication, vision, and enjoyment.  Slow down.  Even though you may feel under time constraints, it’s better to slow down and get it right than to rush it and make an error.
  • Some people will benefit from engaging in some relaxation exercises prior to competing, to help them to feel calm and focused.
  • Practise mindfulness (no negative thoughts... I mean, think positively!).
  • Share how you feel with others – talking about how you feel can help you to deal with it.  However be mindful of who you choose to talk to, you don’t want to put ideas of pressure into your teammates’ heads!
  • Strive for excellence, not perfection.  It is okay to make mistakes under pressure, just as it is alright to make mistakes in training – so long as you recover well and learn from them.
  • Focus on technique or strategy.  Pay attention to the things you have practised – they are familiar so they won’t feel pressured.
  • Have good error recovery strategies – people tend to make more errors when they perceive they are under pressure, so you need to have a good strategy to deal with them without them affecting your confidence.
  • Remember, it’s not about your feelings, it’s about your actions.  Take the focus off how you feel, by putting your focus onto what you will do. Your actions affect your emotions so go through the right actions (pretend if you must) and you will feel better.
  • Identify the actions/skills that suffer most when you are in a pressure situation.  Put extra time into practising those skills so that you feel confident in them in any circumstance. The appropriate action must be practised to the level of a conditioned response (it must be automatic).
  • Increased fitness helps you deal with pressure.  Also make sure you train sometimes when you’re fatigued.
  • Maintain your belief in yourself, no matter what the situation.


Situation changes


Mental response


Emotional response


Physical response