Every four years, athletes from around the world strive to turn their dreams of becoming Olympic champions into reality. Their entire lives of dedication and training come down to one momentous opportunity. The pressure to perform can be overwhelming, either crippling some athletes or propelling others to achieve greatness.
In preparation for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, Team GB assembled a group of Performance Psychologists to help their elite athletes and teams effectively cope with this immense pressure . Their mission: develop a scientifically-backed resilience training program to equip athletes with the ability to withstand and thrive under pressure. By the end of Day 16, Team GB had achieved their most successful Olympic performance in over a century, securing a total of 67 medals . The evidence-based training program, including Pressure Inurement Training, implemented by the team of psychologists likely played a significant role in their success . This training can also be employed by coaches and leaders seeking to enhance the performance of their own athletes and followers under pressure.
By reading this blog, you will gain an understanding of:
Resilience and how coaches can structure training sessions to cultivate it in athletes.
The concept of Pressure Inurement Training and its role in building resilience through challenge and support.
So, what exactly is Pressure Inurement Training?
Once athletes have acquired a skill, the next step is to perform it under pressure to learn how to handle the stress of competition. While it may be challenging to recreate the exact intensity of an Olympic final in training, simulating pressure allows athletes to develop coping mechanisms for the feelings of pressure in a non-threatening environment, which can then be applied in actual competition.
Pressure Inurement Training (PIT) involves gradually modifying the training environment using specific strategies to increase the level of pressure individuals face . However, it is important to note that building resilience is not about subjecting performers to extreme stress; rather, it requires a balanced and strategic approach.
Resilience, in simple terms, refers to the ability to withstand or even thrive under pressure, ultimately enhancing performance . Elite athletes exhibit resilient qualities such as positivity, determination, competitiveness, commitment, persistence, and passion . Pressure Inurement
Training employs specific strategies that coaches can incorporate into their training sessions to help performers develop these qualities and build resilience. By creating an environment that provides both challenge and support, athletes can cultivate the psychological safety necessary for sensible risk-taking, where mistakes are not feared and successes are celebrated collectively .
What does a high challenge and high support environment entail?
A high challenge and high support environment is characterized by establishing trusting and respectful relationships with athletes, encouraging their active involvement in learning and development. It is crucial to recognize that high challenge and high support promote the acquisition of personal qualities essential for resilience. This environment fosters psychological safety, enabling team members to embrace challenges, take risks, and learn from both successes and failures .
How can coaches increase the challenge?
Pressure Inurement Training involves progressively intensifying pressure by implementing specific changes to the training environment that elicit a stress response . Two primary methods can be employed to evoke a stress response and enhance the challenge:
Increase the demands of training:
Introduce different types of demands typically encountered during competition.
Make training sessions challenging by increasing the uncertainty of competition demands.
Amplify the frequency, duration, and/or intensity of competition demands in training.
Coaches can incorporate specific stressors, known as competitive stressors, into training sessions to elevate the challenge . Examples include altering the rules of play or pitting athletes against stronger opponents . Competitive stressors can be categorized into four dimensions: mental, technical, tactical, and physical aspects of play . For instance, coaches can design a session that emphasizes a particular technical aspect throughout, while the athletes compete against formidable opponents.
Anecdote: Former professional football player Dennis Bergkamp employed technical challenges during training to enhance players' skills. For instance, he placed a right-footed player who lacked proficiency with their left foot on the left side of the pitch, forcing them to use their weaker foot. The aim was for the player to develop proficiency with both feet before entering the first team .
The second method to increase the challenge involves manipulating the properties of competitive stressors, particularly by recreating the uncertainty experienced in competition. Athletes often experience the most pressure when faced with novel situations, altered rules, or unfamiliar environments due to the accompanying feelings of uncertainty .
Coaches can introduce novel elements to training, such as different rules, surfaces, or equipment, to increase the uncertainty of events. A notable example is Bob Bowman, coach to Olympic legend Michael Phelps . Bowman purposefully stepped on Phelps' goggles, cracking them, during a training session without Phelps' knowledge. Phelps was then forced to swim with water-filled goggles. This challenging demand during training paid off in the 2008 Olympic final of the 200m butterfly when Phelps encountered a similar goggle malfunction. Thanks to Bowman's training, Phelps knew how to cope with the situation by counting his strokes to navigate the pool. Ultimately, Phelps emerged victorious.
Lastly, coaches can increase the challenge by augmenting the frequency, duration, and/or intensity of competition demands in training . Athletes experience pressure when competitive stressors become more physically and mentally intense, occur more frequently, or last for different durations compared to normal training. For example, simulating negative comments from spectators during a match more frequently in training can increase the frequency of this short-term stressor.
How can coaches increase feelings of pressure?
It is crucial to ensure that training demands are meaningful and relevant to athletes' goals. Athletes experience pressure when they perceive competitive stressors as significant events tied to their personal performance goals . By understanding athletes' goals, coaches can tailor training demands to make them relevant. For instance, an athlete seeking to perform better in front of large crowds will experience more pressure when training in front of a sizable audience. It is important to note that imposing coach-led methods to increase pressure may not effectively enhance feelings of pressure if they are not relevant to athletes' goals.
The use of consequences in training also contributes to increasing feelings of pressure. Consequences can include rewards for meeting performance standards, forfeits for failing to meet expectations, or evaluations by others who judge athletes' performances . For example, forming a circle around two individuals being watched heightens feelings of pressure. However, it is vital to ensure that athletes do not feel ridiculed or frightened of making mistakes, as an environment with excessive challenge and inadequate support may lead to risk avoidance and fear of failure .
Summary of how to increase challenge:
Introduce competitive stressors experienced in competition into training sessions.
Enhance the uncertainty of training demands to promote skill transfer to new situations.
Increase the frequency, duration, and/or intensity of competition demands in training.
Ensure training demands are relevant to athletes' goals.
Employ consequences that involve rewards, forfeits, or evaluation by others.
How can coaches increase support?
While coaches must increase the challenge as described above, an essential aspect of Pressure Inurement Training involves augmenting the support provided to individuals, nurturing their personal qualities (e.g., positivity, determination, passion) to foster resilience . To achieve this, coaches should provide athletes with psychological skills training to cope with pressure and allow them to practice dealing with challenging events in a safe training environment. Furthermore, coaches should explain the rationale for increasing challenge at the beginning of each activity and evaluate how athletes coped with the challenges at the end.
Step 1) Athletes must learn psychological skills to cope with pressure and practice these skills during training sessions:
Teach athletes techniques such as positive self-talk and mental imagery to manage pressure.
Create opportunities in training for athletes to practice these psychological skills in challenging situations.
Step 2) Brief and debrief athletes at the start and end of each training session:
Explain to athletes why it is important to expose them to more stressful demands in training to develop their ability to cope with pressure .
Debrief at the end of Pressure Inurement Training sessions to review how athletes handled the added challenges and their subsequent reactions .
The debrief should focus on how athletes coped with the pressure and how it affected their performance. If athletes struggled to cope and demonstrated negative outcomes, coaches should temporarily decrease the challenge and provide increased support. Conversely, if athletes responded positively, coaches should further increase the challenge when appropriate .
Summary of how to increase support:
Teach athletes psychological skills to cope with pressure and provide opportunities to practice these skills during training.
Brief athletes on the purpose of increased challenge and debrief at the end of sessions to review their responses.
Temporarily decrease challenge and increase support if athletes demonstrate negative responses.
Increase challenge further if athletes respond positively to the added pressure.
How do I balance challenge and support? Verbal Feedback
A critical aspect of maintaining a balance between challenge and support is providing appropriate verbal feedback to athletes based on their responses to increased challenge. Coaches should closely monitor athletes' psychological and performance responses to deliver the most effective feedback.
Scenario 1) Too much challenge and inadequate support lead to negative responses and compromised performance and well-being:
When individuals struggle to cope with increased challenge, they are likely to react negatively, both behaviorally (e.g., withdrawal, aggression) and psychologically (e.g., anxiety, frustration). In such cases, coaches should offer motivational feedback and increased support. Motivational feedback includes encouragement, positive reinforcement of strengths, and specific guidance for improvement to promote learning .
Scenario 2) High challenge and high support result in positive responses and improved performance:
When individuals respond positively and demonstrate adaptation to increased challenge (e.g., happiness, determination, willingness to train harder), coaches should provide developmental feedback along with further increased challenge. Developmental feedback guides athletes on how to further enhance their coping abilities .
Summary of using verbal feedback:
Monitor athletes' responses to increased challenge and provide appropriate feedback accordingly.
Use motivational feedback when individuals struggle to adapt, increasing support and temporarily decreasing challenge.
Utilize developmental feedback when athletes respond positively and demonstrate adaptation to increased pressure, increasing challenge when appropriate.
Resilience can be developed over time, so coaches should focus on building resilience in athletes to enhance performance under pressure.
Pressure Inurement Training aims to strike a balance between challenge and support, allowing individuals to withstand and potentially thrive under pressure.
Challenge should be gradually increased in a manner suitable for athletes' age and experience, preparing them for the demands of pressure.
Pressure Inurement Training can be integrated into existing training sessions, with coaches adapting to the needs of their athletes. Vigilantly monitoring psychological and performance outcomes will help prevent chronic stress and burnout.
Pressure Inurement Training is one facet of a comprehensive mental fortitude training program, which also includes emotional intelligence, ethical awareness, counseling, and mindfulness, to develop well-rounded individuals and high-performing athletes.