Pressure…What Pressure? Athletes in Sport

Simon Hartley, MSc, BASES – Be World Class

“Pressure is a word that is misused in our vocabulary. When you start thinking of pressure, it’s because you’ve started to think of failure.”  said Tommy Lasorda former manager for the LA Dodgers MLB team.

There is no such thing as pressure.

It is one of the great secrets in sport psychology that even the professionals often get wrong. Most sport psychologists and coaches talk about ‘managing pressure’, which makes the mistake of assuming that it exists. It doesn’t exist, so managing it is a non-sense. In fact, by trying to manage it, we start to believe it might be real.

“Pressure is nothing more than the shadow of great opportunity”. Michael Johnson

Pressure is a Self-Imposed Experience

Let’s start with the basics. People create pressure for themselves (Beilock 2010). The only way we can ever experience ‘pressure’ is to create it in our own minds. It is a product of our imagination. If we experience ‘pressure’ it is because we are projecting an imaginary view of the future (Markman et al 2008). Normally we feel pressure when we perceive that there is an expectation on us. Like pressure, expectations are also figments of our imagination. They are also imaginary projections into the future. Any view of the future must be produced in our imagination, there is no-where else it can come from (Markman et al 2008). Therefore, expectations are normally a product of your imagination or someone else’s. Either way, expectations are not real. Normally, we feel ‘pressure’ when we start imagining what might happen if we don’t achieve the outcome we desire or that we expect. “What if I don’t win?”… “What will the press say?”… “What will the coach say?”… “What will people think?”…

Some teams and individuals habitually under-perform when they reach major world events. The reason for this may well be because the athletes feel pressure to perform for their nation (Gerrard 2010). For example, when athletes compete for their country, in their national sport, there is normally a lot of media hype. This is true in New Zealand for the All Blacks Rugby Team (Huw 2010) and true in England for the England Football Team. In the 2010 FIFA World Cup, England performed well below par. There were several possible reason’s given for the performances. On a number of occasions Fabio Capello sighted “fear” and “pressure” (Christenson 2010). Many people would logically deduce that this was linked closely to the media coverage and the hype that had been created in the lead up to the event. However, the media coverage and the hype will only be perceived as ‘pressure’, if players buy into it. Just like any other expectation, it’s born out of the imagination. In this case, it was the imaginations of the journalists, the public, The Football Association, the sponsors and possibly even the players and staff of Team England.

By projecting an image of what might happen, we may start doubting the outcome and feeling uneasy. We need to recognise that our imagination is incredibly powerful. Used positively it can help us to optimise our performance. However, we have to be aware that we also use our imagination to create trap-doors for ourselves. The simple principal is that we should only concern ourselves with reality, not fantasy. Fantasy is a product of our imagination, just as expectations and pressure are. Often people have hopes for us, which they express. We sometimes take those on board as expectations, which we then try to fulfil. If we buy into expectations, we are trying to live up to a fantasy. The best thing to do is to recognise it for what it is and to get on with reality.

Athletes feel ‘pressure’ when they get the job wrong (Lane 2001). Typically athletes think that their job is to win, to climb up the rankings, to secure prize money or sponsorship. However, none of those things are the job. Normally when we get the job wrong, it is because we’re too busy focussing on the outcome. In reality, our job is to deliver the process. By aiming for the result, we set ourselves a job which is outside of our control (Bull 1996). The fact that it is outside of our control means that it’s uncertain. Winning is never certain. Hitting a target is never certain. There is always an element of uncertainty. This uncertainty is what tends to cause us the angst (Boelen & Reijntjes 2009). How can we be completely confident in our ability to achieve something that has uncertainty? If you’re trying to do an ‘impossible’ job or even a job which you have no control over, you will probably imagine pressure because you will not be 100 per cent sure that you can do the job. The job might seem too big or too daunting. If the athlete believes the job is to win the tournament, they might doubt their ability to do it. Even a confident athlete won’t know that they can do that job. There is often a gap between what we believe we can achieve, and what we think we must achieve. That gap manifests as the worry and anxiety we associate with pressure. This is illustrated in Csikszentmihalyi’s (2008) model of the challenge and skills balance. If we create an expectation for ourselves (or take on board someone else’s expectations), we post a target. If we are not absolutely sure that we can achieve that target, we might start to have doubts and worries. If we also give that target some meaning, we will magnify our doubts and worries.

Deconstructing Pressure is the Key

As we’ve said already, we create pressure therefore we can ‘de-construct it’ (Hartley in press). The easiest way is not to create it in the first place. However, if we do feel pressure, we have the ability to dismantle it and start to see the reality rather than the illusion. If you start to perceive pressure, take a few moments to remind yourself why there is no pressure and never was any pressure. Normally this involves a slight reality check and a quick reminder of the job. Once we do that, we are more likely to be able to focus on exactly what we need to do in that moment (Hartley 2010). In reality the job we need to do will normally be pretty simple and something we’re very capable of doing. Rather than trying to ‘serve for the match’ or ‘win Championship point’, we’ll simply be trying to serve. Instead of trying to win the World Cup, the job is simply to take a penalty kick. Rather than attempting to win the Ryder Cup, the job is simply to execute a 3 foot putt (Fisher 1998).

Once performers have got the hang of de-constructing pressure, I like to start stress-testing it with them to see how robust it is. Like many things, it’s easy to ditch pressure in a classroom environment or a training session. It’s a greater challenge in the heat of competition. To put it into a practical setting, I often use ‘pressure training’ exercises (Taylor & Wilson 2005). In reality that is probably a daft name. The aim of ‘pressure training’ is simple. The performer’s task is simply to stick to their simple job, whatever we throw at them. And that’s exactly the same task they face in competition!


Beilock, S. (2010) Choke, New York: Free Press.

Boelen, P. A. & Reijntjes, A. (2009) ‘Intolerance of uncertainty and social anxiety’, Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 23, 130-135

Bull, S. J. (1996) The Mental Game Plan: Getting Psyched for Sport, London: Sport Dynamics.

Christenson, M. (2010) ‘World Cup 2010: Capello says pressure hindered England players’, The Guardian. 21st June 2010.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2008) ‘Creativity, fulfillment and flow’, Keynote Presentation to TED Conference. 24th October 2008. Online. Available HTTP: <> (accessed 15th December 2010)

Fisher, M. (1998) The Golfer and the Millionaire, New York: Cassell Illustrated.

Gerrard, S. (2010) ‘England skipper Steven Gerrard tells under-fire stars to make their nation proud ahead of do-or-die showdown with Slovenia’, Daily Record. 23rd June 2010. Online. Available HTTP: <> (accessed 15th December 2010)

Hartley, S.R. (2010) ‘Athletic Focus & Sport Psychology: Key To Peak Performance’, Podium Sports Journal, December 2010. Available Online. HTTP. <> (accessed 21st December 2010).

Hartley, S.R. (in press) Peak Performance Every Time, London: Routledge.

Huw, J. (2010) ‘Rugby World Cup 2011. Are the All Blacks Peaking Too Soon?’,, 2nd August 2010. Online. Available HTTP: <–are-the-all-blacks-peaking-too-soon–a268927> (accessed 15th December 2010)

Lane, A. (2001) ‘Relationship between perceptions of performance expectations and mood amongst distance runners’, Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 4(1), 116-128.

Manz, C.C. (2000) Emotional Discipline: The Power to Choose How You Feel, San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

Markham, K.D., Klein, W.M.P. and Suhr, J.A (2008) Handbook of Imagination and Mental Simulation, London: Psychology Press.

Taylor, J & Wilson, G.S. (2005) Applying Sport Psychology: Four Perspectives, Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Simon Hartley, MSc, BASES Accredited Sport & Exercise Psychologist.

Simon is a freelance sport psychologist & performance coach at Be World Class. In recent years he has worked as a consultant performance psychologist to the English Institute of Sport as well as working with a range of professional sports in the UK. Simon has worked with Premiership and Championship football clubs, international teams including England Squash and professional golfers.

Photo credit: Dominik Walker

Pressure…What Pressure?
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Whether on the sports field, in the office or the boardroom, it is common to see people’s performance change when they are under pressure. Some thrive in these situations, but many struggle. It is common to see athletes ‘choke’ and for performances to fall apart.
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8 thoughts on “Pressure…What Pressure? Athletes in Sport

  • February 10, 2011 at 3:53 pm

    You are right that many athletes focus too much on the end result (and its perceived importance to them). They should be focusing on doing what they’ve spent thousands of hours practicing and perfecting. But, it’s as if there’s a little creature on their shoulder, whispering in their ear, “what if?” They listen to that, they second guess themselves, their muscles tighten up and they don’t perform at their potential under pressure. When working with baseball pitchers and golfers, I look at that “creature” as a mislearned belief that has to be overcome, then the player can be free to do their best.

    • February 13, 2011 at 3:38 am

      Thanks David for your input, I’m sure Simon is focused on just these things. We appreciate your visiting and for your contributions, even your link to Podium as a resource for your athletes.

  • February 20, 2011 at 9:31 pm


    Interesting article, thank you. I just wanted to share with you some comments :

    – is a litte bit of pressure not needed to reach maximal performance? If yes, the coach job is first to identify the optimal level of pressure for its athlete and then to help the athlete reach it. This means in some cases increasing pressure, and in other cases decreasing or “deconstructing” pressure.

    – what are from your point of view the most effective techniques to help ahtletes decreasing pressure?


    • February 21, 2011 at 8:47 pm

      Thanks – great question. I’m going to respond from my point-of-view, but I’m confident that Simon has his own ideas on this and his webinar definitely addressed these things. I think it is true that athletes need a little pressure. That they care is a sign of their motivation and their will to do well. One technique I’ve found to be helpful in keeping the athlete focused – is the “Centering Breath”. Check this technique out in a previous article in Podium. – check it out.

      • March 25, 2011 at 10:26 am

        In answer to Oliver’s question…
        If athletes are to play better with ‘pressure’, that means that they play less well if they don’t perceive ‘pressure’. I would propose that they should be able to reach optimal performance in any situation, whether we call it the Olympic final or the Tin Pot Trophy.
        If you want to, have a listen to the webinar and see what you think –
        Thanks, have a great day.

  • July 2, 2013 at 6:08 am

    Thanks for the sensible critique. Me & my neighbor were just preparing to do some research on this. We got a grab a book from our local library but I think I learned more from this post. I am very glad to see such magnificent information being shared freely out there.

  • April 17, 2020 at 4:30 pm

    Hi Everyone,

    This is a great area of discussion.

    Good article by Simon – but I think can be confusing for athletes. If you have ever played a professional sport or played at the highest level – there is undeniably pressure. Ask any high level athlete and they will tell it it’s there. To suggest it doesn’t exist is not quite the truth. If you walk into the Olympic final with teammates depending on you and with an opportunity to change the course of your life, if you don’t feel pressure, you aren’t human. There is pressure in the situation to extract a great performance – anything short of it at that level usually won’t be good enough. From my experience with leading athletes – there is “good” and “bad” pressure. Good pressure focuses on opportunity and rising to the challenging situation. “Bad” pressure as Simon suggests is primarily internal and focused on negative aspects of the performance. Also – if pressure doesn’t exist, how do you use that moment of the situation to create meaning for your performance and the joy that can bring. If pressure doesn’t exist, you can’t leverage the energy from it to go beyond where you might have gone before.

    Just food for thought – but anyone who doesn’t believe pressure is real hasn’t really been in a meaningful, high level situation where world-class performance is demanded. I have seen studies that suggests pressure doesn’t exist – but I question whether those researchers have actually put themselves on the line and been in a very high risk situation and felt those feelings.

    Hope this adds to the discussion.

    • May 1, 2020 at 11:12 pm

      This is a great response. Probably a conversation. I do a class called “Get Competition-Ready” and we do explore this, both because there are individual differences – and – because there are physical/mental/spiritual (think purpose) components that can all contribute.
      Dr. Walker


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