Under Pressure

May 25, 2018

Players in every sport feel pressure to perform. Kenny Linn, Head Baseball Coach at Tallmadge (Ohio) High School, had to deal with this recently when the pressure of a state semifinal game seemed to get the better of his young catcher behind the plate.

“With a runner on third, he threw one ball back to the pitcher that was in the dirt, and the pitcher had to jump to get another. His next throw sailed past the pitcher, but our shortstop was there to back it up,” Linn says. “Of course, the crowd got all riled up and starting riding him. But I simply looked at him, smiled, and said, ‘Hey, that’s how you keep our guys in the game!’ And he smiled back. Later that half inning he nailed a guy trying to steal second and then threw out a runner at first.”

Seeing a player unable to complete one of the most basic tasks asked of him could make some coaches flip their lid. Linn, however, knew he needed to take a different approach. “Sometimes I try to get them to laugh a little to help them relax and play the game,” he says. “I want them to know we love them, we’re proud of them, and that if they trust in their ability and stay relaxed things are going to work out fine.”

While some players are celebrated for their ability to perform in clutch situations, it’s not an inherent gift. Like other skills in the game, it can be mastered through patience, practice, repetition, and sometimes a light touch. And successful coaches have shown that athletes can be taught how to perform their best when the game is on the line.

So how can you help players perform well under pressure? Coaches and psychologists agree that the first step is being open about the subject. Acknowledging the possibility of failure can help relieve some of the stress athletes feel in crucial situations.

“We communicate to our players that everybody is going to fail and have a bad day, but it’s how well you respond afterwards that determines the kind of player you are,” says Steve Trimper, Head Baseball Coach at Stetson University. “We emphasize that if they want to be leaders, they have learn how to handle their failures because every leader is going to fail over and over and over again.”

“Coaches shouldn’t make players feel like they have to perform or they’re going to cost the team the game,” says Dr. Patrick Cohn, Baseball Psychology Expert and founder of Peak Performance Sports. “Expectations turn into pressure for kids. Fear of failure, pressure, and expectations are all connected. Having an honest discussion will help deflect some of the worry players have about other people judging them if they fail.”

Scott Berry, Head Baseball Coach at the University of Southern Mississippi, helps his players gain confidence by presenting failure as being intertwined with success. “People talk all the time about how baseball is a game of failure, which it is,” he says, “but before failure happens there’s opportunity. So we try to focus on embracing that opportunity and being prepared to succeed.

 “We tell our guys to slow the game down and not ride the emotional rollercoaster it can produce,” Berry continues. “Players who understand there are going to be highs and lows are the most confident because they’re free to trust and believe in their abilities.”

Building trust in your abilities begins with mastering the physical skills of the game through repetition, which is reflected through the hitting, fielding, and throwing drills that make up most practice sessions. However, physical mastery isn’t enough. If players don’t also develop mental confidence in their abilities, all that practice time may be for naught.

“Repetition is only part of the equation,” says Cohn. “The mind affects how much a player trusts his ability to repeat. They may have developed muscle memory, but pressure comes from worrying about what others will think if they screw up, and that can affect performance more than muscle memory does.

“Ultimately, being able to perform under pressure comes down to trust—when that big moment comes, players have to fully trust in their skills,” he continues. “Coaches can help players do this by talking to them about how it’s better to trust their skills than trying to play it safe. They need to swing aggressively, run aggressively, pitch aggressively, and allow that repetition and muscle memory to come out rather than blocking it by trying to avoid mistakes. The goal is to allow their skills to shine in those pressure moments.”

The focus should be less on the outcome and more on the execution. “Coaches need to help each player understand how to stay in the moment, not worry about the outcome, and concentrate on their at bat routine or pre-pitch routine,” Cohn says. “This will help them focus on executing the skills they’ve developed.”

Dave Taylor, Head Baseball Coach at California State University, Chico, keeps a close eye out for players who may be caught up in the moment and thinking about what’s at stake instead of focusing on what they need to do to succeed. “If they feel like the game is playing faster than it usually does, they’re probably not breathing or relaxing as much as they should,” he says. “I remind them to just do the things that they’ve been doing every day that have allowed them to play at this level.”

Image from United States Marine Corps.

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