Optimize Performance by Teaching Your Athlete To Handle Pressure

Blowing up a balloon requires a specific amount of air.

Too little and the balloon is saggy and never reaches its full size. Too much and the balloon pops—leaving you with nothing but shredded pieces.

But the RIGHT amount of air—which is determined by the size of the balloon—gives you a perfect inflatable.

Pressure to perform, experienced during sports competitions, works similarly.

Too little pressure, or stress, and your athlete won’t be pushed to her best performance. This is known as an underload, and it could be the result of:

  • An unmotivated or disinterested athlete
  • A coach that has low expectations or doesn’t inspire
  • A disorganized sports program that is floundering

On the other hand, too much pressure or stress will also inhibit optimal performance. This is known as overload, and we see it often when:

  • A perfectionistic athlete never seems satisfied with his achievements
  • Parents treat sports participation as a means for scholarship money
  • Coaches overtrain their athletes

Here is a bell curve showing the relationship between performance and the amount of stress—or pressure—an athlete is experiencing.

Notice that peak performance requires SOME amount of stress. So the goal with our athletes should never be to get rid of all pressure but rather to help them to handle it better.

Just like balloons have varying capacities for the amount of air they can hold, athletes have differing abilities when it comes to handling pressure and stress.

The good news is that the ability YOUR athlete has in handling pressure and dealing with stress can be improved upon.  

Observe your child’s personal aptitude and then teach him these 3 approaches to grow his pressure-handling muscles.

1) Prepare

Anxiety in the days leading up to competition is often distracting for many athletes. For some, however, it can be debilitating. And all that negative energy sets them up for less than optimal work.

Regardless of where your athlete falls on this spectrum, it is helpful to teach him the tool of visualization.

Encourage him to think about what it would look like to have a “perfect” game. Talk him through picturing things like:

  • Flawless execution of a specific skill
  • Correct form on each activity
  • Following the coach’s instructions accurately

Instead of dwelling on possible errors or failure, visualizing positive images equips your athlete with the right mindset for a successful effort.

2) Identify

Learning how much pressure motivates but does not crush your athlete is essential. And recognizing that your athlete’s ability to handle pressure may be very different from your own is a good place to start.

Talk to her about your observations of how she responds when things get tough. But ultimately, remember that it’s most beneficial to LISTEN to her thoughts on how she handles pressure.

Practices are the ideal place for her to figure out where her sweet spot is—the place where peak performance and the right amount of pressure meet. It’s a good idea to purposefully create pressure in practices so it feels familiar in actual competition.

Once your athlete has her “formula” figured out she can adjust accordingly for games.

Here are some ways to get pumped up:

  • Listen to music that gets you excited
  • Go for a run
  • Watch your competitors
  • Some type of physical exertion; ie. jumping jacks or pushups

Or if she needs to settle her mind then try these:

  • Listen to soothing music
  • Do some slow stretching
  • Don’t watch the competition
  • Deep breathing

Athletes that have identified specific ways to cope with the pressure have a tool that ultimately grows their confidence when under stress.

3) Focus

Distractions abound during most competitive events.

Although there is little that your athlete can do to control the external ones—such as opponents, spectators, traffic, pets, and weather—the internal distractions ARE within his power to manage.

His mind can become a deafening place, with conflicting information, and the only way to quiet it, is to focus ALL his attention on these 2 things:

  • The present moment
  • The process he is working on

Too often the past and future moments take up space in an athlete’s mind. Teach him to practice staying in the CURRENT moment and ignore thoughts of past mistakes or future challenges.

It’s also easy to slip into an outcome-focused mindset. Talk to your child about giving all his attention to the steps required to perform a specific skill—rather than the results.

Lessons For Life

Once again sports participation provides an excellent platform for learning and practicing life-long skill sets.

Stress and pressure will come into your child’s life in various forms. And unfortunately, it only increases as they age. Recognizing what that feels like and how to manage it is just going to benefit them.

What’s one activity that helps you to handle stress or pressure? Share in the comments, we’d love to hear from you.

Sport Family Coach at

Founder of Growing Champions for Life, David helps sports parents and coaches incorporate positivity and persistence into their communication with the young athletes who count on their encouragement and guidance. An eight-time national water skiing champion, five-time national record holder in water ski jumping, former World Championship U.S. Water Ski Team coach, and proud professional sports parent, he understands first-hand the challenges and rewards of competition. His extensive experience as a corporate leadership coach for Nextel, Sprint, Allstate, Balfour Beatty, The Villages and other companies provides David with unique insight into the skills needed to excel in sports, business and life. He brings an athlete's discipline, a coach's inspiration, and a parent's practical experience to his mission to grow not just champion young athletes, but holistically well-rounded individuals equipped for lifelong excellence.

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