I’m pleased to be able to bring you the latest APA Blog with another instalment from Fabrizio Gargiulo, on ‘pressure training.’ This is part of a series of articles where we are looking at the relationship between cognitive factors and physiological performance- see the first article here.
As part of our quest to develop appropriate levels of mental effort, attention and intent during the task, at APA we have been increasingly using ‘consequences’ to apply perceived pressure to the action of certain skills. As a football fan I think of Stuart Pearce taking a penalty for England in Euro 2000, having the courage to step up and take a penalty after missing one in a previous tournament.
Check out what Fab has to say below on this topic.
Inside the mind of an athlete there are many thoughts, as coaches we try to influence the process and situation where these thoughts are used, however ultimately we cannot be inside their minds when it comes down to the pressure of a competitive situation. Pressure in itself is a made up environment, created by the mind and that only influences the mind. The ‘pressure’ of a situation cannot alter a physical outcome without first influencing the mind, for example the chance to score the winning penalty in the world cup final or the 100m Olympic final, arguably two of the most ‘pressurised’ situations an athlete could be in. The physical demands do not change from any previous example of the same skill – kicking the ball, running as fast as possible, yet players will often crumble under the enormity of the situation. So what is pressure? How does it influence the mind? What strategies can be used by coaches and athletes to overcome the stress of being ‘under pressure’?
The definition of pressure helps us to understand its nature; ‘a continuous force (physical) exerted on an object’, ‘the use of persuasion or intimidation to make someone do something’. These definitions show that pressure is time sensitive – it can increase or decrease over time dependent upon what or who is applying the force to the object (person) and how resilient that object or person is to change. If there is easy influence over the controlling mechanisms of change – notably in this instance – the human mind, then the intimidation to alter ones state becomes great enough to cause change. Within the athlete setting pressure can be internal – from the mind e.g. expectations, or external – crowd/coach demands. An example currently witnessed a lot is amongst tennis players. When player A has a chance to break the serve of player B, the ‘pressure’ of the situation increases. It is still a single point in a tennis match but it is at a key time, there may not be or have been an opportunity to create this change thus far in the match and the mind tells the athlete ‘this is a big opportunity to win here’. These added constraints to the same task demand asked hundreds of times throughout a match can lead to the visual changes in physical approach – the player ‘tightens up’ and this causes an alteration in the mechanism of the skill execution. Ultimately the fantasy and ecstasy of winning is the positive outcome desired by athletes and coaches. It could be argued that the reward that goes with winning also creates ‘pressure’ with a similar time effect reasoning used by athlete – this may be my only chance to win! However the muscles do not change their physiological response to neural stimuli, but it is the mind that controls the chain of stimulation to cause muscle activation, so when the mind is influenced to change, the physical output will also be changed – sometimes for good, sometimes for worse – and thus we reach the status of a missed world cup penalty or break in serve during the Wimbledon final.
The notion of ‘pressure’ influences the mind at any level however as it is not just the elite sports men and women of the world but anyone engaged in an activity with a positive or negative outcome as a consequence of their actions. Businessmen and women, surgeons, fire fighters, students in exams or service men and women at war. For every action they make there can be a negative consequence, so how do we train the mind to deliver a positive outcome when under the ‘pressure’ of a situation?
Essentially the answer is through practice of situations with high levels of stress. This should be done in training where there are negative implications to results – such as forfeits – but that ultimately don’t have financial or health consequences. Remaining calm during extremely stressful situations is a critical trait of elite athletes (Jones, 2008). Coaches should employ high pressure situations in their training as this will better prepare the athletes for actual real life scenarios. From a coaching stand point this ingrains the learned behaviors desired to cope with ‘pressure’. Examples of this are self talk, – both positive and negative can be used to motivate an athlete – breathing, as a release of stress and acceptance – possibly the most importance as only when a negative outcome has been accepted can the player move on to achieve another positive outcome.
As an athlete being successful in your chosen sporting environment often means learning to ‘love’ and embrace pressure (Jones, 2008). The elite players of all sports will have become successful through increasing performance when under stressful yet highly rewarding situations. This is the positive outcome gained through experience of ‘pressure’. The ability to achieve under stressful circumstances can be trained from a young age. The English Cricket Board has recently published an article on findings from a study they conducted. The ECB took a group of young cricketers on the elite pathway and exposed them to mental toughness and consequences training by generating a threatening environment in which the players were systematically exposed to punishment-conditioned stimuli in the form of “consequences” for failure to meet strict disciplinary standards (e.g., punctuality, tidiness, correct kit) or specific performance standards (e.g., during testing). The importance of consequences were explained to the players as a fundamental aspect of professional cricket training, where the consequences of poor performance and/or poor discipline are potentially expensive, distracting, humiliating, and career ending. More importantly, punishments were consistently presented as part of an inspirational vision of what it takes to be a world’s best player for England. The punishments served as an opportunity to practice coping strategies for real ‘pressure’ based situations in the elite game.
After a period of 46 days with various mental toughness challenges (some physical such as a multi-stage fitness test and vertical jump test), the study indicated that punishments, and more specifically the threat of punishment, can lead to enhanced performance under pressure if presented in a transformational manner. Ultimately, the purpose of the punishments was to provide the players with opportunities to cope with the pressures, threats, and disappointments that are commonplace in the world of elite competitive sport. The results indicate that training under pressure conditions from an early age can lend itself towards developing mentally robust athletes capable of coping with the pressure demands of elite sporting competition.
In conclusion, pressure is very real to the person who creates it in their mind. It is not a physical state but it can alter the connection between your minds and performing a physical task, especially skill based tasks. There is no ‘best’ practice for improving an athletes’ ability to cope with pressure other than practice itself. In particular situational practice with potential negative consequences can lead to increased performances under the pressure of real life stressful conditions. Ultimately athletes seek perfection and winning and only practicing under real life conditions will improve real life results.
“Practice doesn’t make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect” Vince Lombardi.