Pressure is a term that has been banded about in the media in recent days with the events at the Open and Scott losing a 4 shot lead and then missing a putt to send it to a tie break which let Ernie Els win.  Pressure has also been talked about with Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky and their ability to manage the pressures of the Tour de France with the help of Dr. Steve Peters.  Pressure is also being talked about in the build up to the London 2012 Olympics.  There is a lot of pressure on Team GB and this pressure needs to be managed to give the best chance of success.

The following is a section from a literature review one of my students recently completed on pressure.  The student is Nick Winther (‏@NickWinther14) and is British Champion in Trampolining.

In a sporting situation, the term ‘pressure’ usually refers to how a performer is feeling about a performance, and is normally created by ourselves (Paccagnella, 2012). By attempting to manage pressure in sport we begin to make the assumption that pressure exists and that it’s a real thing (Hartley, 2011). When athletes begin to build up the pressure that they have to win, it can cause anxiety and nervousness (Weinberg & Gould, 2010). Paccagnella (2012) shares the same view as Hartley (2011) in that pressure is all in the mind of the competitor, and isn’t something that happens to us, but is manufactured by our own thinking.

They suggest that the only way we ever experience pressure is via our minds, as that’s where it is created. However, in sport, external circumstances can also create pressure (Woods, 1998). For example, taking a penalty kick in football to win the World Cup could potentially lead to the athlete turning their attention more to what the fans and people in the stadium expect (Paccagnella, 2012) and also about what the media will say if he/she doesn’t score. Media coverage can be hyped up as added pressure but only if the athletes buys into it (Hartley, 2011).

Paccagnella (2012) highlighted numerous different sources of how pressure can occur both internally and externally with athletes. Some examples are: parental expectations of the athlete to perform; the athletes expectation about the competition, for example, the desired result, anticipated reward, selection opportunities, travel, praise, payoff for all their hard work; other people’s expectations, especially team mates and coaches, but also from other people such as friends, relatives and partners; the press and media expectations, for example what the newspaper articles will say about them and also what the news (television) will broadcast to the entire country; preparation for the competition (how well prepared the athlete feels and how ready they feel on the day); the presence of the crowd or audience and their reactions to the performance, for example, cheering (positive/supportive) or booing (negative/derisive); the importance of the performance (could potentially lead to selection for a team, or a personal reason such as one last medal and then retirement); the officials’ and organisers’ actions (the way the people in charge affect the athletes); the athletes’ readiness to perform (whether they are fully fit, mentally ready, injury-free); other areas of life that compete for the athletes’ attention, for example, school, work, relationships; a lack of self-confidence (where the athlete starts doubting their ability to perform); if the athlete is implementing a new technique in competition (unsure of the outcome); and repeated errors, which can lead to a decrease in confidence and motivation.

Pressure sometimes has negative connotations but it can also be viewed as a positive; it can enhance motivation, concentration and enjoyment, and keep a performer alert and on their toes and ready to rise to the challenge (Paccagnella, 2012). According to Hartley (2011) expectations are usually a product of an individual’s imagination or someone else’s, and just like pressure and expectations are, fantasy is a figment of imagination, and when athletes take on board certain expectations they are essentially trying to live up to a fantasy, and not reality. Athletes experience pressure when they get the job wrong (Lane, 2001). This links to the view of Paccagnella (2012) as she agrees that repeated errors lead to the feeling of more pressure. For example, if a tennis player makes a double-fault on a crucial point, it can lead to the player choking under the pressure and their performance can deteriorate (Smith & Kays, 2010).

Pressure derives from the individual perceiving an expectation is placed among them (Hartley, 2011). Normally athletes begin to feel pressure when they begin to imagine what might happen if they don’t achieve the outcomes in which they and/or others (such as coaches and family) desire or expect (Hartley, 2011). Expectations from coaches and family can negatively effect an athletes performance both physically and psychologically; the athlete may feel that if they don’t implement certain aspects of the sport into their performance that this could lead to the coach giving them less game time, poorer feedback, less effective reinforcement and this can lead to a dent in confidence and embarrassment (Weinberg & Gould, 2010). Performers at an elite level will at some point consider the media and what they might say about them if they fail; in a high-profile sport, every move can be dissected and critiqued by potentially hostile media and fans, and when an athlete realises this or is subjected to it, it can create a forever unnerving feeling when the athlete performs (Farrow et al, 2008). On the other hand, according to Hartley (2011), media coverage is just like any other expectation in the sense that it is born out f the imagination, in this sense the imagination of the journalists, the public, the sponsors, the governing bodies even and potentially even other players and staff.


Farrow, D., Baker, J. & MacMahon, C. (2008). Developing Sport Expertise: Researchers and Coaches put Theory into Practice. United Kingdom; Routledge.

Hartley, S. (2011). Pressure…What Pressure? Athletes in Sport. Podium Sports Journal. [Online]. Accessed on 30/4/12 at:…what-pressure-athletes-in-sport/

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.

Paccagnella, M. (2012). Performing Under Pressure. (Vol. 28, No. 1.) [Online]. Accessed 1/5/12 at:

Smith, L. & Kays, T. (2010). Sports Psychology for Dummies. Canada; John Wiley & Sons Canada, Ltd.

Weinberg, R. & Gould, D. (2010). Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology (5th Edition). United States of America; Human Kinetics.