The Mental Game: Playing Under Pressure

Dr. Mark Carbonara

I had planned to do an article about team leadership and how that can really transform a team’s trajectory, but after the last few weeks of great DIII volleyball and end-of-season/conference tournaments rapidly approaching, I am going to call an audible. I have had a number of players and coaches talk to me about playing under pressure and what can best prepare a team to be their best selves when ramping up for a big game. Now, if I had the perfect answer to this question, I would be selling it for millions of dollars, living on a beach somewhere, but since there is no silver bullet to success, here are some best practices and suggestions for players and teams to get into the best mental space before a big match. 

Develop A Pre-Game Routine

Most athletes at this point in their career have pre-game rituals that they follow. This can be anything from what they eat the day of a match, when they work out, what music they listen to during warmups, or what underwear they put on that morning. I have known athletes to be so particular that they must enter the gym through a certain door, high-five the same person before each game, and even touch a very specific part of the net before a game for good luck. While I can’t say there is any scientific proof that entering a specific door is going to help someone win a game, I can tell you that getting in a comfortable and confident mindset can absolutely impact a player’s game. If you have any pre-game rituals or a game day routine, you should absolutely stick to those when getting ready for a big game. This goes for players and coaches alike. A coach with an off mindset can definitely set a team up for failure. 

If your team does not have any pre-game rituals or routines, that might be something to start now as you are going into some tougher, more high-stakes, games. Captains and coaches should find things that will help the rest of the team stay grounded and confident going into a mentally-taxing match. A few of the items below might be good places to start. 

Reframe Nerves and Pre-Game Anxiety 

I always talk to players who tell me how nervous they are before a big game. When I ask what they are nervous about, they frequently tell me that they don’t know and that nothing should be causing them nervousness. This is when I pull them aside and have them reframe the nerves or pre-game anxieties they are feeling. The physiological response to nervousness is almost identical to the response the body has to excitement. Think about it, when you are nervous, your heart begins to race, you might start sweating, your thoughts are all over the place, and you might feel a little out-of-body at times. Now, think about a time when you were super excited for something (think to the level of going to Disneyworld as a child). I bet your heart begins to race, you might start sweating, your thoughts are racing, and you feel slightly out-of-body. The first time I realized that I was actually really excited for something, but I was mentally perceiving it as nervousness, I was a little in shock. How could I not realize that I was really excited for this and instead held myself back by interpreting it as nervousness and unexplained anxiety? 

We must reframe these moments to realize that you have done everything possible to prepare for this game, your adrenaline is likely pumping thinking about the match, and you are as ready as you have ever been. Talking through the physiological responses a player is feeling, comparing them to excitement verses nervousness, and grounding the player in exactly how they are feeling in the moment have proven successful for many who I have worked alongside. 

Focus on the Things You Can Control 

Some of the most common things I hear players tell me when I ask what they are nervous about are things they cannot control. I have heard players tell me they are nervous about exams in the coming days, relationship issues, parental disagreements, etc. While these are all very legitimate things for which to worry about, they cannot be dealt with or remedied in the minutes before a big game or during a match. I have used a method of having a player pull out his phone, open a note or email app, and write down everything he is worrying about that still must get done after the game. I have him save/send it so that there is record of what needs to be accomplished and it can be revisited after the game. This can often help players realize that they cannot fix any of the things they are nervous about in that exact moment. I also usually follow these conversations up with a meeting the day after the game to look over the “to-do list” and create an actionable plan with dates/deadlines to keep the player on track. Student-athletes are conditioned to be motivated by deadlines and accomplishing tasks, so creating an attainable list of tasks helps drive completion in a timely manner. 

Don’t Focus on the Outcome, Trust the Process

So often before a big game, coaches, parents, and other support staff members say things to our players that focus solely on the outcome. These can include saying such as: “go out there and win tonight”, “go get that W”, etc., but these all focus on the win only and not on the process of beating the opponent. As coaches, captains, and support staff, helping players focus on the fun of the game, the cadence of their play, and components that will bring home a win is far more important and effective than just placing the pressure of winning on a player. From what I have learned working with student-athlete men in college is that so many of these men fear disappointing others by losing. Whether it be disappointing their teammates, coaches, or family members, several men for whom I work alongside have experienced pre-game or mid-game freak outs/breakdowns due to feeling like they are disappointing someone else. This is one of the largest stressors I see players put on themselves before a big game. Volleyball is a team sport and no one single player has the sole responsibility for a win. 

Some tactics that have been used to internally, and externally, ground players and have them focus more on the process are things such as visualization exercises, pre-game guided meditations, relaxation and deep breathing, mid-afternoon yoga before games, and authentic team conversations that address how mistakes will be made but coming back and correcting the mistake is what is absolutely necessary. In all transparency, some teams find these types of activities enriching and game changing, but others find them wasteful and unhelpful. I was recently meeting with players on an up-and-coming team and brought up the concept of visualization exercises pre-game and they were not positively received. Two guys talked about how they spend the day of a game pumping themselves up and then go into a quiet contemplative space, which they viewed as “setting off the vibes” for the game. Another player, who struggles with anxiety, told me that quieting his mind that much before a game has an adverse effect and gets him to think about all the worries he’s been fending off to focus on the game. Now, I don’t say this to discredit the tactics above (as I really like them and find them helpful), but I just want to be clear that these are not a one-size-fits-all solution for teams or individuals within teams.

Look and Act Confident Without Being Arrogant 

I have often been asked by players how to enter a gym looking confident without looking arrogant. That is a tough question without a simple answer. Many teams work to “fake it ‘til you make it” when they are going into an important game. There is a certain “show no fear” mentality that is agreed upon by all players and coaches. While that is likely a good self-preservation/defense mechanism, there is also a fine line between that and walking into a gym aloof and unengaged and to come off as arrogant. I remember my first time at an NCAA Division III Men’s Volleyball National Championship Tournament, I saw teams confident to be there, teams who were physically and mentally shaking in their boots, and then I saw a team or two that just looked like they were too good to be there and had an aura of arrogance about them. These are the types of teams who have a clear road to the final championship game and lose to a lower-ranked team purely based on being overly confident and not playing their best in an important game. With that all said, I think the key to looking and acting confident without being arrogant lies in having fun, looking loose, and moving as a team. 

The teams who walk into a big game smiling and laughing while remaining focused give off a natural vibe that they aren’t too nervous, but still have their heads in the right place. This might be having some fun during warmups, lightening the mood in the locker room before the game, and keeping bench culture/cheering to an all-time high. Looking loose involves how you walk to and from the locker room, how you enter the gym, and how you physically carry yourself on the court before and during a game. You can always tell when a player is stiff in his motions and has his head in a cloud of anxiety by the walk he walks and reacts to others. Moving around with a fluid and relaxed persona will not only help you as the player remained relaxed, but also gives off confident vibes. Lastly, moving as a team is important as there is power in numbers. When you move from the locker room to the gym, from the gym to a waiting area, move as a team. Whether you like it or not, a large group of elite athletes moving in unison is always going to come off as intimidating and confident. If you are feeling nervous yourself, go stand next to the guy who looks calm, cool, and collected. It’ll rub off on you. 

Have Fun

Lastly, have fun. Short and sweet. The one thing I have learned in all my years working with college athletes, and especially in my decade working with volleyball players, is having fun is a key aspect of winning teams. As athletes, you are conditioned to obsess over your every move, positive or negative. While this can help you get better, it can also have you worry about a little mistake and then get so far in your head that it negatively impacts your play. As a team, keep the mood light, make jokes, act like you would if your team was just all hanging out together. The teams that I see getting into a game mindset while also still messing around with each other, roasting guys (in good spirits), and laughing about inside jokes, are the ones who I see enter the court and remain focused on the game and end up playing their best. 

As we go into the post-season this year, I am wishing all teams the best in your final games, and I hope you do your best to care for each other and play as a team until the final moment. End of seasons can be very difficult, especially for seniors or retiring coaches, so pay special attention to individuals that fall into those populations. It never hurts to check in with someone and let them know you see them and understand their situation is different from your own. Go out there and play your best and remember, have fun while doing it!