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Put ‘em under pressure! Pressure training to prepare for competition

Ronaldo with Portugal versus Ireland
Put 'em under pressure - Ronaldo

To love truth for truth’s sake is the principal part of human perfection in this world and the seed-plot of all other virtues. John Locke, letter, 1703 (Cooper, 2022)

Back in 1990, ‘Put ‘em under pressure’ was the official song for the Republic of Ireland national football team’s FIFA World Cup campaign in Italy. Jackie Charlton’s exhortation was to ‘put ‘em under pressure’. It seems axiomatic that each team puts the other under pressure, so coping with pressure represents a challenge for all sports performers. The pressure of competition means some sport performers choke under pressure, which means their athletic performance falls under intense anxiety. Others, however, use the pressure of competition to their advantage. As an illustration, Dame Kelly Holmes, the victor of the 800m and 1500m races in the 2004 Olympic games held in Athens, disclosed that her motivation stemmed from her aversion to finishing a race without feeling she had exerted her utmost efforts to secure victory (Crutchley, 2014).

 Based on psychological research, pressure and the subsequent display of anxiety symptoms are associated with perceiving a present or future situation as a potential threat (Moran & Toner, 2017). Whenever there is a discrepancy between what we think we can do (i.e. our evaluation of our own abilities) and what we believe we, and others, expect us to do (i.e. the perceived demands of the situation), we put ourselves under pressure. From a psychological standpoint, we can understand pressure as a subjective interpretation (our estimation) of specific objective circumstances (i.e., a pressure situation). If pressure is what we perceive, how do we prepare for it? (Low et al., 2023)

  1. Let’s begin by arranging the training environment to match the performance context as best we can. Although it seems easier to do so with a close skill (e.g., a first tee drive in golf) compared with more dynamic open skills tasks (e.g., a long diagonal pass to winger close to the touchline to score a try) with consequences for teammates, it is possible to do so. Though everyone recognises one cannot fully simulate certain competition situations (e.g., a long diagonal pass to a winger close to the touchline to score a try to win the World Cup or Six Nations); however, research suggests that practising under mild anxiety has benefits for performing under high anxiety conditions (Kegelaers, & Oudejans, 2024) 

  2. Let the athlete(s) contribute to the design of these practice manipulations. In this method, the athlete can relate a personal experience of competition pressure and seek fidelity to what the coaches propose for the simulation and what seems likely in the competition.

  3. It’s okay to surprise the athletes too. A surprise disruption to training features a clever way to increase pressure. Sometimes coaches run practice games where their refereeing is more penal or more pardoning than usual.

  4. Maybe coaches run pressure training on one or a few occasions or run them intermittently across the season, allowing time and space to reflect on, and learn from, the experiences (Collins et al., 2016).

  5. A word of caution. Changes and manipulations to training sessions (i.e., pressure training) ought to remain within sensible boundaries to prevent strain among the players and between the playing staff and the coaching staff. Sensible, progressive, and set at the right level for the age and stage of the athletes, matters.

In short, pressure training has value; however, it needs to remain within its boundaries, focus on the positive aspects of the culture of competitive sport, and not used as a punishment. 

Cooper, B. (2022). Deep pockets: Snooker and the meaning of life. Little Brown Book Group. 

Collins, D., MacNamara, A., & McCarthy, N. (2016). Putting the bumps in the rocky road: Optimizing the pathway to excellence. Frontiers in Psychology7, 1–6.

Crutchley, P. (2014) One shot: How do athletes perform under the greatest pressure? Retrieved from on 24 January 2024.

Kegelaers, J. & Oudejans, R. R. D. (2024) Pressure makes diamonds? A narrative review on the application of pressure training in high-performance sports. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 22(1), 141-159, DOI: 10.1080/1612197X.2022.2134436

Moran, A. P., & Toner, J. (2017). A critical introduction to sport psychology. Taylor and Francis.

Low, W. R., & Stoker, M., Butt, J., & Maynard, I. (2023) Pressure training: From research to applied practiceJournal of Sport Psychology in Action, 1-16.

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