Dealing with big game pressure – find out how

by Philip MacDonald | Last updated

Every athlete deals with pressure in a different way.  However, the pressure in a soccer game cannot be put into words as there is often more than the game itself riding on that particular match. There are different ways to pre-prepare yourself for the pressure you will face in a big game.

In high school I remember getting in verbal spats with certain players and it drove me nuts. I just wanted to play the game, be competitive and win. A lot of players thought playing mind games with verbal abuse would get me off my game and in the early days they were correct. However, once I realized I could play better, smarter and focused on my team instead of nonsense verbal spats I quickly changed this negative into a positive for myself and my team. So how do we take charge in these situations? I have shared some ideas below on how you can be best prepared so that when the time comes everything becomes second nature.

With that being said each of us has our limits. For example, Zinedine Zidane was stretched to his limits in the final of the 2006 World Cup after receiving numerous personal verbal threats towards his family. I had great respect for Zidane prior to the 2006 World Cup and even more so after the world cup. However, I wish, and I am sure he does, that the finals in 2006 finished on a more positive note for himself and his country.

Pre-game nerves: if you have pre-game jitters some simple things you can do are to relax and to play music, read or do whatever it takes to take your mind away from the anxiety. At the same time it is best to focus on the game at hand. I used to listen to music to relax myself but then it ended up working against me as I wasn’t focusing on the game. The idea here is you want to be as relaxed as possible but have a strong mental state so that when kick-off occurs you are roaring to go. At the same time,  many players and many stadiums will play music that pumps players up.  The same way music can relax you, it can create an energy that is inexplicable – it makes you want to get out there and play.  Be sure to have a great warm-up that is high in intensity as the match will be at a fast pace. This way when the match starts you are not spending the first 10 minutes trying to keep up to the pace of the game.

Visualize: visualization in all areas of life is a big factor that can help you achieve your goals. In the sport of basketball an example of visualization was done where three amateur basketball players were asked to shoot 30 free-throws in a row. Then for the next four weeks the first player practiced with his eyes open shooting; the second with his eyes closed and the third with no ball and his eyes closed. After four weeks of daily practicing the three players went to the free throw line again. Each saw improvement but the two players who had to visualize with their eyes closed saw the greatest improvement of all. I’m not suggesting taking penalty kicks in soccer with your eyes closed but the idea of mental concentration and visualization on the sort of plays that might happen in the game should run through your mind so that when they do occur it’s as if you’re re-living it and will have the advantage.  

Penalty shot: practice, practice, practice. Even though it may be difficult to replicate what might occur in a match situation once you’ve mastered penalty kick you can then focus on concentrating mentally. Approach the penalty as though it is any other penalty you’ve taken before. Often times, players psych themselves out in big game situations. You can see it in their body language if they are prepared. In fact, goalies will try psych you out with all kinds of strange movements and behavior. Concentrate on your job at hand (putting the ball in the back of the net) and nothing else.

Verbal abuse from the crowd: there are different levels of verbal abuse and it can certainly be daunting to hear terrible things from one person or an entire section of a crowd. As simple as it sounds it is best to ignore the comments. You can even practice taking free kicks and penalty shots with a partner who yells, makes noise with devices/horns etc to try and distract you. Professional golfer Tiger Woods used to practice swinging the golf club with his dad making all kinds of noise to distract him during his swing.  In one instant, Tiger Woods lined up to take a swing and his dad dropped an entire bag of clubs mid-swing to try distract him.  Tiger stopped half way through his wing, took a step back, looked at his dad, then approaching the ball and hit it better than ever.  this mental toughness will get you through the toughest of situations.  I always like to say “let your skills do the talking.” Watch the reaction of Ruud Van Nistelrooy after he scores for the Nertherlands. I wouldn’t recommend doing what he did after he scored versus Andora, however, he certainly silenced his critics with his goal.

Play in as many big games as possible: the more big games and high pressure competitions you participate in the better you’ll become at calming your nerves. This is what it called experience.   Step out of your comfort zone in other areas of life and put yourself in high pressure situations. The more you become accustomed to these the better off you’ll be. I used to get nervous to the point of being sick prior to races when I was younger. However, after each race it became easier and easier. I developed a simple routine for myself in the weeks and days leading up to the event and before I knew it the race was over and now I am talking about it. When I played in big soccer games I was almost never nervous. Maybe a little. Scared? Never! The more experience you get in high pressure situations and the stronger you are mentally, the better results you’ll have. Don’t psych yourself out.

How do you prepare yourself when you know there will be a lot of pressure?

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