Why do we sometimes perform so differently in training and in matches? Why can we do something perfectly a million times in training, yet when it comes to game-day, struggle to perform even the most basic of tasks? The simple, relatively obvious answer, is pressure.
The pressure of performing in front of thousands of people, the increased demands of competition and the countless number of possible distractions all contribute to the large amount of stressors that may not be present during training, but can have a big impact on match-day performance (Driskell, Sclafani & Driskell, 2014). In this way, there can be a huge difference in environments where one trains and where one competes. This may prevent any learning in training from transferring to competition (Keinan & Friedland, 1996).
Simply put, as an example, learning to take and score a penalty in football training is easy. Doing it in front of hundreds of thousands of people is a significantly more daunting challenge. Footballers would need to learn to block out boos from opposition fans, to ignore mind-games from goalkeepers they are facing, or the expectations of fans and teammates alike, and focus solely on striking the penalty well. These elements can often go unpracticed in training, causing even the best of athletes to succumb to the added anxiety – a phenomenon in sport commonly referred to as “choking” (Hill & Shaw, 2012; Oudejans & Pijpers, 2010).
As a result, extending research from different fields of performance psychology (e.g. education, military training, medicine and sport), sport psychology research has started to emphasize the importance of incorporating challenge and pressure into the training of athletes. However, coaches need to implement this carefully, and in this blog, tips and strategies based upon two evidence-based approaches are discussed (Driskell, Sclafani & Driskell, 2014; Fletcher & Sarkar, 2016). Football is used as an example throughout to try and make things a little clearer.
What to be Wary of
While research in the area is inconsistent, some studies argue that training under stress prevents the acquisition of new skills. For example, if you’re trying to teach someone the proper technique to take a free kick while shouting at them to “hurry up” or “booing” them, it is unlikely that they’ll learn it properly with most of their attention instead focused on your shouts. They’re more likely to learn this new skill in a relaxed environment where they’re allowed to focus solely on kicking the ball properly in the direction that they intend. Furthermore, being repeatedly exposed to stress can cause exhaustion, which can also hinder performance. Other negative consequences include instilling fear into athletes, and decreasing performance confidence.
(Keinan & Friedland, 1996)
Stress Exposure Training
To avoid these negative consequences, implementing pressure in training needs to be done carefully. Driskell and colleagues (2014) explain how to use a stress exposure training approach to successfully reduce game day pressures in baseball. They describe 5 mechanisms through which stress impacts performance. Stress:
- Increases distractions and decreases attention
- Increases cognitive load
- Increases fear and anxiety
- Increases other negative emotions
- Increases social impairment
Stress Exposure Training (SET) aims to combat these effects on performance by simulating game day conditions and stressors in training, and giving trainees the opportunity to learn and practice strategies for dealing with these stressors, consequently improving performance in the presence of them. SET is set out in three phases:
- Information Provision
- Skills Acquisition
- Application and Practice
Setting it out in phases is important as it allows for the learning and development of new skills, while gradually building up stressors so as to prepare but not overwhelm the athlete.
In the information provision phase, the stressors (such as the boos from opposing fans) are described to participants. Inzana and fellow associates (1996) found that providing people with preparatory information about a potential stressful event can reduce their negative reactions to that event. However, Keinan and Friedland (1996) warn that incorrect or ambiguous information about a stressor may be worse than no information at all as this information would breed expectations.
Preparatory information should include a description of the stressors that are likely to occur in the environment and the effects it could have on performance (procedural information), the typical physiological and emotional responses to the stressor (sensory information), and information about how to cope with the stressor (instrumental information).
For example, a coach might describe to a football player how referees might sometimes make decisions that seem unjust like penalizing a player for a foul even though the tackle may have been clean (procedural). These decisions could then really upset the player causing increased heart rate, flaring nostrils, sweating and trembling (sensory). The player may feel tempted to argue and shout at the referee. The player may be told to remember that arguing will only get him in more trouble, and to just take a few deep breaths and walk away (instrumental information).
In summary, clear and effective information about different stressors should include descriptions of the stressor, information about associated feelings and sensations, the effects of the stressor on performance, signals of beginning and ending, and ways to cope with the stressor (Keinan & Friedland, 1996).
The skills acquisition phase involves teaching necessary task-specific skills as well as stress management and psychological skills required for high performance under stress. It is important to note that in this phase, skills are taught in a relaxed environment and stressors are only applied briefly in the practice of stress management skills. As one of the main ways stress can affect performance is by diverting attention from important aspects of a task, Driskell and associates (2014) suggest training athletes in attentional control, coined Game Time Pressure-Attention (GTP-A). They describe a 4-point cognitive strategy that athletes can learn and practice to maintain their attention on a task in the face of distractions:
Example: A penalty taker might be distracted by the shouts from opposition fans exclaiming “MISS!”. The player can then go through this RDSF routine, registering these shouts, dismissing them as unimportant, setting their feet and choosing which corner they want to place the ball, and focusing on their target.
Training such a simple strategy has its advantages as it can be used in a wide range of situations. Furthermore, the RDSF provides athletes with a pre-performance routine they can practice consistently in high pressure situations to establish focus.
In the application and practice stage, stressors and demands are increased gradually to better mimic the game-day environment. Crucially, trainees must first be taught necessary skills without too much pressure to allow them to learn the skills effectively. Slowly stressors can be introduced allowing them to implement stress management strategies as well. Research has demonstrated the effectiveness of this phased approach to training (Keinan & Friedland, 1996). Here are a few possible ways stressors can be implemented in football training sessions to better represent the contextual game-day environment:
- Invite outside coaches and parents to watch some training sessions (increase performance pressure)
- Introduce competitive games in training, involving referees, fans and incentives (increase competitive demands)
- Have numerous people shouting instructions at the player (increase task load)
- Create lots of noise, that may or may not also include boos, chants, advice, shouts of “hurry up!” or “you can do better than that!” and general noise that may be distracting
Mental Fortitude Training Program
Reading some of the suggested methods of inducing pressure listed above, you may have some concerns about the potential negative impacts these could have on athletes such as decreasing their performance confidence. Therefore, it is fundamental that amidst all this pressure, there is also a high level of support provided to athletes. As such, a balance between high levels of challenge and high levels of support is critical. Fletcher and Sarkar (2016) call this a facilitative environment, and emphasize its importance in developing resilience – the “ability to use personal qualities to withstand pressure.”
Within a facilitative environment, high levels of challenge involve high expectations placed on athletes that instill a sense of accountability and responsibility. Feedback on how to improve (developmental feedback) is provided, thus increasing the level of challenge and expectation placed on the athlete. Levels of challenge can be influenced by increasing the demand of stressors, and increasing the significance of appraisals (e.g. this is extremely important for you to complete successfully in order to achieve your goals).
Support is provided by promoting the learning and development of personal qualities that include psychological skills such as imagery, self-talk, effective planning and goal-setting. Additionally, motivational feedback involving what the athlete did well and what was effective can provide them with a sense of encouragement. Within this environment, athletes’ responses to manipulations of challenge and support need to be carefully monitored so as to find the optimal balance for an athlete’s well-being and performance. Some other qualities of a facilitative environment include: input and ownership towards goals, constructive feedback, good relationships, a trusting and supportive atmosphere, and healthy competition.
In their program, Fletcher and Sarkar (2016) also emphasize the development of a challenge mindset, which involves how individuals react to stressors, and whether they view them as harmful to their goals (negative) or a challenge (positive). Intuitively, one can see how implementing more pressure in training could be detrimental to those who view stressors as threats (e.g. reduction in confidence) rather than challenges. In this way, helping to develop a challenge mindset is critical in order to reap the benefits of pressure training.
Appraisals of a stressor involve an evaluation of what is happening and its relevance, the availability of coping resources, and an evaluation of one’s own thoughts and feelings. The key to developing a challenge mindset is to change negative appraisals, that can involve different patterns of negative thinking (e.g. “Yes, but…” thinking – The coach praised the amount of effort I put in today, but he didn’t praise my shooting performance). Fletcher and Sarkar (2016) proposed the following thought regulation strategy that can be learnt and practiced by athletes to regulate and challenge negative thinking:
Stop – recognize the negative thought and simply tell yourself to “STOP!”
Verbalize – tell someone about your negative thought, allow them to help you confront any irrationality and replace them with more positive thoughts
Park – write/draw your negative thoughts and what they represent and put them aside/dispose of them
Confront – challenge irrationality by asking questions (e.g. Is there anything else the coach’s comment could mean?)
Replace – replace with positive thoughts and images
Tips for Best Practice
Based on the research, the following are a few tips on how coaches can best implement pressure in training to optimize performance:
- Ensure athletes understand that feeling vulnerable to stressors or adversity is not weakness. Instead, discussion and action to overcome stressors is a sign of strength
- Clear and correct information about stressors is crucial – you’d rather provide no information than incorrect or ambiguous information
- Phased training to allow for skill acquisition
- Gradual incorporation of stressors
- Balance high levels of challenge with high levels of support
- Careful monitoring of athlete’s responses
- Foster a challenge mindset
- Developmental and motivational feedback is important
- Train Psychological skills such as imagery, effective planning, attentional control and thought regulation
(Driskell, Sclafani & Driskell, 2014; Fletcher & Sarkar, 2016; Keinan & Friedland, 1996)
When done correctly, implementing pressure in training can have substantial benefits for athletes that ultimately lead to improvements in performance in pressurized game-day situations. These include:
- Decreases reactivity to stressors, and reduces anxiety (Driskell, Sclafani & Driskell, 2014)
By providing information and exposure to the different stressors one may experience in a match, athletes can be familiar with what is to come and be able to better prepare themselves by arousing psychological defenses against anxiety (Keinan & Friedland, 1996).
- Increases attention to the task
Training attentional control (i.e. GTP-A) teaches individuals to regulate attention to the task at hand in the face of distractions across a multitude of situations. Furthermore, as players have a better understanding of their own sensations, they are not distracted by physiological factors such as an increased heart rate or heavy breathing (Driskell, Sclafani & Driskell, 2014).
- Increases self-control
Research has demonstrated that psychological skills such as attention regulation is a form of self-control, in that one needs to exercise control to ignore distractions and focus on a task (Schmeichel & Baumeister, 2010). According to the Strength model of self-control, Baumeister and colleagues (1998) suggest that self-control is like a muscle that while can become temporarily fatigued, will strengthen when exercised. Based on this, learning and practicing such skills as attentional control can also increase one’s global self-control.
- Reduces choking
A study by Oudejans and Pijpers (2010) found that training under conditions of mild anxiety (implementing pressure) can prevent choking under higher levels of anxiety in game-day performance.
- Helps develop resilience (Fletcher & Sarkar, 2016)
- Improves overall performance
Written by Hiren Khemlani
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