Pressure Training – Make Stress Your Friend

How many of you coaches have seen the perfect “training player”, the player that turns it on during training, the best player on the pitch, but then come to the competitive game on the weekend and they go missing, they seem sluggish and can barely place a 10 yard pass, half of the quality they showed during training. Have you ever thought to why that might be?  


The modern coach wants players to get out of their comfort zone and to do something that challenges them, which is of course of great benefit for any individual, but what are the ‘side effects’ of this? 

Whilst a player stretches outside of their comfort zone, stress levels will increase (Curneen, 2015) releasing the hormone cortisol (Katwala, 2016) which tends to have a negative effect on performance (Royle, 2018) by causing slower decision making and slower anticipation rates (Claffey, 2019). However, studies also show that cortisol can enhance learning (Pink, 2018). 

So the question is, how can we use stress to have a positive effect on our performances?

Like most aspects of our beautiful game, the answer is practice! Players cannot practise without challenge or competition and then be expected to deal with such pressures on game day (Beswick, 2015).

‘When you come under pressure, you don’t rise to the occasion. You descend to the level of your training.’

US Navy Seals

In my experience coaches at senior level tend to be experts at creating negative stress, whereas some youth coaches don’t want to create any stress at all. Yes its true that people learn better in comfortable situations than stressful (Royle, 2018), and its also true that skills are honed in harsh situations (Evans, 2019). So how can we get the best of both? The best coaches that I’ve seen, create ‘positive stress’ and educate the players on how to cope and thrive with the stress and pressure. 

Some youth coaches might disagree with this approach and may see it as moving away from the player centred approach. I would argue however that denying them to work under pressure and stress is denying them a vital life skill. Stress expert Kelly McGoningal showed strong evidence in her TedTalk “How to Make Stress your Friend” (over 23 million views so far), McGoningal (2013, 2015) proclaimed that:

  1. Stress is only harmful to your health if you believe it is.
  2. The stress paradox says happy lives include stress.
  3. You can channel your stress into energy that boosts your performance.

This has been used for many years at clubs such Bayern Munich and Bayer Leverkusen, the coaches organised sessions that placed their youth players in stressful situations where techniques and decision making would be developed in a real-world environment. This was also carried out to develop psychological hardiness (Nesti & Sulley, 2015).

The pressure I created during practices may have exceeded that which opponents produced. I believe when an individual constantly works under pressure, he or she will respond automatically when faced with it during competition.

Wooden, 1997

How to Create Pressure in Training: 

“Pressure comes from expectations, scrutiny and consequences. As a leader, we can use these three factors to encourage better performance”  – Evans, 2019

Coaches Note: Before doing these exercises its important to educate your players on pressure and share some tips on how to deal with pressure, especially if working with youth players (You can use the section “Tools for Players to Deal with Pressure” to assist you)

  1. The No Mistake Time Trial: One simple way you can create pressure is during a basic unopposed passing drill. Set the players a task of 2 minutes without any mistakes. When a mistake happens re-start the clock back to 0:00. You can find fault in anything you like, whether it be a misplaced pass, or a lack of movement. (Expectations)
  1. The Dodgy Ref: Make some outrageously bad calls, and consistent controversial calls (Pain, 2016), this is particularly useful for senior players. At the end of the day, every match you play there are going to be moments where your players (and yourself as the coach) will be on the receiving end of a perceived bad call from the referee. How frustrating is it when the player is arguing with the referee instead of working hard to get the ball back. So teach your players how to react to bad calls (Scrutiny)  

“Exceptional performers need only two seconds (To sulk). And really exceptional performers operate with a limit of one second. The strongest performers have the capacity to refocus as soon as they make a mistake.” – Evans, 2019

  1. The Loser Punishment: Especially for senior male athletes, having a punishment for the loser can really lift the intensity & increase the pressure. Something as simple as push ups or burpees, it’s not the physical act that is the punishment, it’s the fact that the winners watch on with the bragging rights. For youth players, I would recommend focusing on the positive outcome, rewarding the winning team (with a lap of honour for example), as opposed to punishing the losing team. (Consequences) 
  1. Game Scenarios: Many of you have probably used game scenarios in your sessions that include specific instructions for both teams (for example, 12 minutes left in the game and Red team leading 1-0, so Reds defend the lead and Blues try to equalise).This is good practice in dealing with game related pressure. To add extra pressure, you can then have the players break off for a 6-minute circuit-training session at the side of the field. After repeating this process three times, evaluate the players ability to handle pressure under fatigue (Beswick, 2015). 

Whichever technique you go for, it’s important that the players are given tools by the staff to deal with these pressure situations.

Tools for Players to Deal with Pressure:

  1. The Left Hand Squeeze: As bizarre as it sounds, there is some science behind it. A study by German researchers Beckmann, Gropel & Ehrlenspiel (2013) were able to improve performance under pressure by asking athletes to squeeze their left hand as they performed their skill. 

“This is because the left side of the body is controlled by the right hemisphere of the brain (and vice versa), doing this draws neural resources like glucose and oxygen away from the interfering left hemisphere and reduces its negative influence on automatic processes.” – Katwala, 2016

  1. Challenge v Threat state: Footballers respond in one of two ways to a match. When a player appraises the match in a positive manner they see it as a challenge. When they appraise the match in a negative way they sees it as a threat (Abrahams, 2013). If you are overly nervous before or during a game, don’t try and get rid of those nerves, instead see it as a positive, see it as a meaning that you are doing something to challenge yourself.  

“Pressure can bust pipes, but it can also make diamonds If you take the negative view, it will crush you.” (Grover, 2013)

3. Breath, Label & Bring Yourself Back: 

  • Breath:Too many players take quick shallow breaths when dealing with pressure (Yousuf, 2018), so take slower breaths.  “If your emotions have become too intense and you feel overaroused to the point that you can’t think clearly, you can reduce your physiological arousal by slow breathing. Concentrate on breathing out very slowly and steadily (as if you were gently blowing up a balloon). When you slow your out breath, your in breath will take care of itself. Your heart rate and many other body systems will begin to return to a calmer state within approximately four to six slow breaths.” – Boyes, 2018a
  • Label: The simple act of labelling your emotion can reduce and cope with anxiety (Boyes, 2018b). You could also help ease your anxiety by giving your arousal a different label, such as excitement (Kolenda, 2013).
  • Bring Yourself Back: This means bringing yourself back in the moment. One of the greatest sporting team ever the New Zealand All-Blacks found individual ways that worked for them to bring them back into the moment.  “One player stamps his feet into the grass, to ground himself. Another uses mental imagery, picturing himself from the highest seat in the stadium, to help put the moment in perspective. Whatever tool you use doesn’t matter, what matters is realising you’re in the wrong emotional zone, and finding ways to cool yourself off and get back in a high-performing head space “ (Coyle, 2014) Other simple ways to help get yourself back in the moment include giving yourself trigger words “I’m back” or “Next chance” (Pain, 2016); or a physical trigger such as looking at your shinpad/the goal/your hand (Yousuf, 2018).

4. Three Breath Technique: 

Take three belly breaths, with your out-breath at least as long as your in-breath. On each out-breath, shift your attention to focus on a different body part. 

First, your eyes: as you breathe out, soften your focus and look into the distance so you have a wider view of your surroundings, taking in the background and peripheries all at once. 

Second, your hands: as you breathe out, notice which set of fingers are tingling more – right or left? 

Third, your feet: as you breathe out, notice which set of toes feels more connected to the ground – right or left?

“Regulating our breathing regulates our emotions. Breathe well, perform well.” – Evans, 2019

To conclude, our beautiful game is a fantastic platform to help individuals with life skills and for me, dealing with stress is one of the most important. In a world where mental health disease seems to be becoming more and more prevalent, wouldn’t it be great if giving people the tools to deal with pressure might help someone who is struggling and maybe even reduce the rate of these diseases.

Reference List

  • Abrahams, D (2013) Soccer Brain: The 4C Coaching Model for Developing World Class Player Mindset and a Winning Football Team. Birmingham. Bennion Kearney LTD
  • Beckmann, J., Gropel, P. & Ehrlenspiel, F. (2013). Preventing motor skill failure through hemisphere-specific priming: Cases from choking under pressure. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 142(3), 679-691.
  • Beswick, B (2015) One Goal: The Mindset of Winning Soccer Teams. Human Kinetics. Kindle Edition.
  • Boyes, A (2018a) The Healthy Mind Toolkit. Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
  • Boyes, A (2018b) The Sport Psych Show: Alice Boyes – Prepare and Plan Mindset. Podcast – The Sport Psych Show w/ Dan Abrahams 12/11/2018
  • Claffey, J cited in Abraham, D (2019) The Sport Psych Show: James Claffey- Putting the Person Before the Athlete. Podcast – 28/01/2019
  • Coyle, D (2014) A Mental Trick from the World’s Best Team. [online] available at:
  • Curneen, G (2015) The Modern Soccer Coach: Position-Specific Training. Bennion Kearny. Kindle Edition. 
  • Evans, C (2019) Perform Under Pressure: Change the Way You Feel, Think and Act Under Pressure. HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition.
  • Grover, T (2013) Relentless—From Good to Great to Unstoppable. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  • Katwala, A (2016) The Athletic Brain . Simon & Schuster UK. Kindle Edition.
  • Kolenda, N (2013) Methods of Persuasion: How to Use Psychology to Influence Human Behavior. Nick Kolenda. Kindle Edition.
  • McGonigal, K (2013) How to Make Stress your Friend. TEDGlobal. Available at:
  • McGonigal, K (2015) The Upside of Stress. Avery; Second edition
  • Nesti, M & Sulley, C (2015) Youth Development in Football: Lessons from the World’s Best Academies. Oxford: Routledge
  • Pain M (2016) Mental Interventions. Chapter 17 Soccer Science: Using Science to Develop Players and Teams Edited by Strudwick, T Human Kinetics, USA.
  • Pink, D. (2018). When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. Edinburgh: Canongate.
  • Royle, C (2018) The Sport Psych Show: Cody Royle – Where Others Wont. Podcast – The Sport Psych Show w/ Dan Abrahams 10/12/2018
  • Wooden, J. and Steve Jamison. (1997). Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Court. New York: Contemporary Books.
  • Yousuf, S (2018) The Sport Psych Show: Shameema Yousuf – Empowering Players with Performance Psychology AND Well-being Strategies. Podcast – The Sport Psych Show w/ Dan Abrahams 20/12/2018

Author: coachphilp

Masters Degree in Fútbol with Real Madrid Universidad Europea (Voted #1 Football Masters Degree in the World) 16 years coaching over 3 nations. “Employ your time in improving yourself by other men's writings, so that you shall gain easily what others have laboured hard for.” - Socrates

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