Here is a sobering thought….In the entire history of collegiate sports, the most important individual and team championship skill is often the skill that is practiced the least…namely the ability to perform extremely well under pressure.Of all the sweat, effort, energy and time that is invested in strength training and conditioning, individual and team offense / defense, and pre-game preparation; a relatively small amount of time and emphasis (if any) is placed on this all important athletic trait.Few would argue that the ability to perform under pressure is a critical skill that is often responsible for bringing all of these components together, and a skill that will be the deciding factor in so many games this season.This sobering thought is even more of a reality in the pressure filled crucible of the playoffs.
Many athletes and coaches approach the development of great pressure performance with the mantra ‘we’ll just continue to practice the play or skill ‘till its automatic under pressure.’And while there is a small element of truth to this strategy, continuously practicing a skill in a ‘practice’ environment, i.e., outside of the intense heat of a championship tournament, only ensures greater proficiency of that skill in that ‘practice’ environment and only marginal to decent improvements in ‘pressure’ situations.A more direct approach takes us directly to the source – training the 3 ½ pounds of electrical energy between our ears….our mind.However, through many years of speaking, traveling and working with teams, I have come to learn that we usually only coach and teach those things that we are comfortable, confident and proficient in teaching.With that in mind, the following 3 steps outline a strong, fundamental yet simple approach to teaching pressure performance.Coaches and athletes wishing to learn more and further develop each of the components are welcome to further explore my training materials.
Step 1.Develop a Great Clutch Attitude
Developing an elite attitude in ‘clutch’ or pressure situations involves 3 resolutions that every athlete should reinforce EVERY TIME they are in a clutch or pressure situation.As an example, let’s use a situation that decides the outcome of numerous games every season – a key last second shot or freethrow.The athlete should use their own innervoice to reinforce the following beliefs.
I WANT to take this shot, and LOVE being in these situations
I have worked HARD to be in this situation and DESERVE it
I KNOW I have the ability to make the play
There is a saying that is one of the greatest ‘truisms’ in all of sports; “YOU WILL NEVER OUTPERFORM YOUR SELF-BELIEF.” These statements are all about creating and improving a powerful self-belief.If an athlete never sees herself as an all-conference performer and does not TRULY believe she is an all-conference performer, she never will be.If an athlete never sees herself as a clutch performer, she will never consistently perform well in pressure situations – period.
Step 2.Know your optimal arousal level
Some athletes perform extremely well when they are on an emotional high, while others are at their best with relatively low emotions.On an emotional arousal scale of 1-10 (with a 1 equal to an almost comatose pre-game state and a 10 equal to the athlete that regularly high fives teammates so hard their hands sting for 10 minutes) and a performance scale of 1-10 (with a 1 equal to a lifetime worst performance and a 10 equal to a lifetime best performance), I have played with athletes who needed to have an emotional arousal level around 2-4 (very low) in order to consistently perform at an 8-10 (very high).I have also played with athletes who needed to have an emotional arousal level around an 8-10 in order to consistently perform at an 8-10 level.One of the biggest mistakes that inexperienced coaches and players make is believing the entire team should be at the same emotional arousal level.Note that emotional arousal level has NOTHING to do with intensity.Athletes do not always have to be ‘jacked up,’ ‘hyped’ or highly emotionally aroused to perform at 100% intensity.Yet many coaches and athletes remove themselves and many of their players from their optimal arousal level, and onto a knife edge of heightened emotions, poor shooting percentages, defensive errors, and mistakes under pressure.Athletes and coaches should know their own optimal arousal level and stay at the level that brings out their very best performance.
The take home message here is that a controlled level of heightened emotion is a great thing – it sharpens our reactions, increases our intensity and sustains our energy levels.However, there is a law of diminishing returns, and too much emotion impairs judgment, on-court decision making and poise.Great emotion and great intensity should not always be linked.The great Joe Dumars was not one of the greatest defensive guards in the history of the NBA because of the heightened emotions he brought to the court.But Michael Jordan called him one of the toughest players he ever had to play against because of his overall defensive intensity.Dumars was renowned for his intensity while also being renowned for his level of poise.In Dumars we have one of the greatest examples of controlled, channeled aggression.
Step 3.Practice and Prepare
It has been said that “sometimes things don’t go according to plan because that plan didn’t exist in the first place.” Consistently performing well under pressure takes practice.Coaches and athletes should develop strong practice habits with steps 1 and 2, and also develop a practice schedule that allows for some special ‘pressure’ situations in practice.For example, for clutch free throw shooting, an innovative coach would have his/her players partner shoot 90 free throws each at the end of practice (10 shots each then switch) to work on shot mechanics, then create a conference tournament or pressure environment by shooting the last 10 free throws under duress in sets of two.The coach could play taped crowd noise over the loud speakers during this short ‘pressure’ portion of the free throw practice where each player shoots two free throws immediately after a defensive drill.For every miss, the player runs an ALL OUT Sprint in between each set of two free throws.Players hear the noise of a playoff atmosphere, feel the fatigue of shooting free throws in a game situation, and feel the pressure of having ‘something on the line’ for every shot.In a pressure packed game situation, players will develop greater composure, concentration and confidence because they feel as if they have ‘been there, done that before.’A smart coach will track the shooting percentage of the first 90 free throws, in addition to tracking the shooting percentage of the last 10 ‘pressure’ shots, in order to measure and monitor improvements.
These simple steps take work from both the players and coaching staff.Yet an important truism in sports is that the pain of not achieving your goals will always be greater than the pain it takes to achieve them.Here’s wishing you tremendous success in your pursuit of these goals and great playoff pressure performance!
About the author and founder of the Icebox Athlete Mental Skills & Toughness Training System:
Spencer Wood M.S., C.S.C.S., P.E.S., Member A.A.A.S.P., is an internationally renowned speaker, author and trainer of athletes and coaches in the area of Winning Mental Skills & Toughness Training. A featured speaker at events such as the NCAA Final Four, and an on-site consultant to championship teams across the United States, Spencer continues to use his unique blend of passion for athletic excellence to impact the lives and careers of 1000’s of athletes and coaches. www.iceboxathlete.com
Icebox Athlete is a Multi-CD Mental Skills & Toughness Training System for individual athletes and teams to build elite composure, concentration, confidence, intensity, big game preparation, leadership skills, and performance consistency. For more information, to order a copy, or to inquire about a Mental Skills & Toughness Training workshop for your team, visit www.iceboxathlete.com
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