Perfect Under Pressure: A Coaches Guide to Implementing Pressure Training

Perfect Under Pressure: A Coaches Guide to Implementing Pressure Training

Student-athletes are surrounded by a mass of pressure, with many institutions now employing performance lifestyle practitioners for their elite athletes (1, 2, 3) to support them in creating an environment where they can succeed (4). Despite these programmes existing, many athletes are unable to access these services due to their selective criteria, leaving them exposed to the pressurised environments of their academic, sport and social lives (5), which may have negative implications on their performances in and out of the sporting arena. 

This new environment brings with it new challenges for these student-athletes in terms of their autonomy and independence, performance expectations (6, 7), and social networks (8). 

As a coach, it is not only your responsibility to prepare your athletes for their next competition, but also to equip them with the tools to handle these pressurised situations. And yet many coaches are not trained to deal with supporting their athletes with this, especially as many of these clubs are led by student volunteers (9, 10, 11). And so, coaches, here is your guide to prepare your athletes to thrive under the toughest of circumstances. Throughout this piece, we will walk you through: 

  • Why student-athletes are under such pressure;
  • How prepared they are to deal with these pressures;
  • The theory and existing research surrounding ‘pressure training’ (PT) and;
  • How PT can be implemented into your programme

Pressures of student-athlete life

Stressors are defined as environmental circumstances which challenge an individual’s resources and capabilities (12), increasing “the importance of performing well on a particular occasion” (13), and this is no different for student-athletes. As the coaches of these athletes, we have tailored potential stressors towards those likely to be experienced within the sporting domain, which can be split into three types (14, 15): Competitive, Organisational, Personal.

Many high-performance and national teams employ pressure training techniques to tackle these stressors, for example, British Athletics travel abroad for their training camps to acclimatise to weather conditions similar to those experienced during competition (16), whilst the United States National Team utilise their Olympic Training Centre staff to plan their international pre-event camps to allow their athletes to adapt to the new time zones over a number of days and ensure they’re ready to perform when it’s time to compete (17). 

Whilst these measures are commonly used, just how effective and practical are they? 

Of course, it takes more than practicing in the right time zone or weather conditions to bring about peak performance during competition, as this ignores any other factors that may impede performance. This is significant for student-athletes, who have both the pressures of competition to contend with like professional athletes do, and academics and social stressors that may occur simultaneously with these events. Many student-athletes may value the academic and social aspects of university life in terms of future careers, skill development, team bonding, friendships, and wellbeing. This leaves these student-athletes exposed to a decrease in performance (18), and potentially results in them choking during competition. Choking refers to the occurrence of a performance lower than that which is strived for (19), demonstrating an individual’s inability to cope with the present situation (18). In order to thrive within these situations, athletes must be able to utilise this pressure and combat the stressful situation. In other words, they must build ‘Psychological Resilience’ (20, 21).

How prepared are student-athletes?

Student-athletes may have some experience in coping with sport and academic pressures, although it is likely that this management was aided by high levels of support from parents, peers, and coaching staff, all of which may not be immediately available in this new environment (6). Alongside this necessity to build new and appropriate support networks whilst at university, student-athletes current coping mechanisms are likely to be further strained due to increased sporting and academic demands (22). This transition can lead to negative outcomes if student-athletes receive insufficient support (23), with academic stress potentially leading to mental health issues (e.g., anxiety; 24), and susceptibility to illness and injury (25), whilst sporting stress can result in poor time management (26), stress (24), and reduced wellbeing within the team (e.g., depleted mental skills and coping; 27). 

So, what can we do to prevent this?

Pressure Training

Pressure training (PT) refers to exposing sport performers to a variety of stressors and challenges like those they will experience within competition, with this goal threat contributing to the improvement of coping abilities and performance in future pressure situations (28, 29). By regularly exposing athletes to conditions like those they will experience during competition through pressure training, this will better prepare them with the skills to cope and thrive in these situations. 

Pressure Training: Theory

The mental fortitude (resilience) training programme (MFTP) provides an insightful theoretical outline of pressure training (21):

MFTP highlights three key areas to achieve sustained success: the environment, the individual and challenge mindsets. 

In terms of the environment, it is the coach’s responsibility to create a climate where individuals are placed under suitable degrees of stress whilst being provided the appropriate level of support. Support and challenge must be balanced over time for the environment to be truly facilitative for the athletes (21).


Within these pressurised environments where an individual is seeking success, their personal qualities are placed under pressure, with these being comprised of (i) personality characteristics, (ii) psychological skills, and (iii) desirable outcomes (21). 

By operating at the psychological skills level and providing ample social and environmental resources in combination with the athletes’ personality characteristics, coaches can help their athletes attain more desirable outcomes when performing under pressure. These can be further improved if athletes receive some psychological skills training, and the diagram below can aid you in deciding whether this training needs to be increased or decreased (21):

Through acclimatisation, PT allows individuals to develop pressure recognition and coping strategies (28, 29), supporting them to re-evaluate situations as challenging rather than threatening. It is important to recognise we will engage in negative thinking occasionally, but it is equally crucial that athletes can recognise this and evaluate these thinking patterns more positively to enhance performance (21).

Pressure Training: Guide

It is much easier to research resilience than to build it, however, PT provides one of the best guides to do so. 


All individuals or organisations who can have either a positive or negative influence on the intervention must be identified. Whilst its likely these individuals will vary in their willingness to engage with the intervention, they must be clear on their role within this to ensure their commitment (21). These stakeholders may vary based on a variety of factors such as institution, sport, and club status (e.g., development, performance, etc.), but they may include: 

  • Coaching assistants
  • Other committee members
  • Athletes
  • Athletic union
  • University staff
  • National governing bodies and organisations (e.g., BUCS). 


Resilience is difficult to understand, so an open discussion regarding this should take place, focussing on what resilience is and its potential for performance enhancement (21), and key themes regarding pressure and resilience should be conceptualised, with input being given by all individuals. This can be centred around: 

  • Athletes’ reactions to pressure situations through self-reflection (21)
  • Pressure situation characteristics and how these impact individual responses (30)
  • Long- and short-term consequences of these responses (30)
  • Development of an exposure hierarchy where different situations are ranked based on the anxiety invoked (30)


Here athletes are educated on their behaviour. As the intervention centred around PT and resilience, this focusses on the biological origins of stress and behaviours that help or maintain the response (30). The sessions would also inform athletes of how PT will be implemented, whilst also receiving training in a variety of psychological skills training, such as self-talk, imagery, arousal regulation and goal setting (31), as these aid coping with pressurised situations. It may be worthwhile completing these sessions as a group, especially for larger teams, to ensure all athletes receive these sessions.


Whilst the way in which PT will be implemented will vary between sports and abilities, it should adopt an individualised graded exposure system for the anxious fear response to be triggered, with the athlete being kept in these situations long enough so they’re able to understand that it isn’t real (30). Once this occurs, both the task demands and consequences for failing can be increased (29). 

Demands can be increased by placing task, performer and environmental stressors on the athletes (21). Task stressors refer to anything that can increase the situational demands, for instance officials, whilst performance stressors are stimuli that can (potentially) impact the athletes’ capabilities (32). Environmental stressors are the surroundings in which the athletes perform in (22), with generic examples of how these can be implemented listed below (29):

Consequences can also be increased alongside demands, as research argues that simply increasing the demands isn’t enough in building resilience (28, 33). These can be increased through forfeits, rewards and judgements, but when administering these, its crucial you make it clear to your athletes that these will occur prior to the performance, highlighting what, when and why they’re happing. There can be no grey areas between success and failure (28). Again, examples of how these can be implemented are below (28, 29, 32, 33), and coaches must ensure both forfeits and rewards are given (33):

Pressure Training: Considerations

When implementing PT, the following should be considered:

  • PT should not be implemented into ever session to prevent a relenting environment occurring (21)
  • PT should be reduced in the lead up to competition (29)
  • Athletes should not be aware of when PT will be included in sessions, the element of surprise increases the pressure (29)
  • Ensure coach-athlete relationships are maintained throughout (29), and that the level of challenge given matches the support to maintain athlete wellbeing (21)

Key Points

  • Student-athletes are under intense pressure from sport, academics and social domains
  • Coaches are not trained to sufficiently support their athletes
  • An environment with balanced challenge and support should be created, whilst personal qualities are developed, and challenge mindsets are nurtured
  • PT can be implemented by increasing demands and consequences, but adequate support must be given and when PT is used should be considered
  • Mental wellbeing should always be prioritised

Author: Darcy Deakin MSc Sport and Exercise Psychology Student

I am a former GB international swimmer, having competed at both European and Commonwealth Junior events. Following my retirement, I have pursued a degree in Sport and Exercise Psychology, whilst also being an active member and coach of my university rowing club.


  1. Loughborough University. (c.2021). Performance Lifestyle Support. Loughborough University.
  2. University of Nottingham. (n.d.). Performance Lifestyle. University of Nottingham.
  3. University of Birmingham. (c.2021). Lifestyle Support. University of Birmingham.
  4. English Institute of Sport. (c.2021). Performance Lifestyle Mentoring. English Institute of Sport.
  5. Pierce, S., Martin, E., Rossetto, K. & O’Neil, L. (2021). Resilience for the Rocky Road: Lessons Learned from an Educational Program for First Year Collegiate Student-Athletes, Journal of Sport Psychology in Action, 12:3, 167-180, DOI: 10.1080/21520704.2020.1822968
  6. Gayles, J. G., & Baker, A. R. (2015). Opportunities and challenges for first-year student-athletes transitioning from high school to college. New Directions for Student Leadership, 2015(147), 43–51. DOI: 10.1002/yd.20142
  7. Wylleman, P., & Lavallee, D. (2004). A developmental perspective on transitions faced by athletes. In M. R. Weiss (Ed.), Developmental sport and exercise psychology: A lifespan perspective (pp. 503–524). Fitness Information Technology.
  8. Morgan, T. K., & Giacobbi, P. R. (2006). Toward two grounded theories of the talent development and social support process of highly successful collegiate athletes. The Sport Psychologist, 20(3), 295–303. DOI: 10.1123/tsp.20.3.295
  9. Loughborough University. (c.2021). Coaching. Loughborough University. 
  10. Staffordshire University. (c.2021). Coaching and Volunteering Programme. Staffordshire University.
  11. University of St Andrews. (c.2021). Club Volunteers. University of St Andrews.
  12. Monroe, S. M., & Slavich, G. M. (2016). Chapter 13 – psychological stressors overview. In G. Fink (ed.), Stress: Concepts, Cognition, Emotion, and Behaviour (109-115). 
  13. Baumeister, R. F. (1984). Choking under pressure: self-consciousness and paradoxical effects on incentives on skilful performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 46(3), 610-620. DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.46.3.610
  14. Fletcher, D., Hanton, S., & Mellalieu, S. D. (2006). An organizational stress review: Conceptual and theoretical issues in competitive sport. In S. Hanton & S. D. Mellalieu (Eds.), Literature reviews in sport psychology (pp. 311–374). Hauppauge, NY: Nova Science.
  15. Sarkar, M., & Fletcher, D. (2014). Psychological resilience in sport performers: a review of stressors and protective factors. Journal of Sports Sciences, 31(15), 1419-1433. DOI: 10.1080/02640414.2014.901551
  16. British Athletics TV. (2019). British Athletics – Warm Weather Training. YouTube.
  17. Higgins, L. (2019). U.S. Swimmers Adjust Their Body Clocks to Get Ready for Tokyo. The Wall Street Journal.
  18. DeCaro, M. S., Thomas, R. D., Albert, N. B., & Beilock, S. L. (2011). Choking under pressure: Multiple routes to skill failure. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 140(3), 390–406. DOI: 10.1037/a0023366
  19. Baumeister, R. F., & Showers, C. J. (1986). A review of paradoxical performance effects: Choking under pressure in sports and mental tests. European Journal of Social Psychology, 16(4), 361–383. DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.2420160405
  20. Fletcher, D. & Sarkar, M. (2012). A grounded theory of psychological resilience in Olympic champions. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 13(5), 669-678. DOI: 10.1016/j.psychsport.2012.04.007
  21. Fletcher, D. & Sarkar, M. (2016). Mental fortitude training: an evidence-based approach to developing psychological resilience for sustained success. Journal of Sport Psychology in Action, 7(3), 135-157. DOI: 10.1080/21520704.2016.1255496
  22. Morgan, T. K., & Giacobbi, P. R. (2006). Toward two grounded theories of the talent development and social support process of highly successful collegiate athletes. The Sport Psychologist, 20(3), 295–303. DOI: 10.1123/tsp.20.3.295
  23. Galli, N., & Vealey, R. S. (2008). “Bouncing back” from adversity: Athletes’ experiences of resilience. The Sport Psychologist, 22, 306–325. 
  24. Li, H., Moreland, J. J., Peek-Asa, C., and Yang, J. (2017). Preseason anxiety and depressive symptoms and prospective injury risk in collegiate athletes. Am. J. Sports Med. 45, 2148–2155. DOI: 10.1177/0363546517702847
  25. Hamlin, M. J., Wilkes, D., Elliot, C. A., Lizamore, C. A., and Kathiravel, Y. (2019). Monitoring training loads and perceived stress in young elite university athletes. Front. Physiol. 10:33. DOI: 10.3289/fphys.2019.00033
  26. Dos Santos, M. L., Uftring, M., Stahl, C. A., Lockie, R. G., Alvar, B., Mann, J. B. & Dawes, J. J. (2020). Stress in academic and athletic performance in collegiate athletes: a narrative review of sources and monitoring stages. Frontiers in Sports and Active Living, 2(42). DOI: 10.3389/fspor.2020.00042
  27. Gearity, B. T., and Murray, M. A. (2011). Athletes’ experiences of the psychological effects of poor coaching. Psychol. Sport Exerc. 12, 213–221. DOI: 10.1016/j.psychsport.2010.11.004
  28. Bell, J. J., Hardy, L., & Beattie, S. (2013). Enhancing mental toughness and performance under pressure in elite young cricketers: A 2-year longitudinal intervention. Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology, 2(4), 281-297. DOI: 10.1037/spy0000010;
  29. Kegelaers, J., Wylleman, P., & Oudejans, R. R. D. (2019). A Coach Perspective on the Use of Planned Disruptions in High-Performance Sports. Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology. Advance online publication. DOI; 10.1037/spy0000167
  30. Gustafsson, H., Lundqvist, C. & Tod, D. (2016). Cognitive behavioural intervention in sport psychology: a case illustration of the exposure method with an elite athlete. Journal of Sport Psychology in Action, 8(3), 152-162. DOI: 10.1080/21520704.2016.1235649
  31. Hardy, L., Jones, G. & Gould, D. (1996). Understanding psychological preparation for sport: theory and practice of elite performers. New York: Wiley
  32. Stoker, M., Lindsay, P., Butt, J., Bawden, M., & Maynard, I. W. (2016). Elite coaches’ experiences of creating pressure training environments. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 47(3), 262-281. DOI: 10.7352/IJSP2016.47.262
  33. Stoker, M., Maynard, I., Butt, J., Hays, K., & Hughes, P. (2019). The Effect of Manipulating Individual Consequences and Training Demands on Experiences of Pressure With Elite Disability Shooters. The Sport Psychologist, 32(3), 221-227. DOI: 10.1123/tsp.2017-0045