Under Fire: How To Handle Pressure In Soccer

Do you feel a lot of pressure in soccer?  I sure as hell did. And guess what, I still do, but I'd like to think I  manage it a lot better than I used to.  These days I both coach and play, and the pressure felt between the two is very different, but there nonetheless. 


Some examples of pressure felt as a player:

-Don't shy away from getting the ball and play scared

-Don't lose the ball

-Will I get stuck in tackles? 

-I am a forward and I have to score

-I am a defender I cannot get beat

-I am a goalkeeper I cannot give up a goal

-I have to play well so I make the team

-I have to play well so I don't get subbed off

-My family, friends, significant other is watching I can't let them down


Some examples of pressure felt as a coach:

-We have to win

-We have to play nice soccer

-Am I tactically aware and strategic enough?

-Will the kids listen today? Will they bring it? Can I get the most out of them? How?

-Nerves about the pregame speech

-I have to get people playing time or I will lose them

-Parental pressure to play their kid

-Administrative pressure depending on the level


Pressure felt between the two may seem different based on the reasons, but it is still felt by the body the same way. But we only feel the pressure because we put certain expectations on ourselves and we are evolutionarily hard wired to care what others think.  In a way, this is a good thing because that fear can motivate us, but in large amounts or if not dealt with properly it can also paralyze us. 

 I remember a time as a kid when I was in line for Drop Out at a water park called Raging Waters. The waterslide was 7 stories up and pretty much straight down after the beginning that had a slight slope to it.  The line was formed up the stairs, right alongside the slide.  I was just staring at the steepness of the slide with dread and amazement that people were not panicking,  leaning forward,  and falling to their death. 

                                       VIEW FROM THE STAIRS

                                       VIEW FROM THE STAIRS


My heart was pounding out of my chest. I felt like getting out of line and my mind was coming up with all sorts of excuses as to why today is not a good day. "I might be a little sick today."  "Today I'm not feeling it I should come back when I am 100%". "The line is too long." And on, and on.   My mind has done the same thing when it is time to give a speech, jump off a cliff into water, or do anything significantly out of my comfort zone.  Just as I was about to head back down the stairs, I remembered 2 important things I learned from a psychology. 

1. I am not a special snowflake.

In other words, if all of these other people were doing it, so could I.  I don't have special needs when it comes to fear and how my brain works. Sure we all feel it differently, but surely everyone in line was feeling a bit of fear and they were getting on with it. Everyone feels a bit nervous before a big game as well.  I was making myself the victim.  A lot of people constantly identify themselves as a victim in soccer and in life.

Going into victim mode is like a trick the brain uses take the pressure off, and provide a built in excuse mechanism to continue acting within one's comfort zone and avoid stepping out of it. I had a stretch as a player where being injured was my way of being the victim and I was comfortable avoiding the reality of not being a great soccer player. Once identified I was able to stay healthier for longer stretches (injuries still happen) and let my skills and talents or lack thereof display themselves for what they were. 

2. I am mostly afraid of the uncertainty 

I realized what was driving me the most crazy was not the ride itself, but the fact that I didn't know if I would actually go through with it or not. Statistically it is incredibly safe, otherwise it would not be in a theme park. Similarly, soccer is pretty safe, and even if I had a terrible game or my team loses, one match will not define me as a player. (maybe a tryout or showcase situation you can argue is a "one shot" chance, but in most cases that is not even true as there are other teams,  other tournaments, etc.)

Once I committed to going on Drop Out, my fear reduced dramatically. Once we commit  to our soccer, and say "I am going to demand the ball"  or any other way of saying that you will leave your full self on the field, there is nothing left to fear either. Similarly as a coach, once you commit to the greater good of the team and let the results come secondary, you will sense a certain freedom. And, so will your players. Even though as a player I always knew my teammates and I could senses the pressure or confidence of our coaches, I forgot that as a rookie coach. Learning that results are often out of our control and all we can do is coach the best game possible, even if it means playing all the kids who deserve playing time, has been a hugely positive thing for my well-being and for the team.  


So, next time you feel that pressure to perform in soccer, remember those two things. You are not alone, and you will commit to just being the best you that you can on that day. There is nothing else you can really ask of yourself.