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Perceiving Pressure

This is an excerpt from One Goal by Bill Beswick.

The demands of soccer exert five key pressures that can affect the mindset of teams.

  1. Performance pressure - the expectations of others and the consequences of defeat leading to anxiety and fear.
  2. Competition pressure - making decisions and executing skills when challenged and under fatigue leading to confusion, lack of confidence and errors.
  3. Time pressure - the need to respond quickly throughout the game and at the end of game when the clock is ticking down leading to anxiety and frustration.
  4. Distraction pressure - the crowd, the noise and incidents on the field distracting attention and leading to a loss of focus.
  5. Emotional pressure - refereeing decisions, mistakes and frustration with teammates leading to anger and loss of composure.

The mindset of a team can be strengthened or weakened by how they assess the challenges awaiting them. This definition of the situation shapes and drives subsequent performance.

Four-time Olympic Gold Medal winner Michael Johnson is widely regarded as one of the most successful athletes of all time. He acknowledges that his psychological approach to competition was crucial to his sustained success on the track. Meticulous planning and preparation complemented by intense focus allowed him to perform consistently even when under extreme pressure. Johnson's approach was to train his mind to be disciplined and so deal with the intense pressure of competition. His definition of pressure removed any negative connotations in his mind.

Pressure is nothing more than the shadow of a great opportunity.

‘Toughness is not a destination, but a journey without end'.

All performance starts in the mind before a game as teams and players seek answers to these questions:

  • What exactly is the challenge we face today?
  • What do we know of our opponents?
  • What is our record against them?
  • How strong is our team?
  • Are we well prepared?
  • Who will lead us into battle?
  • Do I feel confident?
  • Do I want to do this?
  • What are the risks?
  • What are the expectations of others?
  • What are the consequences of failure?

The answers to these questions define the situation as perceived by the players, thus also defining their level of confidence and subsequent game behaviour. A positive definition of the situation is a frame of reference that can carry teams through difficult games because they think and behave like fighters, not victims. The task of coaches, supported by sport psychologists, is to help each player win the internal dialogue and overcome the weaker self.

Young players, especially girls, hold five common though irrational perceptions:

  1. My self-worth is on the line in this game.
  2. I must perform to please others.
  3. I must be perfect.
  4. The world must always be fair.
  5. I must always hate my opponent.

When Gary Kirsten coached the Indian cricket team to World Cup victory in India, the team had a major external pressure, the expectations of one billion people! Gary eased the pressure on the team by changing the picture and having them visualise one billion friends walking hand in hand with them to victory! The key to handling pressure is seeing challenge as a chance to shine, not a reason to fail.

Man is not worried by real problems so much as by his imagined anxieties about real problems.


Greek philosopher

The process by which a team agree a collective mindset towards a game begins when each player assesses her or his ability to meet the challenge. All players can then be influenced by the actions and words of senior team leaders, the coach's positive definition of the situation and any additional motivational techniques, such as a film or visiting speaker. From this process a collective response to the challenge emerges.

A winning mindset handles pressure by ensuring that positive values, attitudes and emotions bring behaviour that helps to conquer anxiety and fear. Coaches and sport psychologists need to teach players to define the competitive situation positively through using the skills of positive mental self-regulation, becoming comfortable with being intense but not tense.

Moment of Truth

The moment of truth for any player or team is when they cross the white line into a major competitive arena. It is at this moment when they feel the full pressure of the occasion. Here are some observations of the thinking that underpins the way that pressure affects performers and is then dealt with.

  • The pressure of performing live - the time is now!
  • A moment of no return - we cannot defer any longer.
  • A feeling of being alone to fight a personal battle.
  • The internal dialogue sways between confidence and anxiety.
  • Rapid heartbeat, muscular tension, sweaty palms, nausea.
  • The world awaits a response - fighter or victim?

Hard-earned experience is drawn upon:

  • A lifetime of self-doubt
  • Years of struggle
  • Years of conquering fears every day
  • Years of overcoming failure
  • The discipline of repetition and habits

Emotional courage is summoned:

  • Thinking, ‘I can'
  • Feeling, ‘I will'
  • Release of positive energy

The first step is crucial - years of training crystallised into a single moment:

  • First touch
  • First header
  • First tackle
  • Habits take over - preparation is everything.
  • The crowd respond.
  • The player responds - ‘I did it'. What better feeling?
  • The experience is banked for next time.

Coping With Pressure

Teams can't be expected to play well under pressure if they have not been prepared to handle game situations. It is not compulsory to feel pressure. Well-prepared teams can easily handle the pressure of the moment.

After winning the 2014-15 Premier League title, Chelsea's mid-field player, Cesc Fabregas said of his manager, Jose Mourinho:

You need someone behind it all, which is the manager, who every single day makes you be at the top of your game. He just loves winning. I'm not just saying other managers I have played under don't, but he has some edge that goes above anyone else I have ever been with. The mentality shows every single training session and every single game. I now understand why he has won what he has won in his career.

(Hughes, M. ‘Obsessive Desire to Win has Made Mourinho the Best, says Fabregas' in The Times, 2015, 5 May, Sport p 64).

Good coaches fully appreciate the direct link between proper preparation to a state of game readiness and the resultant quality of performance on game day. Seeing the link physically is easy, but if the coach demands game-day mental strength and disciplined thinking under pressure and fatigue, then this too must be rehearsed continuously in practice. Teams cannot practise without challenge or competition and then be expected to deal with such pressures on game day. Figure 12.2 shows how coaches can help players identify their own particular pressure points as part of the postgame performance feedback process. Using this exercise, coach and player can work together on improving the player's capacity to cope.

Make Pressure a Part of Practice

The practice-field environment is different from the game environment with its many unpredictable variables. The key to handling pressure in games is to replicate that pressure as nearly as possible in training. Coaches must integrate competitive and challenging situations within practice and simulate game scenarios. The more that practices resemble game day, including coping with unexpected situations, the better the team will cope with game pressure.

Practice must combine physical conditioning, skill acquisition by building a range of techniques and stress adaptation by increasing the demands on the player and team.

Physical training is a key element in adapting to the increasing demands of stress and coping with game pressure.

© skynesher/

When done well, this approach increases player awareness of potential pressure situations and provides a range of tools to deal with them. Practice performed in this way limits likely game pressure by increasing awareness, reducing anxiety and increasing confidence.

Coaches can ensure that their teams practice under pressure by

  • simulating a crowd effect by adding noise, distractions and so on,
  • increasing the consequences of not performing well,
  • favouring the opposition,
  • reducing the time available and
  • increasing complexity.

One coach I observed created a pressure scenario by combining a game with physical conditioning. The squad played a 12-minute game that included specific instructions for both teams (for example, 12 minutes left in the game and Red team leading 1-0, so Reds defend the lead and Blues try to equalise). The players then broke off for a 6-minute circuit-training session at the side of the field. After repeating this process three times, the coach evaluated their ability to handle pressure under fatigue.

Players with a warrior mentality welcome intensity in practice. They love practicing and seeing the improvement by pushing themselves as hard as possible. They also get annoyed when they think that they got nothing out of a poor practice session. This self-imposed pressure during the week is the perfect preparation for handling pressure on game day.

Soccer is a game of 95 per cent preparation and 5 per cent performance. The whole of England remembers being one minute from failing to qualify for the 2002 World Cup. Then, in the deciding game against Greece in October 2001, well into stoppage time, David Beckham stepped up to take a free kick 25 yards from goal - last chance saloon! The pressure on David must have been enormous, but he could handle it because he was fully prepared. He always took a bag of balls out early before practice started, and he would have made at least 20 shots from that distance on many occasions - adding up to a memory of thousands of shots from that position. David felt confident because his body knew what to do. That confidence overcame the external pressure of the moment. David relaxed and scored a memorable goal.

I came across an excellent description of this coping with pressure by Jeff Wilkins, an NFL kicker, in Selk (2009, p VII)

The thing that all reporters get wrong when they ask me about ‘pressure' after the game is that, in that one moment, there is no pressure. When I try to explain why, they can't fathom it, but I've been there a thousand times before. In every practice I see myself executing flawlessly, I know the feeling of being calm and aggressive at the same time - where my mind has a pinpoint process on the one thing I need to do to be successful. In my mind I've practised that kick a thousand times.

The doubts everyone is curious about, wondering whether they creep into my mind, have no room in my head because I practise controlling my thoughts the same way I practise nailing down my technique. It all becomes routine, and mental toughness is what brings everything together.

Incorporating pressure in practice will both reveal and build each player's

  • level of self-belief,
  • strength of self-discipline,
  • reliability of emotional control,
  • intensity of competitive fire and
  • ability to show leadership.

As the screw tightens, players either choke, cope or thrive (see table 12.2). Regular doses of intensity and stressful challenge in practice will see players at first learning to survive, then deal with and finally overcome pressure.

Bill Belichick, the coach of the New England Patriots, was recently rated NFL Coach of the Decade. Described in Lavin's book (2005), Belichick explained the team's success:

The biggest change came when we racked up the expectations and competitiveness of practice. Players had to pay attention and focus to survive and we saw both physical and mental development. Hard work is not a coaching strategy but a consequence of putting players in a practice environment that is competitive and performance focused every day.

Learn more about One Goal.

More Excerpts From One Goal