Every 4 years, athletes from across the globe look to make their dreams of becoming an Olympic champion reality. This often rests on one chance to show the world what they have been working on their whole lives. Imagine the pressure of knowing this could define your life’s dedication. For some, this pressure is debilitating, whereas for others it surges them on to achieve greatness.

In the run up to Rio’s 2016 Olympic Games, Team GB put together a group of Performance Psychologists to help their elite athletes and teams deal with this exact pressure [1]. Their mission: design a resilience training program that is backed by scientific evidence to develop their athlete’s and team’s ability to withstand – and even thrive on – pressure. Fast-forward to Day 16 of the Games, and Great Britain has delivered their most successful performance for more than a century, winning a total of 67 Olympic medals [2]. One piece to that success may lie with the evidence-based training program used by the team of psychologists to build resilience [1]. A key part of this includes Pressure Inurement Training that can be used by coaches and leaders looking to improve their own athlete’s and followers performance under pressure.

After reading this blog you should be able to:

  • Understand what resilience is and how coaches can help to create training sessions that build resilience in their athletes
  • Know how Pressure Inurement Training can be used to build resilience via challenge and support

So, what is Pressure Inurement Training?

After learning a skill, the next step is to perform it under pressure to learn how to deal with the stress of competition. Obviously, it is difficult to replicate the exact same pressure of an Olympic final, but training under pressure means athletes can learn how to cope with the feelings of pressure in a non-threatening setting and transfer this to competition. Pressure Inurement Training involves gradually changing the training environment using specific strategies to increase the level of pressure individuals face [1]. Although it is tempting to place your performers under extreme stress and see how they cope with it, this often misrepresents what resilience actually is and how it should be developed.

Put simply, resilience refers to the ability to withstand – or even thrive on – pressure to enhance performance [3]. Resilient qualities seen in elite athlete’s include positivity, determination, competitiveness and commitment, persistence and passion [4]. Pressure Inurement Training includes specific ways to show how coaches can structure their training sessions to get their performers to use these personal qualities and build resilience. Feelings of pressure is achieved through specific ways to increase feelings of challenge, while continually balancing and adjusting levels of support over time.

What does a high challenge and high support environment look like?

A high challenge and high support environment involves having trusting and respectful relationships with your athletes, where athletes are encouraged and expected to be involved in both learning and development. It should be clear that both high challenge and high support helps your performers to learn in an environment that facilitates the personal qualities needed to build resilience. Essentially, this creates a psychologically safe environment that encourages sensible risk taking, where team members will not be scared to make mistakes and success will be recognized and celebrated together [5].

How can I increase challenge?

Pressure Inurement Training involves gradually increasing pressure by putting in place specific changes to the training environment to evoke a stress-response [6]. There are two main ways to evoke a stress-response during training that will help to increase challenge: a) firstly, by increasing the demands of training so that it is similar to competition, and b) knowing that individuals only feel pressure during events that are important, relevant to their goals and involve playing for certain consequences.

Step 1) Increase the demands of training:

  • Introduce different types of demands usually experienced during competition.
  • Make training sessions challenging by increasing the uncertainty of competition demands.
  • Increase the frequency, duration and/or intensity of the competition demands in training.

Coaches can introduce some of the types of stressful events their athletes are likely to face during competition, known as competitive stressors, into training sessions to increase challenge [7]. Some examples include manipulating the rules of play or competing against better opponents [8]. It is useful to divide competitive stressors into the four corners of ‘mental’, ‘technical’, ‘tactical’ and ‘physical’ play [9]. For example, coaches or leaders can make a session more technically challenging by focusing on only one aspect of technique for the entire session while playing against a tough opponent.

‘‘Sometimes…you put a right footed player who can’t do anything with his left foot on [the] left side [of the pitch] and force him to use his left foot… so the player can use both feet when he comes into the first team’’– former professional football player, Dennis Bergkamp on using technical challenges in training.

The second way to increase the demands of training is by manipulating the properties of the competitive stressors, including recreating the uncertainty of competition. Athletes often experience the most pressure when they are competing in a different situation, under different rules or new environments because of feelings of uncertainty [10]. Coaches can create novel situations in training to increase the uncertainty of events, which may involve training with a different set of rules, on a different surface or with different equipment. A great example of this is by Coach Bob Bowman, coach to the most successful Olympian in history, Michael Phelps [11]

In a training session, Bowman once purposely stepped on Phelps’ goggles and cracked them without him knowing. Phelps was forced to swim with his googles filling with water. This challenging demand during training paid off, as in the 2008 Olympic final of 200m butterfly, disaster struck and Phelps goggles cracked. Because of Bowman, Phelps knew what to do and he overcame the problem by counting the number of strokes he needed to get to the other end of the pool. Phelps won Gold.

Lastly, to increase challenge coaches can look to increase the frequency, duration and/or intensity of competition demands during training [12]. Athletes feel pressure when competitive stressors are physically and mentally more intense, experienced more frequently and for different lengths of time that it usually lasts for. An example of a competitive stressor that lasts for a short length of time may include hearing an unpleasant comment from a spectator during a match. Coaches may increase the frequency of this short-term stressor by simulating negative comments from an audience more often in training.

Step 2) Increase feelings of pressure:

  • Make sure training demands are important and relevant to performers goals
  • Use performance-based consequences that involve forfeits and rewards or using others to increase feelings of judgement

While competitive stressors themselves are bad, they don’t always lead to feelings of pressure. Coaches must understand that pressure is only experienced when athletes judge the competitive stressors as having the potential to threaten their personal goals of high performance [13]. Understanding the goals of your performers will allow coaches to create specific training demands that are relevant to his or her goals. For example, an athlete who wants to perform better in front of crowds would feel more pressure when being watched by a large audience in training. Hopefully it is clear that putting in place any ‘coach-led’ methods to increase pressure may not actually increase feelings of pressure as it may not be relevant to their athletes goals

The final way to influence feelings of pressure includes using consequences in training. This can include rewarding athletes by winning something positive, athletes receiving a forfeit for not meeting the expected standard, or being evaluated by others that judge their performance [8]. For example, circling everyone around two people who are being watched will increase feelings of pressure. It is important athletes do not feel ridiculed or scared to make mistakes, as an unrelenting environment with too much challenge and not enough support will lead to athletes avoiding taking future risks and fear failure [14].Remember, to create a high challenge and high support environment, athletes must trust their coach and believe everyone is valued.

“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”– Former Olympic hockey player, Wayne Gretzky on taking healthy risks.

Summary of how to increase challenge:

  1. Introduce some of the stressful demands that are normally experienced in competition into training sessions
  2. Increase the uncertainty of training demands to help athletes transfer their skills to new situations
  3. Increase the frequency, duration and/or intensity of the training exercises to reflect competitive pressure
  4. Make sure training demands are important and relevant to performers goals
  5. Use consequences that involve forfeits, rewards or being judged by others

How can I increase support?

While coaches must increase challenge using the methods described above, a key part of Pressure Inurement Training involves increasing the support provided to individuals to enhance their personal qualities (i.e. positivity, determination, passion etc.) to build resilience [1].To do this, coaches must increase and adjust levels of support to allow athletes to feel confident dealing with greater challenge. Firstly, athletes should learn how to use psychological skills to cope with pressure, and then be able to practice dealing with challenging events using these skills in a non-threatening environment. Secondly, before coaches begin using Pressure Inurement Training, they must explain the reasons for increasing challenge at the start of each activity and review how their athletes dealt with the challenge at the end.

Step 1) Athletes must learn how to use psychological skills to cope with pressure and practice these skills during training

Athletes need to learn how to use psychological skills to deal with the added pressure, and if used correctly, can improve performance [15]. This can include learning how to stop negative thoughts and promote positive self-talk strategies, or learning how to use mental imagery before a competition more effectively. Learning these psychological skills will help athletes to avoid the negative thoughts of pressure, that could lead to choking, into a more positive experience during competition to enhance performance. These skills can then be used in training sessions where athletes practice these psychological skills to cope with the added challenge. As the Manchester City F.C. manager, Pep Guardiola echoed during behind the scenes footage:

‘‘Pressure is a privilege, it only comes to those who earn it’’Former World No.1 in tennis Billie-Jean King, on thinking positively about pressure.

Step 2) Brief and debrief your athletes at the start and end of each training session

Before coaches begin using Pressure Inurement Training, explaining to athletes at the start of training sessions why it is important they experience more stressful demands in training by helping them to learn how to cope with pressure [16]. Briefing athletes helps to avoid feelings of unrelenting pressure that will compromise their well-being [17]. For example, coaches should stress, ‘the drill is important to helping you make better choices with limited time to think, which helps with how fast you react to your opponent. If you can improve your decision making under a time limit, you’re more likely to perform better under pressure and reach your goal of winning more points’.

Following this, coaches should look to provide a debrief at the end of each Pressure Inurement Training session to review how their performers dealt with the added challenges and how they reacted to it (e.g. ‘How did you cope with the added challenge?’). It’s important to keep the discussion focused on how they dealt with the pressure and how it affected their performance. If athletes were unable to cope with the added pressure and they react with more negative outcomes, then coaches should temporarily decrease the challenge and increase support. On the other hand, if athletes react more positively then coaches should increase challenge further [1].

Summary of how to increase support:

  1. Athletes need to learn how to use psychological skills (e.g. positive self-talk, mental imagery) and practice these skills during training sessions
  2. Brief and debrief your athletes at the start and end of sessions to improve support and consider each person may react differently to pressure
  3. If responses are negative, consider increasing support and temporarily decrease challenge. If positive, consider increasing challenge.

How do I balance challenge and support?: Verbal Feedback

A key part of balancing challenge and support requires the coach to provide the athlete with the correct verbal feedback during Pressure Inurement Training. This is based on how the athlete is responding to the added challenge. Coaches must carefully monitor both the psychological responses and effects on performance to provide the correct forms of feedback.

Scenario 1) Too much challenge and not enough support leads to negative responses and performance and well-being suffers

When individuals are unable to cope with the added challenge, they are likely to react negatively. This may be in terms of actual behaviour (e.g. withdrawn, or aggression) or psychologically (e.g. anxiety, frustrated). In which case, motivational feedback and increased support should be provided. Motivational feedback includes encouragement, positive reinforcement of what they are doing well, and specific information on how to improve to promote learning [17].

Examples of motivational feedback:

  • ‘We’ve worked on this skill today because it is related to your performance goals.’
  • ‘You tried really hard to cope with the added challenge, well done’
  • ‘You dealt with the challenge well by controlling your breathing more’
  • ‘Try doing this next time so you can do Xbetter’

Scenario 2) High challenge and high support leads to positive responses and performance improves

When an individual reacts more positively and shows they have adapted well to the added challenge (e.g. happiness, determination, willing to train harder), then developmental feedback should be provided with increased challenge. Developmental feedback involves informing athletes on how to improve further with the goal of developing his or her ability to cope with greater challenge [18].

Examples of developmental feedback:

  • ‘What have you learnt that you could use in a match?’
  • ‘Great job! What’s one thing that you could have done even better?’
  • ‘You’ve mastered this skill, now let’s make it harder’

Summary of how to use verbal feedback:

  1. Carefully monitor how individuals react to increased challenge (e.g. ask question, notice changes to behaviour and performance) and then provide correct feedback
  2. Motivational feedback used if individual is struggling to adapt, in this situation coaches should increase support and temporarily decrease challenge.
  3. Developmental feedback used if athlete responds positively and has adapted to the increased pressure, in this situation coaches should further increase challenge when appropriate.

Take home messages from this blog:

  • Resilience can be changed over time, so coaches should look to build resilience in their athletes to improve performance under pressure
  • Pressure Inurement Training looks to continually balance and adjust challenge and support over time that will leads to individuals withstanding – and potentially thriving on – pressure.
  • Challenge should be increased gradually and in an appropriate way that considers the age and experience of its athletes to cope with the demands of pressure.
  • Pressure Inurement Training can be used within current training sessions and requires coaches to adapt to the needs of their athletes. Carefully monitoring both the psychological and performance outcomes of athletes will help to avoid chronic stress and burnout.
  • Pressure Inurement Training is one part of a mental fortitude training program that focuses on improving the conditions that athletes train. For resilience to be developed, athletes also need to enhance their personal qualities and create a challenge mindset.
  • To develop well-adjusted people and high-performing athletes, coaches must also consider how athletes can learn to control their own emotions and interpret them more positively (known as emotional intelligence), and focus on other areas such as ethical awareness, counselling and mindfulness.