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Is Pressure in Sports a Myth?

Pressure has been defined as “any factor or combination of factors that increases the importance of performing well on a particular occasion”.  This definition of pressure highlights the importance of athlete perception. How the athlete perceives the occasion and factors surrounding them will affect the importance of performing.  In other words, if they feel there is pressure then there is pressure whether it’s an upcoming tryout, a practice drill against a fellow competitor, or a championship game.

When discussing pressure in sports the term ‘choking’ and anxiety will often appear soon after. Choking can be defined as “performing more poorly than expected given one’s skill level”.  This tends to occur in what is deemed a “pressure” situation. Increases in anxiety can lead to “choking” and many reappear around similar situations in the future. However it should be noted that small amounts of anxiety is natural and can be good, but increased levels of anxiety can lead to poor skill execution. Both anxiety and choking are results of pressure; therefore if the athlete changes their perception of the situation they reduce the likelihood of ‘choking’ and or increased levels of anxiety.

Here are a few questions to challenge pressure in sport, especially at the elite level: 

  • Haven’t athletes spent years training for these moments? 
  • Haven’t they been replicating these moments over and over again? 
  • Do they trust their ability and preparations? 

Former Australian Cricket Coach John Buchanan (1999 – 2007) wrote in his book ‘If Better Is Possible’ a chapter titled Pressure is a myth.   If you practice and internalizing the three questions above “pressure” will turn into more of a process than getting caught up in the moment.  For example, how many free throws has an athlete made in practice?  If they have practiced making a one and one for the win, then when they get into this situation they will be prepared.  The rim height, distance from the rim, and the shooting motion doesn’t change…correct?   Then why should their shot change?  If this does happen then it is their perception of the moment or the fact that no one is 100% at the free throw lane…. not because there was “pressure”.   In soccer, you practice penalty kicks… same distance, same width of goal mouth, etc.  If you miss,  is it because the goalie made a great play, you miss hit the ball, etc not because of the “pressure of the moment”.  This notion of ‘pressure is a myth’ can be used more as a team mantra and as a mindset.   

This notion should be used to challenge your athletes’ perception of pressure, this may be on a more philosophical level than athletes have previously worked, but will develop their understanding of themselves and their sport. Another suggestion is for athletes to view pressure as “an opportunity not a

threat”. Highlighting the ‘threat’ element is key as our natural reaction to threats are to escape them or fight them (Flight or Fight). If you view pressure situations as an opportunity this would reduce the natural reactions that come with a threat.

There are two key components to achieving this process oriented or opportunity mindset in your athletes: Preparation and Trust.

Preparation – If you prepare for situations that may occur during performance, this preparation will help your athletes adapt to the situations and feel more comfortable with them.  Why do you take practice tests in getting ready for the SAT or other exams?  To better prepare for the same questions and situations you are lightly to encounter in the “live situation”.  Also the use of imagery can help replicate possible scenarios to enhance ‘familiarity’ with the situation. The more familiar we are in situations the more comfortable we are, this leads to lower levels of anxiety and reduced likelihood of “choking”.

Trust – The next step is to trust your preparation and ability to deal with/ execute the prepared plans. Recognizing that you have planned for this situation and have performed under the situation before, will allow you to have increased confidence.  Again, this will lower your anxiety level.

These two simply tips along with the mindset of “pressure is a myth” and to view these situations as an opportunity to succeed will allow you and/or your athletes to perform up to their ability level. The media often use the term ‘pressure’ as an excuse for poor execution and on occasion athletes have used this term as well.  If they prepare, trust, and perceive these events (big tests, sporting events, etc) as opportunities rather than threats they will perform better.

**Remember to 

  • Always plan ahead for what you are going to eat 
  • Obtain adequate amounts of protein 
  • Work on Flexibility 
  • Supplement your diet with a fish oil and multi-vitamin 
  • If you are a Female Athlete – know your Vitamin D number (Hint 50+) 

Let me know if I can help.   Email me at 

God Bless, 

Alan Tyson
Physical Therapist, Athletic Trainer, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist
Architech Sports and Physical Therapy