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Sport Psychology Interventions Targeting High-Pressure Situations

This is an excerpt from Essential Guide for Mental Performance Consultants (Digital Resource), The by Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP).

Interventions Targeting High-Pressure Situations

Performance pressure can be defined as the importance placed by a performer on wanting to deliver a good performance in a particular situation (Beilock & Gray, 2007). Clutch performance, a fairly new term and focus of research, can be defined as “any performance increment or superior performance that occurs under pressure circumstances” (Otten, 2009, p. 584). Generally, the objective research evidence for performers displaying superior performance in important moments tends to be lacking, although the existence of discrete clutch episodes in sports has been documented (for a recent review, see Schweickle et al., 2020).

More evidence has been accumulated about the causes and correlates of athletes’ choking under pressure and how this phenomenon can be prevented with proper preparation and strategies (Beilock & Gray, 2007; Marchant, Maher, & Wang, 2014). One possible explanation for choking is that pressure creates worry that distracts the performer's working memory and diverts attention away from the task, resulting in performance drops (Beilock & Gray, 2007). Tasks that rely heavily on working memory are susceptible to this type of choking (e.g., Beilock, Kulp, Holt, & Carr, 2004). On the other hand, the explicit monitoring hypothesis suggests that pressure causes performers to try to consciously monitor and control actions that normally are accomplished without deliberate control (Beilock & Gray, 2007). Finally, there is ample evidence for a third mechanism, where the intense and unpleasant distress coming from pressure propels athletes to avoid the situation or seek relief while performing, which may be counterproductive to performance (e.g., Jordet, 2009, 2010).

Perhaps the major threat in pressure situations is the possibility of making a mistake (Nicholls, Holt, & Polman, 2005), and the way performers approach and recover from mistakes is likely critical in how they cope with pressure. Research shows that 70 percent of aircraft accidents come from human errors, and the causes of errors are often fatigue, fear, cognitive workload, bad communication, and nonoptimal decision making (Helmreich, 2000). Interestingly, people working in hospital emergency rooms, flight operations of aircraft carriers, and firefighting units (where mistakes come with very serious consequences) make as many mistakes as people in other organizations, but they typically do not let the mistakes incapacitate and devastate them (Weick & Sutcliffe, 2007). They have a system and a culture for responding to errors, with the logic that the subsequent response ultimately is more important for safe task solution than the original error. They focus on quickly and carefully coping with mistakes and learning from them, rather than avoiding them. Optimal self-regulation involves responding to threats mindfully, flexibly, and dynamically rather than automatically, habitually, and rigidly (Weick & Sutcliffe, 2007). 

To perform under pressure and respond effectively to mistakes and adversity, MPCs can help clients develop a robust and resilient mindset. Resilience has been defined in the sport and performance psychology literature as “the role of mental processes and behavior in promoting personal assets and protecting an individual from the potential negative effect of stressors” (Fletcher & Sarkar, 2012, p. 16). In the resilience model (Richardson, Neiger, Jensen, & Kumpfer, 1990), resilience is viewed as a process in which a person starts out in homeostasis (i.e., a stable inner state) and then experiences some type of disruption (a stressor), which forces the person to reintegrate. This reintegration can result in different outcomes: dysfunction, with loss, back to the starting point, or resilient (where one comes out being stronger or better than before). The perspective of recovering from distress equipped with additional protective layers, where one is better prepared to cope with similar disruptions in the future (Galli & Vealey, 2008), is a very attractive aspect of this model. In research examining resilience in sport, athletes have highlighted several types of adversity, such as injury, performance slump, illness, and career transition (Galli & Vealey, 2008), and various types of stressors ranging from ongoing daily demands (e.g., balancing work and training) to major life events, such as the death of a close family member (Fletcher & Sarkar, 2012). Fletcher and Sarkar (2014) found that highly elite athletes protected themselves from the potential negative effect of stressors with different types of constructive cognitive reactions that promoted facilitative responses (i.e., protective factors), including positive personality, motivation, confidence, focus, and perceived social support, which served to help them cope more effectively with stress and bounce back to perform. One evidence-based way that MPCs can work with clients on resilience is using mental fortitude training (Fletcher & Sarkar, 2016). This training relies on three main areas to increase performers’ ability to withstand pressure and adversity: personal qualities, facilitative environment, and challenge mindset. Developing these three areas is multifactorial, meaning that they all should be addressed for optimal results.

Consultants can help prevent choking and help clients handle high pressure situations using additional approaches:

  • Using implicit learning, which will minimize the verbal knowledge that could make performers more susceptible to deautomatization and choking
  • Employing acclimatization strategies, whereby performers are exposed to self-awareness during training to help them adapt to being in that state during competition
  • Minimizing thinking time to avoid overthinking the task
  • Recognizing specific cues that could distract performers from a focus and might make them prone to choke
  • Using a strategy focus, whereby performers focus on global areas of the task and consequently avoid getting caught up in mechanics of their movements
  • Creating and using consistent preperformance routines
  • Identifying and using refocusing and self-regulation strategies to cope more effectively in the moment of pressure
  • Normalizing mistakes
  • Learning to accept emotional distress and uncomfortable emotions when performing in high-pressure situations (Jackson & Beilock, 2007; Jordet, 2010; Marchant et al., 2014)

It is important to note that in studies in which athletes arguably are under more extreme or realistic stress than what typically has been recreated in previous laboratory studies, longer focus and preparation times are associated with better performance under pressure (Jordet & Hartman, 2008; Jordet, Hartman, & Sigmundstad, 2009; Vickers & Williams, 2007). This might mean that under conditions of very high pressure, consultants could encourage performers to stop, take a moment, draw a deep breath, and then refocus on performance. From the clutch performance literature (Swann et al., 2017), research suggests that performers should focus on enhancing perceived control in high-pressure contexts and set fixed goals (objective, measurable) and even outcome-based goals (e.g., “Just do what it takes to win”).