Coping with Pressure in Professional Sport

09 July, 2020
One aspect that stands out in professional sport more than amateur sport, is the immense amount of pressure that players are under. In this article, we'll talk more about the pressure in professional sport and how best to handle it.
 

The immense amount of pressure in professional sport is obvious to everyone. In fact, many people would say that the increased pressure is one of the main features of elite sport.

Professional athletes need to achieve very demanding results, spend a lot of time training, and also deal with the media. Each of these elements adds to the individual pressure that they feel. If they don’t know how to manage it, it can have implications for their mental health.

This means that it’s really important for athletes and coaches to understand that pressure, how it manifests itself, what the consequences are, and how best to reduce the negative impact. Let’s take a look at some of these points.

Pressure in professional sport

Pressure in professional sport is caused by many things. There’s no one single source. It may come from the environment or it may come from the athlete themselves. In the first of these, when the pressure comes from the surrounding environment, the most common sources are:

  • Coaches and parents: authority figures play a huge role in perceived pressure. Authoritative coaches and parents, in the case of children, who care more about results than the athlete’s well-being are a major source of pressure.
  • The media: the way that the media report on competitions and sporting events can greatly influence the pressure that athletes experience. If more importance is placed on an event, then the pressure increases.
  • The level of the competition: when two athletes or teams face an opponent with a similar skill level, both competitors will feel an increased level of pressure.
 
  • Spectators: most people feel uncomfortable when others are judging their performance. Even if the crowd is relatively calm, their mere presence can increase the pressure that the athlete or team feels.
Supporters at a football game.

The other type of pressure is created by the athlete themselves and their way of thinking. Athletes who start to anticipate the result and doubt themselves will increase the level of tension and stress that they feel. Certain personality traits, such as perfectionism, can also make things worse.

How does this pressure manifest itself?

Pressure in professional sport usually manifests itself in three ways:

  • Physical Symptoms: these can include feeling a knot in the stomach, trembling hands, faster breathing, increased sweating, and heart rate.
  • Thoughts: the athlete may start to have negative thoughts about their performance, feel uneasy, and even start to have negative thoughts about themselves as a person.
  • Behavior: this can include behaviors to reduce perceived pressure, such as rituals, checks, deep breaths, or repeating positive phrases out loud.

The consequences of pressure in professional sport

 

The consequences of this pressure can happen at the time or last for a period of time afterward. The short-term consequences can sometimes become what’s known as ‘choking under pressure’.

This is where the athlete performs worse due to the pressure they’re under. Because the pressure is so high, they’re psychologically very active, which distracts them from their physical performance.

In the long term, athletes who experience high blood pressure for long periods of time are prone to Burnout Syndrome. This is a psychological condition that consists of a continuous feeling of physical and mental exhaustion, little confidence in achieving success, and a feeling of indifference towards their sport.

In recent years, the opposite effect has been investigated, in order words,  when high-pressure conditions improve performance. This is known as ‘clutch performance‘.

For example, when the pressure is high in the last minutes of a game, a player may suddenly experience an increase in strength, concentration, or motivation that potentially changes the final result.

A runner getting ready to start sprinting.

How to reduce the negative consequences of pressure

 

The first thing to keep in mind is that it’s impossible to eliminate pressure in professional sport. There will always be results you want to achieve, long training days, and a crowd of people watching you. But this doesn’t mean that you can’t do something about the consequences of this pressure.

The two most common psychological techniques to address the negative effects of pressure are relaxation and visualization techniques. Relaxation techniques help reduce the physical symptoms while visualization helps you to prepare better for performing under pressure.

Pressure in professional sport: summary

The pressure is inevitable in professional sport, so it’s important for athletes and their support teams to recognize the symptoms and take steps to prevent Burnout Syndrome and other negative consequences. This is why we’ve seen an increase in sports psychologists working in professional sports. Their expertise can certainly be very useful when athletes are looking to perform at their very best.

 
  • Moen, F., Myhre, K., Klöckner, C. A., Gausen, K., y Sandbakk, Ø. (2017). Physical, Affective and Psychological determinants of Athlete Burnout. Sport Journal, 1, 1-14.
  • Molina, J., Sandín, B., & Chorot, P. (2014). Sensibilidad a la ansiedad y presión psicológica: Efectos sobre el rendimiento deportivo en adolescentes. Cuadernos de Psicología del Deporte, 14(1), 45-54.
  • Otten, M. (2009). Choking vs. clutch performance: A study of sport performance under pressure. Journal of sport and exercise psychology, 31(5), 583-601.