The great soccer player expresses herself as she competes. She has a focused mind and a body free-wheeling on the pitch. But the burden of pressure can be heavy – it’s easy for your ‘A’ game to disintegrate during ‘must win’ matches or in ‘must play well’ situations. This is a short guide to performing under pressure.
In a number of studies, researcher Michiko Yoshie examined the psychological and physiological changes in pianists entering a competition. Yoshie taped their rehearsals and performances, and she kept a record of their heart rates and self-reported anxiety as well as several other physiological levels.
These were experienced musicians who had trained for over 20 years, so Yoshie made sure the pressure was sizeable – she brought in prestigious judges, a big audience and a large cash prize.
Despite their musical experience the findings were emphatic. The pianists were judged to have played worse in the competition than in rehearsals – they made more subtle errors. Yoshie uncovered significant changes in physiology – their heart rate increased on average by 34 beats per minute, their muscles had tightened, they were sweating and subsequently they played faster and hit the notes harder.
In my latest book, Soccer Brain, I take the reader through the psychological concept of Challenge and Threat States. A Challenge State is one when, under pressure, the body and mind respond in a positive, approach manner. In the Threat State, mind and body react in a negative, avoidance way.
A coaching fundamental is to help players train and play in the Challenge State. This is when they compete with fun, freedom and focus. In training, in the Challenge State they are striving to improve – expressing themselves and stretching their comfort zone. On matchday in this state they are playing confidently and intelligently – head up, anticipating and making quick decisions.
One crucial way to help your players learn and compete in the Challenge State is to promote the notion of playing with freedom. Ask them what freedom on and off the ball looks like. Ask them what it feels like. Ask them to experience freedom as they execute the drills and plays you’ve laid out for them. Help the Challenge State become their normal state.
Make the Challenge State and the idea of playing with freedom a regular topic of conversation and a consistent approach to play, and you’ll find your players loving the game more than ever, developing quicker and playing with greater consistency.