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Performing Under Pressure

Patrick J Cohn PhD identifies the pressures that athletes place upon themselves and how to cope with them.

Do you ever get "butterflies" in your stomach (pre-game jitters) before you compete? Do you get nervous before the start of a big match or game and cannot relax after the game starts? Most athletes have felt the negative effects of pressure during their athletic careers. Even the best athletes feel pressure before a big game, but they know how to channel the pressure into positive intensity to boost performance.

What is pressure and how do athletes experience it?

Pressure is a perceived expectation of the need to perform well under challenging situations. Fear of failure and expectation are tied to pressure. When an athlete worries about disappointing others, for example, he or she is putting pressure on him or herself to not fail or look silly.

The first step is to understand that pressure starts inside you with your thoughts about the big game or meeting others' expectations, for example. High expectations - from yourself and others - turn into pressure. However, the pressure is not some external force that grips you by the neck and strangles you.

Some athletes thrive on the feeling of pressure, whereas others crumble mentally and choke their brains out. Why? Experience, confidence, and beliefs play a vital role in how well an athlete will perform under pressure.

The pressure comes in many forms depending on the person and how an athlete "thinks" about the competition. Some sources of internal, self-inflicted pressure include:

  1. Expectations you place on yourself about winning
  2. The pressure to live up to the expectations of others (coach, parents, fans) to succeed
  3. Thoughts underlying the fear of failure, such as having your hard work not pay off
  4. The pressure to perform well or lose your place on the team
  5. The pressure not to blow the game and not feel embarrassed
  6. The pressure to perform perfectly and not make any mistakes

The pressure is very specific to each athlete and his or her beliefs and thoughts. The athlete's beliefs are key here. However, one constant is that pressure makes athletes tense, afraid, and worried, which leads to performing tentatively or cautiously. The tentative play looks like choking to others who observing.

How do you cope with the pressure?

The first step is to understand the specific pressures you place on your performance. When you understand "how" and "when" you feel pressure, you can use it to help you instead of work against you.

For example, if you feel pressure from your parents to win or succeed, you have to challenge your thinking about the expectations you have adopted from your parents.

Sometimes pressure comes from expectations you have taken on from other people in your life such as parents, coaches, and teammates. You may think that others have given you these expectations, but they are ones you have conjured up based on what others have said to you.

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • COHN, P. (2006) Performing Under Pressure [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Dr Patrick Cohn works with athletes and teams worldwide from a variety of sports backgrounds. As the president and founder of Peak Performance Sports (Orlando, Florida), Dr Cohn is dedicated to instilling confidence and composure, and teaching effective mental game skills to help athletes, teams and corporate professionals perform at maximum levels. Patrick can be contacted through his website at

Related Pages

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