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Deliberate practice for performance under pressure
Ray Allen is one of the greatest NBA shooters of all time. After 20 seasons, the Hall of Famer demonstrates his expertise on the sidelines now, coaching his son to shoot free throws with that same level of automaticity.
You may notice that Allen provides little instruction regarding form or technique. All he’s doing is adding pressure.
The ability to perform under pressure is arguably the hallmark of high performance. “You gotta train yourself to be clutch in tough situations,” Allen states.
This video reflects several of the best practices for pressure training outlined in the literature.
“Pressure training (PT) strategically increases pressure during training to improve athletes’ abilities to cope with pressure in competition” (Low et al., 2023). Though the environments and contexts that create pressure may vary, here are 3 recommendations from the literature can help standardize the training process for any area of performance.
Build a competitive baseline. I put this as #0 because a competitive baseline is a pre-requirement to PT. A team that values competition and is committed to training and getting better to meet a specified goal is more likely to benefit from PT than a team who’s more focused on having fun or is just starting out. A competitive baseline can be built in a variety of ways, such as having daily goals, competitions amongst the team during drills, or by simulating actual competitions with scrimmages or full dress rehearsals.
Set the expectation. PT should be purposeful, just as strength and conditioning and technical drills are. PT is designed to help athletes get better, not to make them look foolish, incompetent, or for the sole purpose of being punished. Low and colleagues suggest that PT is something that is done for athletes, not to athletes. In other words, coaches can state up front that it is their intention to help prepare their team to execute in pressure situations, and that PT in practice can help athletes develop this skill. Simple conversations like this can help create buy in from the team.
Consequences over rewards. Studies have found that adding negative consequences creates more pressure than positive rewards. A negative consequence is any undesirable behavior. This includes one time tasks like running sprints, or stairs, shagging balls, or putting away equipment, as well as consequences that have more long term effects, like not making the travel squad, or not making the competition team that week.
Establish clear performance standards. To be clear, PT is not intended to punish. It’s purpose is to help individuals and teams practice meeting a standard of performance in a stressful, high pressure situation. Therefore, creating standards that clearly delineate pass vs. fail not only gives performers something to work toward, but also help them practice the harnessing the skills they need to play to win rather than play not to lose. Objective standards are ideal, like in the video above where 70% is the cutoff. Obviously not all areas of performance are objective. Gymnastics, diving, surfing are all examples of performance where subjective scoring occurs. In these instances, coaches can establish consequences for anyone below a certain ranking (e.g., sit out a turn for everyone below 3rd place).
A few final reminders when it comes to pressure training:
PT creates an environment where athletes can practice their physical skills under stress as well as the mental skills needed to execute. First give them the skills, then allow them to practice implementing them.
PT is about performing to established standards, identified by both the coach and the players. Make them clear!
Lastly, PT is pressure training, not pressure punishment. It’s intended to complement skill development, not hinder it.
No threads, no hacks—just science and it’s applications. 🧠 📈